“Streets Of London” — Ralph McTell

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Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash

From Monday, I start to become a freak again.

Lockdown starts to ease and the world starts getting back to normal. Yet my life will hardly change.

People will see loved ones they haven’t see for months, hug their grandchildren once more and go out for a few drinks with friends.

I’ll be staying at home, like I always do. My family won’t be visiting and I don’t have any friends to visit, or enjoy a sociable drink with. The world you’ve been living for the last 10 weeks is the world I’ve lived in most of my life.

But don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’ve made my own choices and I’m doing much better than many others. I’m not starving. I can earn a living. I have a roof over my head and a comfortable bed to sleep in every night.

However I’ve been alone all my life. Bullied and abused at school, I learned not to let anyone into my life because they were only going to hurt me. My experiences as an adult taught me the same lesson often enough that I got the message in the end.

A solitary life has been my protection against a cruel world for five decades.

What’s been interesting for me is the way most people can’t wait to experience friendship and togetherness again. Starting from Monday, gradually, slowly, as restrictions are rolled back, that’s what they’re increasingly looking forward to. It keeps them going.

I’ve struggled with this more than I expected to.

I’d got used to living my life my way. I’d accepted it as normal for me and, while I knew most people lived a completely different life, it didn’t bother me that much…most of the time, at least.

The way I saw it, other people were just more fortunate than me in having friends and family who they wanted to spend time with and who wanted to spend time with them in return.

I was more fortunate than them in having some commercially valuable skills they didn’t. In the grand balance of the universe, that just seemed like the sort of trade some almighty being might think was a fair outcome.

As I’m hearing the excited chatter about all the things people can’t wait to do again, the people they want to see, the places they want to go, it’s brought home to me just how solitary my life is. And it’s making me quite sad that my life will continue exactly as it did before lockdown was even a term we used in daily speech.

Next Monday, the Monday after that and all the Mondays after that for the rest of my natural days will be exactly the same as every other day of the week has been for as long as I can remember.

I won’t be rushing out to the pub with my mates, having dinner with my extended family or having friends and their families pop round for a barbecue. I didn’t do those things before, so I’m not suddenly going to become welcome in people’s lives now.

For most, it won’t be long until the time spent in isolation becomes a distant memory, like the three-day week or the Winter of Discontent are for Brits old enough to remember.

But what will become a distant memory to you is an entire life to me.

Again, don’t feel sorry for me. People have lost loved ones in the most terrible circumstances. Front-line health care workers have put their own lives at risk to care for others at their time of greatest need. Ordinary men and women have gone about their lives driving buses, delivering our groceries and collecting our household refuse.

Next to the challenges those people have been through, I don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as them. If you have any sympathies left to give, save them for those fine people, not for me.

However, as most people look forward to lockdown being relaxed and my solitary life becomes a weird exception once more…something almost shameful rather than the norm, as it’s been most of the country for the last 10 weeks…I’v found myself thinking of Ralph McTell’s “Streets Of London” quite a lot lately.

Since I first heard it in the mid-1970s, “Streets Of London” has comforted me in my toughest times and reminds me that, compared to many other people, despite all the unpleasant life experiences which have led me to prefer a life of solitude, I’ve been extremely fortunate and really have nothing to complain about…

In “Streets Of London”, Ralph McTell presents a series of vignettes of characters he saw while travelling and busking back in the 1960s…ironically in Paris, mainly, rather than in London, but a bit of artistic licence is perfectly acceptable in a story as powerful as this one.

And “Streets Of London” always reminds me that fortune smiled on me when the dealer turned over my card in the genetic casino of life and I was cast as a well-educated, white, middle-class male.

But life is fragile. More fragile than we like to admit. A few bad breaks along the way and any of us could become one of the characters in Ralph McTell’s story…

I give thanks I’ve never had to live on the streets, but I can’t imagine the hardship the poor souls who do have experienced lately.

It’s one thing setting out an empty coffee cup in the hope passers-by will throw some change your way. It’s another thing entirely when there are no passers-by, no restaurants where you might be able to beg a mouthful or two of food they’d otherwise throw away, no strangers who take a moment to look into your eyes and acknowledge your presence as a fellow member of the human race.

What, I wonder, will happen to them when the world goes back to normal?

Or to the elderly, far from relatives to care for them…the housebound…the unemployed…the people abused in their own homes…the people who, as a matter of course, live the life you’ve found so unbelievably difficult to live over the last 10 weeks.

What will happen to them?

This isn’t a plea for me. I’m fine.

But it is a plea for us to think more often about all the people who don’t get thought about very often. The people forgotten by society, marginalised, their humanity discounted.

If you take the time to look, their eyes tell the story of a life of heartache and disappointment. Their hollowed cheeks tell the story of what it’s like to live on, and often below, the breadline. Their teeth tell the story of too few nutritious meals, nowhere to brush their teeth and no money for toothpaste.

It’s easy to say their circumstances are all their own fault but, even if that’s true, it shouldn’t override our humanity.

Yes, if you’re living on the streets, you might have made some bad choices along the way. But nobody makes bad choices on purpose. Every time a human being makes a decision, they make what seems to them to be the best choice they’re capable of making in the circumstances.

They might, with a different perspective, a better education or 20/20 hindsight, have been wrong in their judgement. But that doesn’t take away from the fact they took the best decision they knew how at the time.

Nobody takes a deliberate decision to become hopelessly addicted to drugs, sleep under plastic sheeting every night or sell their bodies just to be able to eat. Those might be the cumulative results of decisions they made along the way, but nobody takes decisions in life with those consequences as their objectives…

As your life gets back to normal, I hope you’ll remember the touching lyrics in “Streets Of London” and look around you for the people who have no “normal” to go back to.

The old lady living up the street who goes out once a week to do her shopping and never has any visitors.

The people…men, women and children…who are not safe from harm, even in their own homes.

The exploited and the vulnerable…the forgotten and the disenfranchised…the downtrodden and the heartbroken…

Will we take a moment to reflect on our blessings and try to help those less fortunate than ourselves?

Or will we pass them by on the other side of the street?

Maybe you think the world’s OK because you’re OK.

Let me tell you, I could take you by the hand in any town or city in the world and show you something to make you change your mind.

Here’s Ralph McTell with “Streets Of London”…


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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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