I see Peter every morning on my way to work. He stands in the same spot, clutching a stack of Big Issue magazines and observing the world as it rushes by. He is there in the sunshine and there in the snow, a steady constant in the chaos of people’s everyday lives. I look forward to seeing him, and when I wish him a good morning, his typical response is, ‘It is a good morning, isn’t it?”
He is always absurdly cheerful, so when he agreed to meet with me, I was intrigued to find out more than his optimistic views on the weather. I assumed that there must be a solemn tale behind his smiling exterior. Over a sugary black coffee in the dazzling Spring sunshine, he was only too happy to prove me wrong.
Peter was born in Bristol and grew up with his parents and five other siblings. His father was a carpenter, and his mother juggled two jobs as a cleaner and a shelf stacker to provide for their family.
“Two jobs and six kids!” he laughs. “These softies wouldn’t be able to cope with that nowadays.”
As a teenager, Peter got into trouble at school and with the police. He hints that he fell into a rogue crowd and was involved in a series of errant activities. After burning down the science lab at his secondary school, he was sent to the local borstal to be reformed. He is quick to defend his parents when he reaches this part, ensuring I know he doesn’t blame anyone else but himself for this.
“My parents were good people. I don’t believe any of this nonsense about broken homes,” he says. “You make your own choices in life. All of that was my own choice. I can see that now.”
During his time in the borstal, he made plans to join the army. He completed the application process and passed his interview, but upon being released, he found out that he would need to keep himself out of trouble for the next eighteen months in order to be accepted.
“Eighteen months is a long time for a young lad. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
To avoid falling back onto a wayward path, he moved to France and applied for the French Legion. He trained and served with them for seven years, travelling the world to places as far afield as French Guiana, Djibouti, The Congo and Corsica. Gratefully, he says, he was never deployed during conflict. “It was hard, but in a good way. They straightened me out and I thought I’d never leave. I really loved it.”
He intended to commit to the French Legion for life, but when he came back to the UK to sign up for a second time, he met the woman who would later become his wife. They were happily married for 8 years and had three children together – two boys and a girl. He skims over the next few chapters in his life by telling me, “…several jobs and a divorce later, here I am.” It’s quite a jump in chronology but I don’t pry any further. The enigma is all part of his charm.
Peter is now what you call ‘off the grid’. He has no fixed address, no bank account, no national insurance number and no passport - he surrendered it all voluntarily several years ago. In his own words, “I took myself out of the madness,” which only adds to his sense of mystery. The military rucksack by his feet contains all his worldly possessions, including the tent and sleeping bag which provides his shelter each night. He sleeps in various locations around North London, most often in Epping Forest. He doesn’t bother anyone, he doesn’t get in anyone’s way, nobody sees him arrive and they don’t see him leave. As much as possible, he avoids the homeless ‘industry’ as he calls it, saying that there’s nothing a charity can do for him that he can’t do for himself.
“Everyone has choices,” he repeats. “You make your own path in life. If you walk through the forest and realise you’re going the wrong way, you can either sit down and cry, or get up and go back the other way. Right now, I am exactly where I want to be.”
I listen to his story in a curious disbelief, which unfolds in complete contrast to the misfortunate tale I was expecting.
On a typical day, he arrives at his designated spot at 7am to sell his magazines. He stays there all day, apart from when it rains, when he takes cover across the road outside the hospital. In the evenings, he buys a curry from Wasabi or a mixed grill from the local Weatherspoon’s, and then sits in the café of the hospital, where they have good coffee and free Wi-Fi. He watches a movie on his tablet (which he bought and registered under the name of a notorious historical figure) and then finds somewhere to pitch his tent for the night. When he needs to, he pays £5 to use the shower facilities at Kings Cross station, which includes a razor, soap and towels. At the weekend, he likes to walk along the canal or take the train out to Richmond Park. He is still in touch with his children and sees them from time to time. His sons still live in Bristol, and his daughter lives in Norway where she is applying for permanent residency.
I ask him if he thinks people judge him for selling The Big Issue and for being homeless.
“Not at all!” he answers. “If I’ve learnt anything from doing this, it’s that people are essentially good. You might get one bad person out of a thousand, but most people don’t judge me at all.”
I also ask him if selling the magazine gives him enough money to pay for everything he needs.
“For what I need? Yes – more than enough. But there’s a big difference between what people want and what they need. I have everything that I need in this bag. I’m probably happier than most of my customers. These people walking around in suits have more worries than me.”
“People are very kind," he goes on to say. "I think they expect a bit of a sob story in return, but there really isn’t one. Maybe I should start making one up.”
I can’t help but smile as he comes to the end, and assure him that his story is fine just as it is – he doesn’t need to embellish a thing. The simple truth behind his tale is a thousand times more extraordinary.