Sunday, 27 July 2008

The South Bank and 'Supergeordie'

Quality busking and street theatre, display hula-hooping and Parkour, pavement artists and sand sculptures, a Critical Mass bike ride and a Reclaim the Beach party, free foyer gigs in the Festival Hall and the National. And ten-quid tickets for some of the best theatre in Britain with seats going spare all summer.

I could live on the South Bank. In fact, I did live there for a week or two just before the 1987 election, when the Observer thought it would be mighty cool to have me and a photographer hang out with the rough sleepers and see how they viewed the forthcoming Third Election of Thatcher in Cardboard City.

I’d done it before (sleeping rough, squatting, that sort of thing), which was partly why the Observer asked me. So it was no big deal bedding down with the real dossers, especially knowing I could sneak off home to my cosy, recently-allocated housing association flat if the sleeping got too rough. The photographer wasn’t so keen on the prospect, though. Concerned about what might happen to his gear if he stayed out after bedtime, he’d head off back to Brighton each evening before the last train left (ludicrously early, then as now, so he’d be gone before most of the cardboard came out).

Down And Out in Paris and London it wasn’t. I’d drained my well of homelessness stories so dry after a decade of writing on the subject that in my eagerness to find a different angle I didn’t spot that the photographer and I were being brilliantly, gloriously had by one of the subjects of our reportage.

He called himself ‘Supergeordie’. A middle-aged, bull-necked, bulging-biceped ex-serviceman in a wheelchair, he claimed to have completed some unfeasible number of marathons as a disabled athlete but had only a super-sized cardboard box under the South Bank concrete to call home. Supergeordie was so brazen in his boasting, giant banners celebrating his athletic achievements and announcing the commencement of his next one – a round-Britain-by-wheelchair Britain charity fundraiser – that it seemed inconceivable that he was lying.

But he was. Or, let’s be charitable about this, as his doctor was when we heard from him subsequently, and say that he was fantasising. Either way, on the day that he was due to set off on his fundraiser, the day after our photo-reportage appeared in the paper, Supergeordie did a runner, leaving his assembled friends, supporters, well-wishers, television camera crews – and me – to hang around like big daft drips in a sauna.

I’d like to say that I’ve never been taken in by a con-artist or a sob-story since, but once bitten the sharks can smell the blood. Suffice to say that I can never be completely scathing about the people who fall for those Nigerian emails asking for their bank account details so that the sender can deposit a few million dollars in them.

As for the South Bank, which is where I started this little meander, Cardboard City is long gone – though the homeless, of course, are not. Sometimes, as I did this weekend, I wonder what happened to Supergeordie and his wheelchair and his fantasies. It would make a great play.

1 comment:

chatterbox said...

I was trying to explain cardboard city to my 16 year old sons just this week as we walked past the skateboarders. They really couldn't grasp what it was like back then, and were so disbelieving I began to wonder if it was somehow all in my imagination.