Four Feet Under
By Tamsen Courtenay
Thirty homeless people share the secrets of their lives, through first-hand accounts, conversations and intimate photographs
Publication date: Summer 2018Buy
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A businessman, a builder, a transsexual woman, a soldier, a child prostitute, an elderly couple, a battered wife and many more describe - in their own words - the events that led to the life they live now, four feet under the rest of us, on pavements and in shop doorways. They talk of childhoods, jobs, their strengths and weaknesses, dreams and regrets. They share opinions, fears and petty snobberies, all with humour and a breathtaking lack of guile.
The 30 people I met during two months on London’s streets became my heroes. Their stories are the backbone of the book, recorded and then transcribed verbatim, with portraits and photographs of their affairs. My adventures and observations are threaded throughout. I met people who made me laugh till I shook and changed forever the way I look at cardboard. I was beaten badly with a piece of wood by a drunk (non-homeless) man in a suit, and I discovered what ‘crack’ looks (and smells) like.
It was a mini-odyssey spent mostly in the rain, with chewing gum stuck to my frozen backside, aching joints, bronchitis, blistered feet and coffee stains down my front where passersby had knocked me as I sat. For me, it was a privilege.I didn’t have to go very far to find these home-grown exiles. I didn’t need foreign currency, a phrase book (although there were times when one might have been handy) or a passport. My Oyster card was enough. They aren’t on distant shores, they’re at the bottom of your road. Have you ever wondered how they got there?
George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London meets Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York ... but with exceptionally intimate imagery and a directness and detail that is new.
Tamsen Courtenay worked as an investigative journalist for the BBC’s Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches, looking at the forces that shape our world. Three events led to the decision to make this book: working a night shift at a shelter for the homeless, encounters with homeless people in Rome and in London, and losing her own family home.
On an impulse, Tamsen left her job one Friday and by dawn on the Monday morning, dressed in dreary grey sweatpants, clutching a posh camera, a cheap Argos audio recorder and several packets of fags, she was in central London. She began recording these chronicles and taking the photographs that accompany them. For two months, day and night, she sat on bleak, windswept pavements talking to the homeless and destitute - people who feel they are invisible.
Tamsen currently lives in central Italy, where she writes a blog called Land of the Forgotten Earthquakes and campaigns for the government to help victims in the region. Ironically, the earthquakes have left her technically homeless.
I do go through the bins, I do pick up pizza off the floor … all that … it makes me feel horrible. I look around, like, ‘Is anyone watching me?’”
Over the weeks I regularly ran into Jade, and she became important to me for the short time we had together. I developed great affection for this girl. An archaeologist could have taken a soft brush and gently dusted away the grime, the dirt and the pain to reveal the radiant young woman that lay beneath it all.
Some evenings and nights, if I was just out with the camera and tripod - searching for pictures and not people - I would look for her and we’d sit together, usually outside Leicester Square tube station. It meant I could rest my legs and enjoy her company for an hour or so. She was engaging - a fighter, small, tough, scarred inside and out and so brave. Her courage was only fractionally greater than the violence she lived with.
On our first meeting, she wanted doughnuts to eat. Homeless people seem to have a sweet tooth. She ate with the unabashed gusto that small children have, and her words came fast and furious, mingled with little puffs of icing sugar.
Jade had been homeless for most of the last eight years - a lifetime when you are only 23 years old. Before I turned on the recorder, I was asking general questions about her childhood and that was when I first heard her say she was ‘daddy’s little princess’. She said it with her huge smile.
Had I left it at that - walked away then - I would have thought what a shame things ended so badly for her, but at least she’d had a loving father. And that would have been a huge, huge mistake.
- 25th September 2018 Update #5
I think last time I wrote I was just about to get on a plane to London to see if I could make any noise about 'our' book which was then only days away from being born.
Well, I did make a noise. And more importantly, I think the noise was actually heard.
I did 5 radio interviews, one live interview on TV on London Live (now that was dedication to the cause, I tell you…21st August 2018 Update 4
(I posted this last Sunday evening but it seems - weirdly - that t only just went out .... drat)
I know, I know ... I've not written an Update to you all (well, officially, that is) in forever.
I sometimes feel that my life is a huge bowl of treacle and no matter how furiously I try and push forward in all the directions I should be going in, I never manage to feel I'm on top of all the things…11th August 2017 Update #3
We have done it ...
You all and I. We have made a book that will be on sale in shops. A real book. Real shops. People will buy it, read and people will change. For the better. They will love the stories.
Most of you who backed this book, I have managed to track down and thank personally but there are one or two of you who eluded my detective skills - no clues as to who you are at all (but…20th April 2017 Update #2
Thursday 20th April, 2017
Well, I’ve been going at this crowd funding for about a month now. I thought the writing of the book was the hard part but I was so wrong!
You – my Supporting Sixty – have been totally brilliant and we are now at 10%. I keep thinking that if I hadn’t taken so many (fab) photographs and was putting this book together as a 250pp paperback, we’d be at about 40% now…28th March 2017 #1 Update
This is my immense thank you to my Top Drawer Twenty (you know who you are) ... seeing your names there, on the Pledge page, makes me really believe that this project will become a book. A proper, glorious book.
It's what I have always wanted, since that very first day when I set off into London and spoke to Melissa - the first homeless person I ever sat with and listened to - and realised that homeless…
These people are helping to fund Four Feet Under.
Barbara Joan Meier