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Simon Allen

In conversation with Dominique Zino

How has my perspective changed in the past few years? The fact that it’s a sunny day is a lot more important than it used to be. Just the fact that you can go out. You don’t have a car, you can’t go sit in a bar or whatever you want to do. But if the sun’s shining you can walk around Oxford. If it isn’t then you can’t. Simple as that. So things like that are more important. You’re really further down Maslow’s triangle. You’re on the bottom trying to kick up.

Because of my change of circumstances my priorities have become much more basic. Now I need to get housed, be able to feed myself and then within the constraints of the situation I’m in to have as good as possible life within that. To be honest with you, it’s difficult to know how that’s possible. If I get housed, and then if I can find work, I’m not exactly going to be comfortable to the point of doing very basic things. But I’ve got little choice really. I haven’t eaten in at a restaurant for four years, so that’s changed. I’ve eaten what I can get hold of. Unfortunately most readily accessible foods aren’t very good for you.

***

I have an eight-year-old daughter who I don’t see. That I regret. Of all the things I’ve lost what do I regret most? That’s a difficult question. All of it you miss. The thing is, when you end up with absolutely nothing it’s kind of like you’re walking around, surrounded by people who have somewhere to go home to, who can go to a pub for a social drink and yes, you’re around them, but you can’t do that. You’re just totally isolated. I like to keep busy traditionally. And I’ve got absolutely nothing to do. And it’s just soul-destroying. You just think ‘What the hell? What’s it all about?’

In day-to-day life, people spend a lot of time playing the game. It’s political in the traditional sense of the word, their behaviour is political. Often it’s not until people are put under severe pressure that you see more of what they’re like.

***

I worked for seventeen years for a big multi-national company doing sales, marketing and general management. I did a variety of jobs when I was young living at home. I went to college to start with though didn’t finish my course on catering, but I was taking that just because I didn’t know what else to do. I grew up in a seaside town and had always worked in kitchens or hotels. So I started to do hotel management. That didn’t last very long. I got bored of it and did everything from van driving to wholesale fruit and vegetables to working for a bank for two years. Eventually I went into sales, and I then ended up joining the company I was with for seventeen years, starting off as a sales representative, then Sales Manager, Area Sales Manager then General Sales Manager. I went away to do an MBA for a year, then came back and was Marketing Director. I then went to work overseas. I worked in Hungary for a year, then went to Australia for three years, then to the head office in Sweden as Area Manager for Asia for two years, and then ended up in the Philippines for nine months. Going to different places makes you think different things. They were extremes. In the Philippines there was a lot of poverty, they’ve been screwed by the Americans. Travelling gives you a certain perspective on how different things are, how different situations are, how different cultures are. But people are still people at the end of the day. All that was five years ago. After that I parted company with the company.

We fell out over a number of things. I went back to the UK and tried to get back into the corporate market, but once you’ve left it’s extremely difficult to get back in. So I ended up looking around for a business and buying one that involved corporate buffets, small cafes. I got defrauded by somebody out of all my money, which was just short of two hundred thousand pounds. I reported that fraud to the police, which did absolutely nothing except that two nights later I had someone try to kill me. Someone hit me on the head with a hammer, which was a nice little warning. All the staff that worked for me were threatened that they would get kneecapped or something similar if they continued to work for me. So I just stopped the business training, which was losing money anyway because the guy falsified the accounts.

At the same time I split up with my wife. We had split up before, then got back together. So we split up again and basically, ever since, I’ve been homeless, in the sense that I haven’t had my own place. I stayed with my brother for a while but he hasn’t been able to put me up, and since then I’ve been drifting around, doing work where I can get it.

***

You don’t believe it’s possible. I also got defrauded out of my pension. Any assets I did have all went. I also ended up owing debts to various credit card companies. I still do, they just haven’t caught up with me. Certain bits of it seemed to happen very quickly; others took a long time. Basically, because my work has been patchy since that time it’s now getting very difficult to find any work. So the reason that I’m staying at the shelter is that I need to get somewhere to live first then to find a job. I just have to start again, which isn’t going to be that easy.

I think we do, society does, define people by material possessions. It does, full stop. I mean you don’t realize until you’re on queer street, on hard times, what a relatively uncaring society we have. The whole thing is driven by big corporations, it’s all about money, what you’ve got. And in my experience it’s going more and more that way. We withdrew care of the elderly in this country. Basically if you don’t have money you don’t get anything. You need money for good education, good healthcare, and housing as well. It’s not that easy to get housing, as I’m about to find out. I’ve gotten quite cynical about the world I suppose, but I would be in my position, I guess. Yes, it’s all about money.

I’m meeting different people today than I did before. People are colder today, there’s no doubt about it. At least they’re kind of brainwashed into believing that if you’ve got no money there’s something wrong with you. That’s people’s norm, that’s how they view things. Sure, in some cases they’re right, problems with alcohol, drug abuse, whatever…but not necessarily. Society judges people by money, what they have, and what they do for a living.

***

I was born in 1959. My parents both came from reasonable backgrounds, got married. They were missionaries. My father was a doctor, my mother was a nurse. So I spent three or four years in Nigeria when I was a kid. My parents split up when I was four or five. We came back to the UK. My mother got a job as a district nurse and took care of me and my brother. I didn’t see my father from the time I was four until five or six years ago. My mother remarried; I have two stepbrothers. Fairly ordinary upbringing I guess. We lived in government housing. My mother has died; my stepfather’s dead; my father’s alive but we’re not close to say the least. He actually ended up doing quite well for himself. He became quite famous after he invented the first trans-cranial brain scanner, ended up having an electronics company, remarried to a German lady, had two kids. I looked him up six years ago, eventually tracked him down not knowing whether he was dead or alive. I found out where he was, but we don’t get on. So the only family I’ve got left is my brother, but we don’t get on well either.

I’ve always been probably too trusting in the past. I’ve probably become more wary of people now. I definitely don’t trust the police based on my past experience. I’m definitely anti-capitalist. Now I’m very cynical about the world I guess…though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t trust people. But particularly when you’re in the environment I’m in now…I know what alcoholics will do for drink and drug addicts will do for drugs and so I’m not about to trust everybody. You tend to keep to yourself a fair bit. I arrived in Oxford five days ago. I went to the night shelter because I had nowhere to stay. I got there on Saturday. It’s not a relaxing place to be.

I need to feed and house myself, that’s first. I’ve thought of maybe working with charities, but I’m cynical about that: the ‘charity industry’, that’s what they call it now. I get frustrated easily. And it’s only been four days…it’s never quiet in the shelter. You can’t read in that place. The staff is helpful and they have done what they can with the money they have…but it’s a madhouse. The acoustics are horrible. I’ve never had issues with drugs. I’ve tried things over the years but for whatever reason never really got into them. With alcohol, it’s never been a problem to me or anybody else. I like to go out and have a drink and occasionally it’s nice to get drunk. It’s a good relaxer. But it’s never driven my life.

***

Money per se is not the motivator, it’s part of it. It enables you to live. But beyond that it’s not the most important thing. I’ve spent more than I should have in the past perhaps. I believed it was there to enjoy. But money for its own sake isn’t interesting. You can’t eat it. To be challenged, to feel like you’re doing something useful for society, and that you enjoy yourself and you’re happy, all those things are motivators. I don’t think I’m different from anybody else in that respect.

In what moments am I most happy? I haven’t been happy for a long time, so that’s a bit difficult. When you achieve something, something you’ve been working on for a period of time, and it comes to fruition. When you fall in love with a woman I guess, it sounds corny but it’s true. When you meet somebody you feel shares all your values and hopes, then of course that makes you very happy. It doesn’t always turn out that it stays that way.

Generally I’m very compassionate. I care about everybody to some degree or another. But of course there are limits to it. And at times, I’ve done things in hindsight that I haven’t felt good about, like leaving my wife and child. At the time, for whatever reason, I didn’t do it with a view to hurt anybody. I was trying to find things, for whatever reason. There’s probably some mental instability there. I spoke to a doctor yesterday. I’m due to see a psychiatrist for the first time in my life to see whether my mental condition had some effect on where I’ve ended up. There’s a whole lot of bad things that have happened to me, but even so, to end up where I’ve ended up I think still there must be something wrong. I think in my life if I’ve seen something in my career or in my personal life that I’ve wanted, I go after it one hundred percent and become fairly obsessive in my behaviour at those times. And that’s when you do things you’re ashamed of, in hindsight. But at the time, no one can tell you. I’ve got to try to get some stability back to my life and stop messing it up. So what I need to understand myself is if I have excessive mood swings because of the circumstance I’m in, or is the circumstance due to my mood swings? Is there something and is it fixed, or do I need to fix it? The father issue is quite big, with him quitting when I was very young, and then him subsequently being quite successful. I’m no expert but I think I try to do things to impress him.

There are times when I’ve felt absolutely invincible. When I’ve been working on things it’s like it’s predetermined, nothing is going to stop me, it’s going to succeed. And then of course when it doesn’t...I’ve gone so over the top pursuing something and when it doesn’t work out you end up in absolutely extreme circumstances, because you’ve taken no precautionary measures. I’ll find out about that. I’ve spent so much time thinking about things that I’ve confused myself. So I’m going to seek external help, even if it’s just for the doctor to say, ‘Yes, you’ve screwed it up and that’s why and don’t do it again’ or whether it’s because I have some chemical imbalance, I really don’t know. It’s for him to say. It’s a quite a big step to take to seek that help. But you end up spending a couple of nights on a park bench and you think, ‘I’ve got to do something’.

***

What am I most afraid of? That there is nothing more to life than what I’m experiencing now. Or, even more frightening would be that life sucks, if you want to put it that way, and that when it’s all over there is an afterlife and it’s even worse. I mean, seriously, within the immediately foreseeable position that I’ll be in, this is all there’s going to be. What I want to do now is fix things as best I can and make the best of what I’ve got left. It’s frightening, when you’re in a slippery slope, what you can’t do. If you have a home, some basic family environment, some money, then your options are relatively good. You lose those things and it’s extremely difficult to get started again. I was in London before I came to Oxford to work and in London there’s just no hope at all for homeless people. I’m hoping that this shelter and the people there can help. They say they can. It might take a long time. It’s just frightening that you can’t do anything. When you think about the people in the shelter, most would have to actually commit a crime, steal or rob a house, to have the means to change their situation. They have nothing.

I’ve run away from aggression, violence. Definitely I don’t like conflict or violence in any form. Probably responsibility to some degree as well. At times I have been a leader in my work and my personal life as well. At the moment I’m a retired leader, a leader with no one to lead. I guess I’ve traditionally been a leader though, given the right circumstances.

***

I would like to be reunited with my daughter and have a job that enables me to live to a reasonable standard, so that I can do something like go to the pub once a week, and be achieving something that is stimulating. I f I got somewhere to live, but then got a job that was very mundane, it would drive me crazy after a while. Obviously, it would be nice to feel you could have another relationship with somebody too. Nothing unusual.

Sometimes you just believe that things are mapped out. That you are supposed to do this. And it’s kind of a dangerous emotion. At least it’s been dangerous for me in that when I’ve been on highs and determined to achieve something that there has been something else driving me, that it is meant for me to do this, that it is meant to be somehow. As yet it hasn’t proved to be the case. Still today I wonder, why did you end up taking that job at Chipping Norton with the company? Why did that finish? And I wonder if there is some kind of reason for this to be happening. All the time I walk down the street, look at certain things, and think, is this supposed to happen? I don’t know if that’s a symptom of being on hard times and being desperate and trying to locate some meaning in it.

My behaviour in the past has been in terms of trying to achieve particular goals. It’s largely out of my hands. It’s gotten to the stage now that apart from going and kidnapping someone and demanding their money, there’s not much I can do. I’m in the hands of others. It’s not a comfortable feeling. Everything is so controlled. There’s no room for individuality outside of money.

***

Time wasted…I guess that implies that there was a goal involved. I guess the last four years have been wasted in terms of not being happy, yes; not having money, certainly. But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how tough it is when you’re down. Most people in the country have no idea what it’s like. They are brainwashed by the media maybe. Because I’m not a drug addict, or an alcoholic or a lunatic (yet) I have no statutory right to be housed. That’s appalling. The fact that there’s no more free dental care, free education, that’s terrible.

People are more vulnerable than they think. I feel most vulnerable when I’ve got nowhere to sleep. When I’m cold, hungry, worried for my own safety. Oxford’s City Centre on a Friday or Saturday night is not somewhere you want to be. You notice how it kind of clears out.

How much of my life have I felt lonely? A lot of it. I don’t make friends very easily. And people do judge you. I don’t think of myself first as a homeless man. I think I am a man who is homeless. But I’m a person first of all. Now that I have somewhere to leave my bags when I’m walking around Oxford, apart from the fact that I don’t have money to go anywhere or do anything, no one would know I’m homeless. I don’t have a beard down to my chest. There are two things: there’s what you know and what people see you as. I know I’m not a bad person, so I don’t judge myself too harshly. I’m homeless, but that can be fixed by putting a roof over my head. I’m somebody that cares, cares about others, somebody that wants good things. I’ve still got things to offer. I’m not untalented; I’m not unintelligent; I have an MBA. But I doubt whether I’ll get the opportunity to do things. It’ll make it too risky for people to help.


July 2005