By Fiona Green 

Drawing of a shirke.
Drawing of a shrike by Joseph Berryman.

Tall and kindly, unassuming, vulnerable talented and loquacious. Joseph is like the pied piper of Tottenham Street. Every Thursday he meets with me and a band of interested guests we have gathered together, and start work at the Soup Kitchen of the American Church after lunch and prayers.

Seventy odd years on this earth Joseph writes objectively: “Once a reprobate, drifter, charlatan, chancer and law unto himself; judge this book by its cover and some major surprises are revealed … it has even taught me some tolerance of myself.”

This tough nut has a hard shell, but prise a little and some very interesting stories emerge from the past.

“My way out of problems was always to do a runner. I could never conform. I’ve done it all my life” — and adds joking — “the trick of a successful marriage is long separations and the ability to go deaf. The old man needs a place of retreat from the mayhem of family life. Mine was various squats around London.”

Drawing of a heron.
Drawing of a heron by Joseph Berryman.

However, life wasn’t all feckless, and irresponsible, Joseph did train as a draughtsman when he left school and got his equivalent of City and Guilds working at this for over forty years. He lost his job – and then his home and family in the late seventies, having stayed with them for as long as he could.

John Bird, Founder of the Big Issue, describes Joseph as aformidable writer and user of the english language, who helps people to use their skills: a great aid to homeless people.” Bird, who himself was once homeless, knows how hard life can get on the streets.

Joseph continues, “I remember when Jeremy Sandford’s book ‘Cathy Come Home’ about homeless in 1960s came out. My family was not yet together, but it had a huge impact on me and the way I thought about life in general. When I became homeless, I soon got badged up and sold the Big Issue and made many friends. I went to art therapy and a creative writing group organized by the Big Issue.”

Keeping busy with projects and interests keeps him alive and healthy: drawing, film-making, and a book of poetry “Wild Life In Suburbia” with girlfriend, Linda from which this poem is taken:

Be Good

So please be kind
To Pigeons
At the setting of the Sun
Because if you don’t
Behave yourself
You will come
Back as one.

Nowadays our art group meets alternately at the The American Church and the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre which is around the corner from the house where Charles Dickens lived as a child close to the Workhouse in Cleveland Street, upon which he most certainly based his novel Oliver Twist: the most powerful image of poverty in literary history. But the Neighbourhood Centre has an uncertain future too with the cuts and our group — along with Smart — another group working with the homeless at Somerset House, is seeking a more permanent base.

Joseph continues, “My Linda was born in a workhouse up North which had been turned into a hospital. The way things are going now I fear the workhouse will make a comeback. What with the ongoing National Debt crisis, the new housing legislation and Westminster’s wish to move on their rough sleepers.”