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In conversation with Claire McGowan

I was born in Melbourne and came to this country at a very young age when my parents split up. I lived in Scotland until I was 18, and I’ve lived in England since then. In recent years I’ve gone into a decline, and now I’m in the Oxford Night Shelter. For me it’s been very good – a lot of people don’t find it quite like that but for me it’s been good. I’ve been here since August but I will shortly be going out because they have to try to get rid of people now, after three months of being on resettlement. I don’t feel very good about moving on, because I’ll probably be sleeping rough again. I’m not sure what’s happening and things may change, but at the minute they don’t seem too good.

Priorities have never shaped my life. I haven’t really had any. A sales manager once asked me where I wanted to be in five years time, and I didn’t have an answer. I’ve never been after money, or certain jobs – I have positively drifted, rather than negatively drifted. At the minute my priorities are just to keep on eating, get some sleep, just to keep on going and try to get over forthcoming legal problems with people I owe a lot of money to. I don’t know what’s going to happen now.

I’m here because of a gradual decline over many years. Eventually I had to sell my house and although I paid off most of my debts I still owe about £20,000. In the past I was a representative for a book publisher, until about 3 years ago. That was my best job.

My parents separated when I was three, and my Scottish mother took me back here and away from my father. I didn’t see him again until I contacted him twenty years later. Then I saw him every two years until he died seven years ago. We became quite close in the end. I don’t know how I feel about his death. I’m one of those people who channel things back inside themselves, so there wouldn’t be great wailing or anything. I used to go to Australia every few years to see him, making stopovers in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia. Travel was a very positive thing for me, and if I had money that’s what I’d do. I haven’t been to the States, to Italy, Spain … I’d like to go to Japan. I’ve never been to India but I imagine it would be difficult to travel in a very poor place and see it close up. It’s such a dichotomy.

My dad had his own business and made quite a lot of money in the end by selling it. If I’d stayed with him I’d have had quite a bit. I have a stepmother who’s still alive and we’ve always got on very well, except recently, as things have been difficult for me, we haven’t got on so well. My mother died about twelve years ago, she had a heart attack. She was only 57. We didn’t get on tremendously well.

My younger days were incredibly boring. I went to good schools in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but the last year was for whatever reason a bit of a washout. It would have been better if I’d gone to the local school, which was a very good state one, and was also co-ed. Unfortunately I went to boys’ schools from the age of nine, which wasn’t such a good idea. Looking back it would have been nice to go to university, but in the end I didn’t. I went straight into work as an unqualified schoolteacher for five and a half years, until I went into the book trade. I was a shop manager and then a salesman.

Music is my big thing and reading isn’t, even though I worked in the book trade. I came down to London for my last teaching job, and then just went into a job agency. At that time there were lots of jobs. I started off as a buyer for a book department. My best job was representing a good, big publisher in London.

When things were falling apart, and I was trying to disguise it from myself, after I sold my house I went into B&Bs or sometimes slept in my car. I eventually ended up just to the west of Oxford, near Witney and I found a nice place there. I could have fought my legal problems if I’d had the money to pay for it – if that makes any sense. I’ve only been in Oxford for a few months since I came to the Night Shelter. I get on reasonably well with the people here. Some on them you’ll never get on with, particularly if you speak differently to them. They’d be very angry if you treated them one way because of their accent, but they do exactly the same to you in another way. That’s a very small minority, though. One or two people I get on with very well. I do tend to talk to a wide range of people in here.

After a while people start nodding to you and saying hello, even if they started off very uncommunicative. I can talk to all sorts of people, but I’m very private in myself, and I know I can be as private as I like in this conversation. I don’t really hope to gain anything by it. I think it may be slightly egotistic to have your own portrait, in a way. On the other hand if there were more self-esteem about there would be fewer problems in the world. In here being sociable happens in little groups. There are a handful of people who you would say are positively dangerous, so you have to be careful with what you say. On the whole that side is pretty well kept under control. So many people here are really self-obsessed. They’ve just been brought up a different way. If I go to the office and someone is busy I’ll just wait, but some people just go up and expect to be helped straight away.

Recently a documentary company came here to make a film about homelessness. They provided the cameras and microphones, and six of us went out and made it. Five of us were very middle class, which is rather unfortunate as it’s not representative. On the other hand, more and more middle class people are coming into places like this, because of financial situations, the collapse of families and so on.

I really enjoyed the documentary. That was a high spot. I found that surprisingly I was quite confident and relaxed about talking to people in the street. I think it came out reasonably well considering we were all amateurs. I did all the interviewing in the end, as the other person we’d picked didn’t want to. There was a trial just round the corner at the courthouse and we bumped in Mark Webster, who’s an ITV reporter, and Christopher Peacock, who worked for TV South, so we ended up interviewing the reporters. In Oxford there is a big tradition of charity and a general feeling that you have to support the homeless and so on. Generally it was quite a sympathetic response, which didn’t really surprise me. There were some hard questions to answer, for me too. This shelter cost £4.5 million to build, for example, and the running costs are enormous, so is it worth spending that kind of money? Personally I couldn’t give an answer to that.

I’ve been lonely all my life I think. I’ve never lived with any of my girlfriends, for example. I’ve got used to my own company and I think I prefer this. It’s rather difficult being here and mixing with so many people, but in fact I’ve dealt with that reasonably well. Ideally I’d be in the country, not on my own, but maybe with someone next door in case anything broke down. I’m a solitary person, but I can mix with lots of people from different backgrounds.

Of anyone I was probably closest to my mother’s brother, who sort of kept the family together, and over the years he went from being a type of father figure, to a real friend. It was a great friendship, but he’s been dead for quite a few years. I’ve had very few girlfriends, partly due to my mother, who had a very unhappy time as a married woman. It wasn’t entirely my father’s fault. If you think back to the end of the war, he came over to the UK with the Australian Air Force and met my mother. As far as I can understand it most of the courtship was done by letter, which is nice in books but in reality not so good. Then she had to move across the world, and I think she was quite a naïve young lady. The upheaval was enormous. There were other things I don’t like to talk about that also caused problems. When I was three she separated and divorced from my father and I think almost hated him for the rest of her life. We came over from Australia on the boat and it took five weeks. I used to think I remembered being on the boat, but probably I just imagined it. It’s hard to imagine it now when you can cross the world in less than a day.

I don’t think anything has motivated me in my life. Power and money never intrigued me. Leaving a mark in history never held any fascination. Pretty boring really! Next time I’m doing it differently. I’m going to come back far more handsome for a start, and far more self-obsessed…I just drifted along. I went into relationships very casually. I wasn’t seeking anything much from my girlfriends, not even sex really. They all fell by the way eventually. The one that could have been wasn’t, because I was immature and she was a bit older. We met at the wrong time. If I’d been a bit older then who knows.

My big regret in life is not having children, and not having a long-term relationship lasting for more than a few years. I think I always expected I would meet someone – that’s the way television portrayed it. Things like my mother really knocked me sideways, without going into too much detail. The relationship that was the best I was pulling back from. Probably for the best, really, because if we were still together now I don’t think we’d like each other very much. If Brigitte Bardot had been around then who knows...

I don’t fear death. I may be lying to myself, but I don’t really fear anything at this stage. Maybe that’s a bad thing, maybe I should. I never really have. I find myself at the age of 57 and I think, what happened? I have done quite a lot in my life. I really enjoyed my job as a salesman for a publisher and I met a lot of interesting people. I enjoyed my travelling. There’s nothing I’m really proud of. I did used to be the youngest qualified soccer referee in Scotland, though. I qualified when I was 15 and you were only meant to when you were 16. I had to give it up when I was 19 because I was working at weekends, which was a shame. I still follow football and I do tend to watch Match of the Day.

I’m doing a course on computers at the minute. I taught myself quite a lot about word processing before. I have to say, in all modesty, the one test I’ve had, I got the top grade, and I was quite happy with that. I wish I’d had a passion for learning but I never had. As far as hobbies go, I used to own 800 albums of music, now all unfortunately sold. Rock, pop, classical, all kinds. Music was a big passion for me. I don’t have a radio any more so I can’t listen to music now. The place is so noisy too. I mostly sleep for recreation. It’s not easy to sleep at night.

I’d like to be reconciled with my stepmum. On one hand it’s too complex, and on the other we don’t know each other well enough for it really to happen. She’s so far away as well. We now don’t really keep in contact; it’s not easy. I’m sure I must have some enemies but I’m not aware of it. There are one or two people I’m not too keen on, like friends who now owe me well over £2,000 and I won’t see that again. With my ex girlfriends I think we probably didn’t have a great relationship. One or two perhaps would have thought I was cheating on them, but in fact I never did. They probably didn’t realise I was just immature with relationships.

I didn’t get on very well with my mother. I don’t mean we were constantly at each other’s throats. I was an only child, and after such a terrible marriage she never would have married again. I was too important to her, and that was an underlying pressure I didn’t like. I didn’t see her for three or four months before she died. It was sudden and unexpected in the end. There was a lot of unfinished business.

It’s quite unusual talking about myself. As a generalization women are far better at talking about emotions and feelings. Men are pretty bad news as far as that’s concerned. When I was doing the filming I felt very relaxed about asking questions. I sort of slightly planned it, but it’s much better to listen to people and then react to them. Often you’ll find that people are far more nervous of you than you are of them. It’s good that in the nature of this conversation you can talk about yourself as well. It puts people at their ease. With friends you can get into small talk and you don’t make time to talk properly.

I’d be happy with a lot of money. If I won the lottery and had £10 million I’d be very happy. It’d be nice to be able to buy houses for a few people, help people. I wouldn’t tell them where the money came from. There are a few people, including two ex girlfriends whom I’m not in contact with. I’d send them some money anonymously and they’d never guess it was from me. There are one or two people here who I’ve become very good friends with, although we’re very different. I’d like to help them out. For example, I struck up a friendship with someone who was an alcoholic, a big alcoholic, but a very intelligent man. He was very interesting. I’d make sure my friends could have a different sort of life. I’d certainly travel. On the one hand I quite like the idea of having a big fancy house, but on the other hand I like to travel. I’m not a natural worrier, so I’d like to set myself up so I wouldn’t have to worry. That’s all I want really.

There are challenges about being in here in the Night Shelter. Boredom is the main one. Violence does go on, but it’s dealt with very quickly. It can be very frightening coming in the front door. When I first came here I arrived at eleven in the morning, on a beautiful summer’s day, and there was a young chap stretched out on the ground surrounded by beer cans. On the whole it’s been good for me. It looks as though I might be sleeping rough again soon. My sleeping rough was being all cramped up in an old French car.

I try not to worry about it too much. I’ve just turned down a room which they had for me, because it was right next to the bathroom and I’d rather mess up my immediate future. I’d rather be depressed on my own terms than be depressed on someone else’s terms.

19th December 2005