Writing the book was a labour of love and it’s been brilliant discovering how much readers have been affected by it. Which was the whole point, really.
What is the book about?
The secret, horrifying world of homelessness is revealed through first hand life stories told by the homeless themselves. During the couple months I spent on the streets, listening and talking to London’s homeless, I recorded our conversations about how they survive the horrors of street-life and who they were before their nightmare began. I took loads of photographs too.
I learned about what the homeless dream of for the future, what they’re afraid of and what they actually feel, underneath all those dirty, torn clothes. It was the most incredible experience.
Why I wrote Four Feet Under
From an early age, and thanks to my amazing mother, I’ve been very sensitive to injustice of any kind. She raised me to refuse to accept anything unjust. She taught me well and those lessons have coloured much of my life, so it really was no surprise to anyone when I woke up one day and announced, out of the blue, that I was going to London to talk to homeless people and then to make a book about what they told me.
When my mum died I was devastated. I wanted to escape my grief so I worked the night shift at a homeless shelter in London. It changed my life. The people I met, their life stories, their humanity, wit and warmth stayed with me for the next few years – until that morning when I woke up and knew what I would do.
I packed my camera, some old clothes and bought myself a little digital recorder and got on a plane to London. I didn’t come back home to Italy for two months.
What’s in the book?
Inside there are thirty life stories, thoughts and reflections from a wide range of homeless people. People like Benji (a chef-cum-builder), Edward (a marine biologist), Jade (a child prostitute), Kenny and Jane (an elderly couple), Brad and Patrick (businessmen), Jasmine (a transsexual) and Scott (a coach driver).
Between us, the homeless and I tried to make sense of their lives. Lives they live four feet below the rest of us, on the pavement. Here they laugh, think, worry and sometimes die. Living alone, they’re always on the move – and wherever they are, they’re rarely welcome. Through tragedy, misfortune and occasionally bad decisions, they’ve ended up with no home to call their own.
I asked countless questions: What was their childhood like? How do they manage to stay alive? What do they think about when they fall asleep at night? Where are their families? Where are they when I can’t see them? What do they do all day? They talked to me with incredible openness and generosity of spirit.
Some extracts from one of the stories – Jade
Over the weeks I regularly ran into Jade, and I became very fond of her. 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.
Jade – extracts from her story, in her own words:
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?’”
“I was raised by my nan and grandad because my mum was really young and was in a violent relationship with another man. I loved my nan and grandad. I was allowed contact with my real dad but he was always in and out of jail – theft, petrol robbing and criminal offences like that.
Yeah, when I was young, I was ‘daddy’s little girl’ – he used to take me shopping and spoil me because when he used to commit crime it paid good money. He worked as a postman and was robbing all the people’s Visas and cards. No-one stopped me seeing him ‘cos I never used to tell them nothing about what he did.
Watching my dad’s lifestyle, that’s how I fell into that lifestyle, from a very young age. I smoked my first cigarette at eight with my dad and I started hanging around with all the estate ‘losers’ … I was 13, 14, 15 – smoking, drinking. Back at the age of ten, I found my dad using ‘crack’ and I kept thinking, ‘What’s he doing?’ We was in, like, a B&B, one room – that was all the council gave us – I didn’t know he was using ‘crack’.
My dad gave me my first ‘crack’ pipe at the age of ten.
In my eyes I thought it was a good thing because it brought us that bit closer. I’ve had my dad in the next room when I’m doing prostitution and he’s going out and getting customers and then bringing them back. He had a £300-a-day habit
I know I’m going to die soon. I’ve got two blocked arteries, a damaged heart valve – all through heroin – I’m petrified of dying. But I try not to think about it. I just can’t think about it.
I’ve been pretty well homeless for eight years, since I was fifteen.
But even though I’ve gone through this episode of going downhill, I will succeed and I’m going to push myself. I’m going to work with disabled children. Or the elderly.
Truthfully, the last seven or eight years I’ve just had to try and survive. I’ve been emotional. It’s just horrible outside … everyone just walks past you. I’ve cried through the night, some nights … and there’s people coming out of the pub and wee’ing all over us – it’s drinkers coming to the pub, coming clubbing – they get drunk and then I have to throw my blanket away – and when you lose a blanket … I breakdown. I just start crying. And the worst thing is, when that’s happened, it’s always the next day when you’re hungry and you’ve got no blanket and everyone still walks past you. Not caring.
For money, I sleep with dealers and then they give you the ten-shot [a £10 syringe of heroin]. Some of them will smoke all night with you and look after you and not want sex, but the thing is, when you’re doing prostitution, there’s no feeling, no thought – you just lie there. I don’t sleep at night. Because with everything that’s happened to me, I’m petrified. I will not lie there at night, asleep. I try and sleep in the day
Prostitution – it’s the only way to cope for money out here – for the simple fact that when we beg on the street, which I find so, so hard ‘cos everyone walks past, looks down at you – and not one of them has taken the time and said, “All right? How are you?” A little hello would be fine, it makes you feel stronger. That’s what I recommend to people – if you don’t want to talk to the homeless, at least say ‘Hello’ and smile because that will make them feel a little bit stronger.
The drugs block it all out.