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Orwell Prize

What's in a Life?

Cameron Baillie

What's in a Life? was submitted for the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness by Cameron Baillie. Cameron wrote this piece after feeling devastated at the sheer volume of homelessness he witnessed when he moved to London.

What’s in a life? When it was ended, it was difficult to say what his life had been, difficult to remember how it had taken such tragic turns. All he’d known were moments, fleeting glimpses at the busy spiralling world around him. Nothing concrete, and nothing that wasn’t lost as quickly as it was gained.. His life had been full of such moments, and was nothing besides the transient carousel of their memory. 

For some time now, though he couldn’t remember exactly how long (before his death, that is), such moments had passed him in the strangest of ways. All around him, everywhere he looked, were great spacious buildings, their lights shining late and bright into the long, cold nights. Yet no opened its doors to him, not once. He’d found it difficult to believe at first, that their doors should remain shut. Then at some point he’d simply accepted it. But still, what he’d have given for their offer of warmth, of shelter, of escape from the biting cold, the cold that cut short his life-moments. But he didn’t have anything to give, anything apart from his life. 

So latterly, living and sleeping on the streets, he’d passed the moments that, when pieced together, made a life. They hadn’t all been so bad that summer. The planet was warming; he knew as much from his mornings spent reading the free papers as he sheltered in the alcove of the vegan cafe window. Might this warming be a splinter of hope for those like him, those with nowhere to go when the coldest of cold nights come? It didn’t seem likely. The papers cried that things would only become worse. 

So, naturally, when the cold nights came, they didn’t feel any warmer, and they certainly didn’t pass any easier. Still, he’d bested them before, even the harshest nights that year in early October. But they kept on coming, and not even the hardest of souls could have made it through such incessantly gelid nights. Night, after night, after night. So it was early that morning, in the icy November twilight, as calendars turned their pages, that the numbing chill set into every fibre of his being. Only this time, the cold was crushing, and his being departed. His life was ended. 

For what’s in a life, when it is ended? And it was ended, ended by the world that ignored him, that chose to forget him and to disremember those like him with nowhere to go when the cold nights come. It was ended by those who made the rules, who decided that the rules didn’t apply to people like him, and that people like him didn’t deserve to live with any of the benefits of a wealthy society. 

If we won’t remember the people like him, we fail to recognise our own plight. None should suffer like so, discarded by those with more wealth than most people in this cold, bitter place could ever imagine. Yet those same people decided that those with nothing, literally nothing, didn’t even deserve the dignity of something, of anything: a place, somewhere safe, somewhere warm, somewhere to live. Because, without somewhere to live, all that people like him are left with is somewhere to die. 

And so that’s what they did, three of them, on that cold and empty night, as the city of lights and larks and lavishness spun around them: they died. Few would remember them. Really, many should. All those who walked past each day, with their immaterial concerns and academic imaginaries. Such little care for those so clearly lacking just that, our necessary human solace: care. They all played their part – we all played our part – by failing to remember what we all need, what every human needs. For accepting uncaring. 

Those of us with the privileges of comfort and place, of wealth and status, we all have the capacity for salvation: to save all those with nowhere to go from the vicious iniquities of exclusion; to save our common cities from the creeping malices of injustice; to save ourselves from the brutalising wickedness of uncaring. That salvation begins in memory, individual and collective. Remember each and every poor soul lost to a society which ceased caring for, and instead criminalises, those who suffer its exclusivity. Let memory be our first act. 

For what’s in a life, when its moments consist only of exclusion, injustice, and uncaring? Probably very little, and possibly nothing whatsoever. The shameful, and entirely avoidable, passing of three men in the night in November showed that.. Let us remember them, let us care for all those like them, and let us make change for them. 

Let there be no more cold nights. 

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