In a corner of London
One late afternoon, I walked into a hostel reception. The staff behind the desk was a colourfully dressed woman in casual garb. Two men were playing pool in the lounge, their potbellies on unabashed display. It was a hot summer and I was sweating beneath my formal suit. The two men gave me a passing glance and said ‘hi there’ before returning to their game in earnest. My suit and laptop bag stood out like a sore thumb in Hostel Hootananny.
Brixton is a colourful area with a vibrant atmosphere which seeps into your soul. My 3- day stay in the well know Hootananny hostel showed me a side of London which is far from posh but displays the variety of this timeless City.
Having spent enough on myself on a particular year, a part of me felt that I could not spend too much again for four days in London (my study budget had run out) for a 4 day course. So when I found a place that offered three nights with breakfast for £51 in a part of London which was close to public transport and near to the place I needed to attend for four days- I took a plunge and booked.
Early on Monday morning and I was at the doors of Hootananny hostel by 7 am. A very doable walk from Brixton station on Victoria line, easy to get to from King’s Cross. The hostel is above a large pub, with a bright red façade and multiple flags decorating its first floor terrace. The courtyard had signs of a merry crowd that had feasted and drunk late into night.
I rang the bell into stony silence. After five minutes I realized that this was not a place that woke up at 7 am. A strong coffee was in demand and baggage in hand I decided to hit the road again. Reasonably strengthened by a McDonald’s breakfast and coffee, I decided I could attend the conference without collapsing by mid-day.
I returned to Hootananny (or Hoot as the place prefers to call itself endearingly) and entered through the main door to the pub. It was still early in the day and the place was far from crowded. A few men were playing pool and did not pay me much attention though I distinctly stood out in my formal suit and laptop bag in hand. A friendly lady took me through a flight of narrow red carpeted stairs to the ‘reception’- a tiny room with a bar across its opening to give restricted access.
At the reception a young bespectacled man with a warm manner gave me the keys, did the paperwork and then showed me my room. The room had three bunk beds- four of which were occupied. Luggage was piled in corners and bottles of toiletries lined the racks. One of the beds had someone huddled into it. My guide suggested that he give me a tour.
For the next fifteen minutes I was taken through what looked like a bewildering maze of stairs and rooms- shown the kitchen, toilets and showers and the common lounge. Someone was watching TV without his shirt on (becoming a theme here) but had the good grace to apologise. The kitchen had heavy dark wooden furniture, large refrigerators with labelled food bags and lots of notices discouraging people to steal food and encouraging them to wash their dishes.
After the tour, I returned to the room. My roommate had woken up and greeted me with a hello. She was a young girl from Spain working in London and hoping to stay there for at least a year. She seemed quiet and happy to be left to herself. I busied myself in tidying my corner and bed and then decided to go out to buy dinner.
Back at the Hoot with my dinner in a bag, the first door was fine but a bright red door which led into the building got me stumped. I entered the code repeatedly until I had it by heart but the lock refused to budge. Thankfully a young man with a pony tail, lots of piercings and tattoos was leaving at the same time and rescued me from getting locked out.
Back in my room, I met my second roommate- a tall statuesque Caribbean woman. As settled down to arranging my stuff again, she sat on the floor making a phone call. Five minutes later, she was in tears. There was bad news from back home- a close childhood friend had died in a car crash along with her son. My roommate sobbed in evident human distress. It just seemed right to hold and comfort her, just somewhere in a corner of my mind- I wondered how you feel empathy with someone you have met five minutes ago. Perhaps hostels do that…..can’t see that happening in a hotel lounge.
In the kitchen I met a man from South Africa who had come to the UK to find a better life for himself. Work had dried up at home and he had left his wife and daughter back there, to try and earn more money for the family. Some things were better, his company was thinking of offering him a permanent position, so he would no longer be dependent on an agency. But the money was far from generous and he missed his family.
Next day the Hoot was beginning to feel familiar. I met in the kitchen, a fiery Italian lady telling her story of how she ended up here, cooking a tomato soup with garlic on the heavy sooty hob, which she invited everyone to taste. There were other conversations going on which I simply listened to silently- this was the kind of place NHS Trusts emptied their psychiatric wards too, while patients waited for permanent housing. A part of me did wonder, who did they think I was? What would some of them say if they discovered I was a consultant psychiatrist (with a monthly four figure salary).
In the room I asked my Caribbean roommate about how she was doing. She looked tired and red eyed but said that she was coping, touching her heart she expressed the pain she still felt.
In the last evening in the kitchen, my South African acquaintance said that he had been to his doctor asking for pills for joint pain and to lift his mood. He had been asked to ‘eat better’. A bit of the psychiatrist in me kicked in and I suggested that he ask his GP to see the practice counsellor. All was not bleak- he had found a job, he had a roof over his head and he had prospects of a permanent job. He nodded ‘could be worse’.
That evening I had a new roommate who I made acquaintance with in the common bathrooms. An intrepid traveller in her 50’s she did not like putting down roots. She spoke of travel tales quite easily while rubbing moisturizer over her body with very little hidden. The bathrooms were same gender- but I will admit, I am shy.
I felt almost nostalgic on the last morning. The staff who set up breakfast and cleaned the kitchen in the morning smiled in familiar acknowledgement. I packed my bags, stripped my bed linen and got ready to leave. On an impulse I left a note for my Carribean roommate- ‘take care of yourself’.