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Graham Kennedy, The Directions Man

August 28, 2015
by the gentle author

(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)

“People often ask me what the ‘i’ stands for,” admitted Graham Kennedy proudly, “and I tell them it is the internationally recognised symbol for Information.” Everyone who goes through Liverpool St Station regularly will recognise Graham, he is the eager Directions Man who stands at the Bishopsgate entrance in all weathers, performing a public service by pointing out the way to visitors, those who are lost and anyone who needs guidance to find Spitalfields, Brick Lane and other local destinations.

“I approach people who are looking around and politely ask where they are looking for and are they ok,” he explained to me, “You’ve got to be able to read people and understand their body language, because you can’t just go up to anybody and ask if they need directions.”

When I first noticed Graham, I thought he might be employed by the railway station or the bus company or the tourist board, but then I quickly realised that his was a self-appointed role and I grew curious to know how and why he got there. So I asked the man who spends his days giving directions to others to explain his route to this particular point in his life, standing outside Liverpool St Station.

“I’d from Romford but I was born in the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and I grew up in Dagenham, the car manufacturing city. I ended up in this situation after getting divorced eight months ago after being married for twelve years and having two daughters.

Me and my wife started fighting after she began to drink and became someone I didn’t even know. I ended up feeling like a bad person and my children became scared of me and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like myself. So I decided to leave and, for six weeks, I stayed on friends’ settees until I outstayed my welcome.

I got divorced from my wife and I signed the council house over to her, and applied to Dagenham & Barking to get rehoused. I’d been in a council house since I was eighteen years old until the age of thirty-nine and never missed paying my rent. They gave me an interview and, after a thirty minute chat, they said, ‘You’ll get your a decision in ten minutes.’ They said they couldn’t help me because I’d chosen to leave and made myself homeless. They gave me a list of homeless shelters and I was shocked. If I’d lied and said she threw me out, they’d have given me a council home. That was when I realised that it doesn’t always benefit you to be honest.

My parents have been divorced for twenty years. My mother lives in Dagenham and my father has just been put in prison for six years at seventy-three years old after being caught delivering a packet of cocaine. But I’ve always been working, I had a job ever since I left school at fifteen years old and I was an electrician for twenty-two years. It’s impossible for me to find a job now because my ex-wide sold all my tools. I did contract work for Tower Hamlets, Westminster and City of London Councils. That’s why I came up to London once I became homeless, because I know my way around the city.

I started living on the street and I got a fireman’s key from a hardware shop so I could sleep in stairwells, to keep safe and warm and charge my phone. But then I became part of a circle of people that I was taking heroin and crack cocaine with, which I’d never done before in my life. I was on heroin for six to seven months until I got myself medicated, and that went on for three months. I’m no longer on medication, so now I am clean.

I started giving directions four months ago. I didn’t want to beg and I’ve always thought about what people need, and I’m keen to be useful and of service to others. It’s quite legal as long as I don’t ask for money. So, once I have given directions, I say, ‘Excuse me, would consider buying me a tea or coffee?’ There are three things that will happen. They’ll say, ‘No,’ or they’ll give me their spare change, or they’ll buy me a tea or coffee. I’ve learnt that being helpful is a lot more appreciated than just hanging around asking for money.

On Sunday, I stand outside Aldgate East but mostly I am here at Liverpool St. Thursday is the biggest day, it’s been like that for a while. People work until Thursday then go for a night out to relax, and then they get through Friday and rest at the weekend. From four until eight, you will find me at Aldgate East then I go to Liverpool St until midnight, and afterwards I go to Shoreditch and wander around and give directions until six in the morning.

I meet people of all nationalities and walks of life. I’ve had people give me their number and say, ‘Call me if you need help or money,’ but I never call them, I don’t know why. After a year and a half sleeping on the street and in stairwells, I met a Christian and I gained a friend. For the last seven weeks, I’ve been living with him on Brick Lane and repairing his flat and mending all his appliances.

I’ve learnt that you don’t need to have money, you can find anything you want in the city if you know where to look. If you know what time to go round to the back of Tesco in Commercial St, you can find as much food as you want being thrown out.

In the next couple of months, I’ll start looking for a job and get my own place and start seeing my children on a regular basis. I talk to them on the phone but it’s not the same thing.”

Graham Kennedy

You might also like to read about

Jason Cornelius John, Street Musician

Matt Walters, Human Statue

Mr Gil, Street Preacher

Gary Aspey, Wheel Truer

8 Responses leave one →
  1. p s green permalink
    August 28, 2015

    Mr. Kennedy’s story is heart-breaking and inspiring. Mazel tov to him and every good wish for his future. Sarah

  2. August 28, 2015

    This story shows just how tough life can be. It certainly blows a hole into stereotypical perspectives of homeless people, as well as – in a somewhat darker way – those of elderly people, e.g. Graham’s dad going down at 75 for handling cocaine. I am also left wondering what sort of a hardware shop sells ‘fireman’s keys’? Not your average sort of shop for sure!
    Graham seems like a very enterprising person who knows how to survive, despite such ill fortune. I hope he has been able to secure decent accommodation since you wrote this piece and now has proper access to his children.
    Letting your subjects speak for themselves and letting them present themselves without judgement, is one if the things I have come to love about this blog. It creates a palable sense of the reality and diversity of life in and around Spitalfields.

  3. Bronchitikat permalink
    August 28, 2015

    So how has Graham gotten on since you first published this entry?

  4. Jill Waters permalink
    August 28, 2015

    moved by the quiet determination of this man and his self-respect and initiative, his daughters should be proud of him. I missed the original post – is there an update ?

  5. August 28, 2015

    I wonder how he is doing now. I do hope he managed to get a place of his own and can see his children now.

  6. martin permalink
    September 1, 2015

    Great story and i hope he can get himself sorted. His children should take pride in him.

  7. Penny Dolan permalink
    September 7, 2015

    What a story of trials and determination! Hope Graham is finding ways of moving on – although I do love the idea of an Information Man. How enterprising!

  8. Louise permalink
    September 29, 2023

    When I lived in the UK I found your blog and I followed it and for some reason I kept a number of your emails. I don’t follow you now because I live on the opposite side of the world (although actually that is not a very good reason!) but I was going through my emails and found a number of yours from 2015. Extraordinary what one keeps in one’s inbox. Anyway, I just found this an amazing story and in these times, his story makes you think of all the people who complain that they have nothing and want others to help them and yet here is a man who really was doing it unbelievably tough and still wanted to help, didn’t want to complain, just wanted to be given a chance to contribute and live a good life. And I wondered if you know how he is now. Did he succeed in finding a home and having ongoing contact with his children? I’m being nosy but am genuinely interested and I hope Graham’s life has worked out well for him.

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