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Phil Powell

In conversation with Dominique Zino

The last two years I haven’t been in the same place for too long, I’ve been moving about. Last year was a worse year than the year before because I lost my job and the place where I was living wouldn’t take housing benefits, so they evicted me from there. Then I moved to bed and breakfasts that the council put me in. And then I was in a private room in Slough which got broken into one night and I got threatened with a knife and all the rest of it, so that’s how I ended up in the Night Shelter.

I was a chauffeur. I was doing that for about seven years. I was driving well-known people, working in Wimbledon, Aspen. I basically have to start all over again now. There’s a lot going on that I have to sort out, which I can’t sort out at the Night Shelter. Normally I can sort of figure things out myself, but with everything that’s happened over the last year, it all built up until Christmas and then they put me on anti-depressants from Christmas onwards. I’ve got family around, they help out in a little way, but basically I’ve got to do this myself.

In November, I wasn’t getting on too well with the family, and I had to say to them that I didn’t want their help. My sister and I had to keep it from my mum because she didn’t know and she was over-age. She was seventy-nine. She passed away in March. It’s getting harder, that’s why it’s time to get out of the Night Shelter. I can’t work things out there because there are always people about. We were beginning to get things sorted out, and then this happened and then two weeks after that my brother-in-law died, and then two weeks ago I had another brother-in-law die. One had cancer and one had heart trouble. I went to the hospital myself. But I sort of gave up on going.

Everything’s fine now with my one sister. Since November, her trust in me is beginning to come back. The family wants me to do it on my own. I’m moving next week into second stage housing. It’s a one bedroom flat and I’ll get moved on to a council house quicker than what I can in the shelter. From next week onwards I’ll be buying my own food and cooking myself, which I want to do anyway. The worst time at the shelter is night time, when you go to bed. I’ll think about going out for about an hour or two hours, but I do go to sleep then.


I left school when I was about fifteen and a half. My first job was as a butcher. After that I got my license and went driving. I could have probably continued on with school. But I just wanted to get out of there. It was time to get out and start earning money. The job I want to do is what I want to get back to, driving, being a chauffer. I would say school hasn’t helped me in that area.

My dad was Welsh. I can’t say about his parents but my granddad on my mum’s side fought in India in the First World War. From when I can remember back with my mum’s parents, they were retired. My granddad used to do gardening for people, my nan used to stay at home a lot. I can’t say much about my dad. He died when I was seventeen. He was only fifty-four when he died and we were at school all the time except for holidays so we didn’t see him. He was working all the time anyway. And when I got out of school he was only around for another year and a half or two years. I saw him at night when I finished work and all that but he wasn’t around when you needed him then, let’s put it that way. Do you understand what I’m saying? Basically with him dying at that age it was harder on us, because anything we had to do we had to turn to mum.

I didn’t leave home until I was thirty-seven. I was there looking out for my mum. There’s six of us total, three girls, three boys. I’m second from the bottom. Two sisters live on the Isle of Wight. I’ve got a brother who lives up in Colchester. They’ve all got families. I’ve seen them at my brother-in-law’s funeral and my mum’s remembrance. My sister isn’t too far away but I get in trouble for not keeping in touch with them. The hardest thing now is not being in touch with mum. I used to ring her two to three times a week. I try to think about something else when I think I want to ring her now, try to block it that way. There are times when you can’t block it out. I don’t know if she let me down, if she gave up, I can’t make that decision yet. It’s a job to say. They all know that she gave up the fight to go on. I don’t know if I’m blaming her for giving up or not.

Up until about 18 years ago I was out drinking every night, playing darts. But then I started drinking a bit too heavy, and I made the promise to my mum that I wouldn’t do it no more. Eighteen years ago I stopped and I haven’t drunk since. There have been days or nights when I’ve wanted to start again, but then I’ve always thought about the promise.


I used to pick up that Irish actor from Cold Feet quite a bit, I can’t think of his name now. You have to read a situation when you’re driving and know who you’re picking up. If you’re picking up a businessman at four o’clock in the morning and he’s got to catch a flight and be somewhere, he’s not interested in talking. And if you’re picking him up again at night and he’s tired he won’t be interested in talking then. Basically you’ve got to leave it up to them, if they’re interested in talking then they’ll start a conversation and if not then you just stay quiet. You’ve heard one or two interesting conversations, but whatever’s said in the car has got to stay in the car because if you’ve got directors in the car, and you hear something, you could blow the company. People could get into trouble. I used to pick somebody up who was on the BBC and he would cover football and rugby and he would go out to check the cameras, make sure they were in the right places. He went out to the European cup final last year.

Before everything went wrong last year, I was working and all that and that used to be basically it, started at like 4 o’clock in the morning and you wouldn’t finish sometimes until 11 at night. With my first job as a chauffeur, I went out to a company in Abingdon, they gave me weekend work to do for trial and when I did all that, they took me on. That’s what I wanted to do. You’ve got no bosses in the car. There’s nobody standing over you saying you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got your list of jobs to do for that night and the next day and that’s it. You still have somebody to answer to, but it isn’t a factory or anything like that, with somebody watching over you all the time.


There are certain people in the night shelter you can get on with, but not everybody gets on with everybody. There’s one or two people left there since Christmas, and we speak if we see each other. But you don’t get too involved. Everybody is moving around. You might have somebody in there one day, but they might not be in there the next.

Now I don’t quite know what is going to happen. I was going to the hospital once a month and that’s been stopped, I stopped it. When you’re young you don’t think of these things. It’s like this blood condition, I’ve had it for thirteen years now and there’s no cure for it. That was one of the treatments I stopped and they want me to start it again. I never had a problem going to the hospital at all, but when my mum was in there and I saw what was happening to her, it made me think twice about hospitals. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to go. I turned around and told them at the hospital that if anything happens they are not allowed to carry on, they just have to leave it. I don’t want to put the rest of the family through what I’ve been through with mum.

I’m motivated by trying to get things sorted out, eventually trying to get off these anti-depressants, and try to get to terms with why mum gave up, because I can’t settle down until I know a reason why; I’ve got to get everything sorted out before I think of anything else. Once I move, from Tuesday onwards, I’m hoping I can do it because I’ll have my own space. You’ve got a bedroom, a kitchen, and you share a bathroom. There’s not the space, it’s too many people in the night shelter, you’re crowded. If I don’t want to speak to somebody there then you have somebody going off saying, ‘You’re in a mood,’ because you’re not speaking. But if I’m in my own space and I don’t want to talk to anybody, I just lock the front door, that’s it. Then I can get on to think about things like why did my mum give up and why I find it harder than everybody else, things like this. If you don’t want to talk to anybody down there, you can go to your room, but you still have all the noise from in the shelter. And if you stand on the stairs and you’re not talking, somebody is accusing you of being miserable. Other people don’t understand what you’re doing at the moment.


I’ve never been married. I was with somebody for seven years. In the end we started not getting along. I was working every weekend, so we were hardly seeing each other anyway. That was two years ago. I met her about eight years before at a dog-training session. I used to take my dog there and she took hers. We lived together for seven years. I haven’t spoken to her since we broke up. When I was with her, she didn’t like me going over to see my family. That was probably when everything started to go wrong. My family met her, one or two got along with her and one or two never. It was a funny sort of situation. Mum thought she was alright. I regret getting her name tattooed on my arm, here.

I don’t have my own family, so I suppose time’s been wasted on that area. I’m forty-six. And friends wise, I sort of keep to myself. Because sometimes friends can be a pain in the neck, sometimes not. Yeah I think I’d be a good father, I looked after my brother when we were little. My oldest sister is sixty now. She had left home when she was sixteen. She got married and had three kids.


I travelled only once. When I was sixteen I went to Germany because my brother was stationed there in the army, so I spent two weeks over there. I’d probably travel in this country if I had the chance, because I don’t like hot weather. Because of the blood condition I’ve got my blood’s too thick, so it’s like I radiate all the time. If I had the money I would go on holiday somewhere out of the way in this country. I haven’t done that for three years now. And I’d put a deposit on a flat, but that would be about all. Probably the best thing this year that’s happened is Wales winning the rugby. That’s about it.

Once I get everything sorted out, what’s going on in my mind at the moment, and then get into a council flat, that would be it. I’d be happy then. Now it all depends on what I’m like when I wake up in the morning. If I’ve been thinking about things all night then I’m not in a very good mood when I wake up. We were sort of making headway in it a couple of months ago, but it’s all coming back, probably worse than it was before. I’ve been working with people down in the night shelter, and they’ve been suggesting things, and it’s got to the stage now that they can’t do no more, it’s time for somebody else to have a go. I’ll get support from the people in second stage housing once a week. That’s what I’m down for at the moment. But they told me if I need one of them to talk to all I have to do is go down to the office. And I’ll still see somebody at the night shelter once a week, for the time being.

I’ve been told two or three times at the night shelter that I worry more about other people than I do myself. This is one of the things when I get into junior housing they’re going to help me with, that I come first, then the family, nobody else. There was a person at the shelter once, he was in his seventies and he went off one night, he was just wandering around Oxford. I went out and I was looking for him. When I got back that night to the shelter they told me that he had done it before. So it’s things like that. It takes what I’ve got to think about out of focus. If anyone at the night shelter turns around to me and says have you got a ten pound I can borrow, if I got it I’ll lend it to them even though I might be short myself. But when they say they’re going to give it back and they don’t, then I regret it. I still trust people, that’s the problem. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if there are limits, I would try to help if I could.

The last seven or eight, nine years, I wish I’d seen more of my mum. This is what caused trouble in the family and that lot. When I was with her my girlfriend I didn’t get over there like I should have done. There were times when mum was in hospital and I’d say to my sister I’ll be there on a Thursday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon and I never used to go. Basically I put my girlfriend first I suppose. It wasn’t until the Christmas just before we finished that I realized somehow her family was more important than my family was, things had to be dropped for her family but they couldn’t be dropped for mine. But I didn’t want to argue. She would start to argue and I would just walk out and not say anything, which would make things worse anyway. Basically at first we thought about things the same way, that’s how it happened, then it just went from there. The best time was the first four or five years. After that, when my mum had a stroke, things changed because I wanted to see her. Then I had my driver’s license taken away for six months for too many speeding points, so that caused problems as well.


One of best times I had with my mum was when we were on holiday and we went down to my brother and sister for a week, I took her down there. Then in November last year, we sat all day and we talked about different things. She never had trouble speaking. After she had the stroke it affected her speech a bit but that day she had no trouble speaking. We talked about dad and things like that. She agreed with what I said that dad had died too early and things were left down to her. Dad wasn’t there to help and we had to go to her, which made it harder.

Mum would always help people, she was always laughing or joking about. She would never hold anything against anybody. If she was in pain, she never told anybody, nobody knew. There was one time she turned around to me and she said she thought she was going to die, a couple of weeks before she died. She had a bad chest infection and she thought she was going to die then. And one day when I was leaving the hospital she turned around to me and she said I’ll soon be with him’. So I knew then by what she said. The first time I think I said to her ‘you’re not gonna die yet’, I can’t remember what I said the second time. I didn’t forget about it because then I knew how bad she was. I used to go up twice a week in the midweek, and then on a Saturday, and after she said that it was waiting for the phone call. The day she died she couldn’t even see us, and we didn’t know if she could hear us. It was just me and my sister in the room. I went to her memorial service. I didn’t go to the funeral. I still had problems with the family, with everyone but one brother and one sister. I didn’t feel comfortable.

When I left home my sister took care of her for the last seven years. Before that, anywhere she wanted to go I took her. I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if I had left home earlier. I’d be in a different situation. I don’t think about that. I’m still trying to work out things since Christmas.


I’m probably better at organizing things than at following other people, because I’ve done it so much from driving, so I should say I like leading more than being a follower. But I can take direction from people, I’ve done it. As long as that person knows what they’re doing it’s not a problem.

Everybody’s got their enemies I suppose. Just everyday people. The main person I can rely on is not here now. So at the moment I don’t really trust anybody to that extent. It all depends on how much you trust people. There was a situation this Christmas where I was going with somebody, and I was giving her money every week to help her out and this person turned around and said that she was pregnant. And then when the money stopped she said, ‘I’m gonna get rid of it, I’m gonna have an abortion’. Then I find out she wasn’t pregnant at all. So at the moment I think that’s been it for trust. It’s one thing thinking you have a son or daughter and then all of a sudden to find out they didn’t even exist. It was basically showing what she was really like, it just showed that she was all for the money, and that was it. At one point I asked her questions, and she answered them, so I didn’t think any more of it. If I had anybody come up to me and say that again I’d want to see the proof.


I know my not-drinking will carry on. I’m not going to start it now. The other week I was on the verge of stopping my tablets, stopping everything. Then I talked to somebody down at the night shelter.

I don’t like being asked always to talk if I don’t want to talk. I’ve been asked that so much at the night shelter, to the point that I’ll avoid someone for two or three days. And then when I’m ready I’ll say, ‘Do you want that talk now?’ It’s just the way it’s been. I won’t be pushed into anything. Like there was a member of staff at the night shelter, he came up to me one day. He didn’t smoke and somebody said to him to go have a word with me, so he came outside and he said to me, would I like a cigarette? That’s sort of pushing yourself on someone. That person’s forcing himself, and I’ll just walk away. They know that down at the night shelter. I’ll talk when I want to talk and not before. If people are going on for a bit, I’ll pretend I’m listening, but I won’t listen, I’ll just turn it off. I’ll start looking about and probably say ‘yeah’ now and then but if they go on for too long then I won’t listen.

People probably would have had the best view of me two or three years ago, but not at the moment. I would say I was hard-working then. The circumstances have changed since then, there’s no doubt about it. I guess as a person I’ve changed. I’m more moody than I ever used to be before. For me to get in a mood before it used to take a lot, but now it don’t take much. This is why I want to get sorted and get off the anti-depressants, get back to what’s normal. The anti-depressants have worked from what I was like at Christmas. It once of those things that you can’t just stop taking in a week, you’ve got to go down of them gradually.


There were things my mum said at Christmas to me. On Christmas Day, I spent it with my sister, and my mum said to me when she was out of hospital that we would have a weekend together. And I still keep expecting that weekend…I’m not prepared to go any further about mum, I can’t go any further. I’m still expecting her to come back. Her not being there, I can’t come to terms with that at the moment.

I’ve always been laughing and joking, that’s the only way I could sort of cope with it. It’s like I said the other week, it’s time now for laughing and joking to stop, I can’t just keep on laughing and joking. It’s covering what I’m really thinking. I’m going to my sister’s on Sunday. What happens then and what she will say I don’t know. Now I’m being a bit more serious. I knew I’d been accepted for second-stage housing about a week ago. But it was only yesterday I that I found out that I was moving on Tuesday. Yeah I bet they’re glad to get rid of me. No, I think they’re pleased that I’m moving.

July 2005