Tom took me to see his van yesterday. “It’s packed up,” he explained. Adding with philosophical levity, “Nothing lasts forever,” as he led me through the busy streets with his dog Matty tugging eagerly at the leash all the way – and stopping occasionally to check bins for interesting stuff – until we arrived back in the safety of the tiny yard behind black corrugated iron gates, where he parks his van and sleeps in the shack at the rear. “He’s at home,” Tom declared, as he released Matty from his lead, once we were standing together in the quiet to survey the van overflowing with all the gear that Tom sells on Brick Lane each day.
“I got this van for next to nothing, three hundred quid – it’s worth four hundred quid for scrap – and it’s been a hell of a good van,” admitted Tom, praising the old blue van covered with slogans that is a familiar sight in Spitalfields - as if it were a thoroughbred he was reluctantly putting out to grass.“I’m clearing it out now.” he confided, raising a smile of anticipation, “It’s full of what I’ve picked up, stuff that’s been thrown away – it’s all worth money, especially if you’re a vendor. I’m finding things I didn’t know I had, old mobile phones in their boxes complete with their chargers – big ugly old ones.”
This is how Tom has created a sufficient life for himself and Matty, rescuing what others discard and selling it on Brick Lane to keep himself, and sleeping on an old couch in a windowless shed. While Matty climbed into the cabin of the van and curled up where he delights to snooze, Tom swung back a door to show me his own dwelling by the glimmering light of a bicycle lamp. A cell less that ten feet square of bare brick and concrete, piled with books and blackened pans, and with an old sofa partly concealed in an alcove. “How can you live like this?” I asked at once, unable to believe how anyone could exist in such frugal conditions through this last harsh Winter,”What about the cold?”
“It’s what I am used to.” announced Tom defiantly, eager to dispel my concern, “I enjoy the way I am, I don’t want to live like other people – it’s called survival. I got gas for cooking in bottles. I could have water and electricity, but I don’t need it.” Seeing that I was not convinced, Tom expanded his explanation to emphasise that this was his choice, “I’ve got my light, it only costs me batteries and I can bring in water. If you’ve got water, you’ve got rates. If you’ve got electricity you’ve got bills. But if you’ve got a torch, you buy batteries and if you run out of them, then you go without…” Seeing I was at a loss for words, Tom assumed a friendly smile and asserted his personal notion of liberty. “People get thrown out of their homes, and they’re making it so hard you haven’t got a chance – so the best chance you can have is to have nothing.” he said. When I thought of the anxious stream of brown envelopes that come through my letterbox, I could not deny that Tom had a point, but equally I do not know if I have the courage to cut loose as he has done.
So, amazed by Tom’s stamina and resilience, both physically and emotionally, I turned our conversation back to his van and the question of how he could replace it. “I’ve got cash.” he said, “It’s a recession – so they say – there should be lots of vans going cheap because of the parking fines. A friend of mine has a Jaguar and he parked it in a loading bay and they want to charge him thousands in fines or take it from him. There’s something wrong when you can take a man’s Jaguar from him.” And he shook his head in bemused disappointment.
Then, as he padlocked the yard to leave, unable to resist the magnetic pull drawing him back to Brick Lane where he spends all his waking hours, Tom added, “The owner was here, he said, ‘You’re alright, mate. Keep an eye on the place for me.’” With subtle grace, Tom had absolved me of any responsibility for him, but more than this I was impressed by the strength of his character and the austerity of his vision of life, which has come to define the nature of his existence, granting him the particular freedom that suits his temperament.
“Be lucky, adieu!” he wished me, as we shook hands outside the beigel shop, arriving back in Brick Lane at the centre of the world.
“The best chance you can have is to have nothing.”
Read my first interview with Tom