I can’t recall what caused me to wake up; perhaps the sudden jerking of my head falling towards my chest as I drifted into a deeper sleep, or the gentle pull of the train as it departed Didcot Parkway railway station. The result, however, was an immediate sense of clarity that temporarily negated the earlier effects of downing several pints of beer in London; I had missed my stop.
Even though it was fast approaching midnight, I was imbued with an air of conceited optimism, reassuring me that I would simply jump ship at Swindon and hop on the next train home, whilst only experiencing a modicum of inconvenience. How wrong I was.
Marooned in Swindon
The helpful station manager delivered the news that the next train back to Reading would be arriving just before 6am. My alcohol-enriched arrogance quickly identified my residency for the next six hours – the plush waiting room. But alas that wasn’t an option, since the station would be shut whilst overnight maintenance was carried out. Sensing my disappointment, staff directed me to the nearby taxi rank. One hundred pounds was the fee quoted. A follow up check on my Uber app confirmed this was around the going rate. It was a mild evening and I’d faced bigger challenges in my life; combating the elements for a few hours was going to be no bother at all. In fact, bring it on!
So confident was I that I sat proximate to the station entrance as the last weary travellers exited, and I looked forward to being a hobo for the night. This was an unexpected contest that I would undoubtedly win. Sleeping rough? More like sleeping tough ─ and I had the opportunity to save myself a stack of money too.
After about 20 minutes or so, my backside began to alert me to the creeping coldness starting to caress my lower limbs. I was reasonably well insulated, with a coat and beanie hat, yet I was beginning to feel a numbness I had never experienced before.
The station manager was benevolently persistent and even remarked that I didn’t seem to be the type of person who was short of a few quid, but that wasn’t the point – this was going to be an easy gig and choosing to beat the elements wasn’t exactly going to be taxing. This was Swindon, not some third world community bereft of places to seek sanctuary. Then it started to rain, and I was signposted to a nearby 24/7 McDonald’s. A cup of steaming tea and a nuclear hot apple pie would restore my flagging energy levels!
As I excitedly strode towards the promised land, dodging the larger puddles, I gradually became aware of a hole in the fabric of my trainers. The odd car whizzed past me, and I pulled my beanie tight around my ears as the drop in temperature began to bite. As a cop I have faced many hazards in my life. Nevertheless, on this occasion I became acutely aware of a loneliness, amplified by the dull yellow streetlights, that conspired to create a landscape of daunting shadows and eerie enclaves – none of which looked like places of safe refuge. Blinking away the now ceaseless rain, I reached my refuge. The internal lights were mesmerising but everything else was motionless. It was closed.
Trudging back to the train station, my right foot now seemed entombed in an icy bath, and I needed the toilet; quick relief in a bush wasn’t an option. My earlier flamboyant resolve had been completely corrupted by a deep sense of despair and physical discomfort that culminated in an immediate desire to leave this dark place. A call to friends to pick me up just wasn’t going to be fast enough and my teetering terror needed to be terminated. I had a lifestyle choice and that was to connect with Uber. Within the hour, and £90 lighter, I was safely in a warm bed.
Neither a ‘lifestyle choice’ nor a choice lifestyle
In the ensuing days I reflected upon this experience with a degree of humour. I’d got merry and paid the price. I didn’t receive, nor did I expect, any sympathy from those who became aware of my folly. I was fortunate to have the lifestyle choice to remedy this rare event and everything was good in the hood, until that is, Suella Braverman, our Home Secretary, spouted her trademark vitriolic and divisive bile against yet another group of vulnerable people whom she demonised with savage self-confidence. Her claim that rough sleeping is a lifestyle choice brought back those brief moments that I had endured in Swindon.
I couldn’t even face a few hours alone in the elements. To suggest that anyone would actively choose this existence over other alternatives is one of the most morally cowardly statements I have ever heard a politician utter. And what sanction did she receive? If you live in the United Kingdom and understand the brutality of this ultra-right-wing regime that has broken our once proud nation, you will know the woeful answer to this question.
Indeed, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak simply skulked behind the statement that he has “full confidence” in her ability to lead the most important domestic office of government, where the safety and security of all citizens is paramount.
Are we losing sight of empathy?
Braverman is the unacceptable face of constitutional destruction where our sense of Britishness is being doused in petrol and incinerated before our eyes – our pupils so dilated that many have become blind to the future consequences.
I may have been momentarily deprived of sight by the incessant midnight rain in Wiltshire, but Braverman’s bigotry is incandescent and needs to be extinguished for the sake of all of us, not just those who fall into poverty, despair and hopelessness, often because they – metaphorically and inadvertently ─ missed their stop and ended up in Swindon.
Since first writing this article, Braverman has at last been forced from her lair. However, I still believe that it serves as a reminder of what a power hungry and divisive figure in government can do. The accumulated collection of her menacing pronouncements sees her relegated to the back benches, finally brought down by the deployment of far-right thugs who answered her dog whistle politics in London last weekend.