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John Smallshaw: London through the eyes of a homeless

He is not your regular guide, nor does he know the back streets of London Bridge from history books, but through his own experience. And along the trail that he leads, he explains the streets he has inhabited for 40 years.


Olga Briasco


He has a true passion for words. He employs them with exceptional ability, he emphasises them, he vocalises them, and he pronounces them accompanied by pondering gestures and through expressive eyes.

It is through this skill that he captivates those who attend his guided tour of London. Tourists follow his footsteps, spellbound by the stories hidden in the London Bridge area, and are captivated by his explanations loaded with sentiment and irony.

What John Smallshaw does, he does so naturally that no one could guess he is stepping into the streets that once gave him shelter on a cold night. “For almost 40 years, I was homeless on more than one occasion”, he explains, stressing “I drifted in and out of that situation so many times due to life circumstances”.

It is also an exercise of conscience, “like looking through a curtain at what I was, until only recently”, a veil that separates the “happy John” of today from John’s “ghost of the past”.

During that period, John was a drug addict. He slept on the streets, in hostels and in homeless shelters. From that life, he retains only his writings, in poetic form, and convincingly chimes, “it was poetry that turned my life around”.

At age 50 – six years ago – he decided to turn it all around, “I realised that I was still alive and that there might still be a lot of life ahead of me”. His determination, and being in the right place, rescued him from his downward spiral.

Smallshaw – with a great deal of gratitude – remembers how, through The Renewal Project and Crisis, he was recommended to attend the Life-Skills Programme at the House of St. Barnabas. “They changed my life,” he stresses, “They brought me back to life again.”

For the poet, the people involved in both organisations are fundamental in his new life, declaring that he is “here today, as a tour guide, thanks to them and their projects”. In addition, he says, “they encouraged me to continue with poetry and to share it.”

He was encouraged so much that he ended up sharing his poetry in a show on BBC Radio 4, and posted more than 2,000 poems on his website (www.johnsmallshaw.com).

“I speak about drugs, time, love, death” he says, “many people have told me that the humour and pathos in my poetry strikes a chord with them”.

He combines this facet of poetry with his work in Unseen Tours and with time involved in humanitarian projects.

“I am still linked to the House of St. Barnabas, because I want to help in the same way that they helped me”, he says. “This ‘return to life’ just takes me back six months. Once, after I was better, I met Grant Burford who told me about Unseen Tours: Street Voices of London and the possibility of working for them.”

Burford explained, “I suggested that he work for us, because nobody knew the London Bridge area better than he did.” It was a salvation for Smallshaw, because, he says, “it gave me the routine that I needed to finish directing my life.”

Similarly, it was important as it satiated his necessity for communication. “I lived alone and my family live far away, so the tourist routes give me the opportunity to be in contact with other people.”

On the basis of mutual understanding, they began to trace a circuit through those streets and, with time, John has traced his own. He blended his interpretive skills, his knowledge of the place, and his ability to communicate to give the tourists “something different”.

He views Southwark through his eyes. He talks about graffiti, park benches, bridges and buildings. He remembers anecdotes, or he puts himself in the skin of the destitute. “If I went back to being a beggar, I would search for a place like this”, he says, nestled up next to a restaurant smoke vent.

He also shows his solidarity, observing “they have changed the park benches and put armrests in the middle to stop people sleeping on them.”

These comments are made so that anyone on the tour would realise he had previously been homeless.

However, these personal experiences are only a small part of the tour, most of the time is spent pointing out the places of interest in the area. In front of London Bridge, John explains its history, or recites one of Shakespeare’s poems next to the Globe Theatre, sharing some anecdotes about the English writer.

For Yola, the visit is “really interesting, because, it tells the history that lies behind every building”. A New Zealand tourist agrees, “John makes the tour very original because of his enthusiasm to talk and his enjoyable explanations”, and emphasises that, “he gives us an alternative view of London Bridge.”

Both knew about Unseen Tours, because “a friend recommended it to me”, while a London couple discovered it through the internet. This word-of-mouth has allowed voluntary organisation, Sock Mob’s initiative to continue to be a reality.

The social enterprise

A volunteer of the Sock Mob organisation, Alex Lee, explains that the initiative was born about three years ago and as a result of the conversations and activities that members of Sock Mob had and did with the homeless. According to him, the organisation handed out socks to “break the ice” with the homeless, and could, therefore, help them. Lidia Lidija Mavra was one of the founders.

The idea apparently came about as a result of the lack of significant and creative work that was offered to homeless people, and also by way of a reflective exercise for those who took part in the guided tours.

This all became a reality and, every weekend, there is an “ex-homeless person” explaining the Shoreditch, London Bridge, Brick Lane, Camden, Covent Garden and Mayfair areas. These are people that – thanks to the Sock Mob organisation – have a reason to get up in the morning, and who no longer look upon the streets in search for a place to sleep, but rather as a place to explain their history.

(Translated by Caroline Gutierrez, e-mail: carolinegutierrez@btinternet.com)

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