What’s in your bag?

I first bought my sleeping bag twenty years ago, I was going on an adventure. I was heading off to Australia for a year backpacking with a little trip to Bali on the way. Not bad for a lad from Southwick.

I laughed at the salesman in the shop as he told me the sleeping bag would withstand temperatures of minus fifteen, I was going to Oz, I wouldn’t be testing its capabilities.

It served me well across the continent, rarely seeing anything other than a bunk bed in a hostel. It’s rare forays into the outside saw me camped in view of Uluru and also came very close to being soiled when I thought I was being attacked by a crocodile whilst camping in a rainforest in the Northern Territories. It turned out to be the shadow of a lizard reflected onto my tent.

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On my return home a mate borrowed it for a biking trip around Germany, other mates have kipped in it when sleeping over at mine after drunken Christmas Parties. I even sat in it whilst writing part of Leg It in the chilly climate of the loft at my parents’ house.

It’s had a good life and I don’t think it could complain if it were never slept in again.

At a recent What Next meeting at Pop Recs, Kris, an old friend of my brother’s asked if I would be interested in helping out at a sleep out at the home of Sunderland AFC for the Centrepoint charity. “Why not?” I thought.

A decent charity doing good work and after giving up my season ticket this year due to self imposed austerity measures, it was a chance to get back inside my spiritual home, the Stadium Of Light.

I had a couple of chats with Kris over the following weeks and the idea was that I would be using my experience as a writer to get people to write something on the night. The prompt I would be using was both simple and brilliant. I’d love to claim it as my idea but it wasn’t, I just had the task of helping people work with it.

I had my doubts about how many people would want to write with live music and a bar there as competition but I would give it my best shot. I also decided that despite the fact that I could leave after my work was done, I would sleep out in solidarity with the others. My sleeping bag was coming out of retirement.

I arrived at the Stadium well prepared. I’d even had the heated seats on in the Jag on the way there to get a little bit heat in me. I was wrapped up warm; I was a veteran of the Stadium Of Light and knew how cold it could get.

I had thick thermal top and bottoms, thick woollen socks, cotton shirt, jeans, limited edition, very warm Barbour jumper, Ugg boots (not the suede ones you normally see but sheepskin lined walking boots), sheepskin lined leather gloves, a merino wool hat and a down coat that was thicker than my sleeping bag. Just your typical homeless person sleeping rough for the night.

On arrival I was given free hot drinks and offered my choice of sleeping spots in the concourse. I was given a paper sleeping bag to compliment the trusty old one from my travels.

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There was a raffle with booze to be won, there was a promise of free hot food later and a sausage sarnie in the morning and the musicians were getting set up to provide the entertainment. As the place was filling up there was a good atmosphere and I could tell it would be a good night.

I had a wander up into the stands to admire the stadium in its darkened glory. I took a few snaps, I started chatting to people, this was going to be easy.

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I imagine that you are beginning to have the same doubts about this ‘sleep out’ that I started having. Was I really entering into the spirit of things? As I noticed people with yoga mats and deck chairs, had we all missed the point? Yes, a lot of money was being raised but were we all being a little self indulgent by playing at being homeless?

This is where the brilliance of the prompt came in.

It was one simple question.

‘What’s in your bag?’

Rather than ask people to write about what they thought it was like being homeless; the prompt put into sharp contrast what a real homeless person would go through and the artificial situation we had created. It also served the purpose of allowing the young people who use Centrepoint to write about their experience without having to go into personal detail about their situation.

Whilst we had all packed for an expedition to Everest, the real world is so much different and people would leave home with little more than what was in their pockets or what they could throw in a bag.

Most people would grab their phone, would you think of grabbing your charger? Would you be able to find anywhere to plug it in if you did?

My initial doubts about whether people would write were blown away as everybody bought into it. The prompt wasn’t there to make people feel ashamed, we all knew we were in an artificial situation, it was just there to make people think.

There were some great tales written about what people had brought with them. One that I read out was about the experience someone had on the bus way to the event. She was carrying a backpack and a sleeping bag, she looked homeless so people shunned her on the bus. A small but valuable insight into what the homeless deal with every day.

One girl wrote a brave tale about how her body decided that night would be the time of the month that she least wanted to spend outdoors in the cold. Would a woman think about packing  sanitary products and painkillers when running away?

Another got up and spoke about how privileged she was. Not bragging, just realising that she was lucky.

The best story of the night was from a Scottish lad who had initially thought he wasn’t allowed to do the exercise as he had previously been homeless and he thought it was cheating. His tale of arriving in the North East with little more than photos of his kids was heartbreaking. Awarding him one of my books as a prize seemed a little hollow.

Kris read out a couple of tales from actual service users that were very powerful and probably brought us down to earth with a bump after a very entertaining rap artist had the place jumping.

Everybody who participated knew how lucky they were and the point hadn’t been missed. I was impressed with the quality of the writing and I hope some of the people I spoke to do more of it.

I’m only a writer and I won’t pretend to understand how awful it is to be homeless but the evening raised my awareness and hopefully that of others.

Everyone from Centrepoint and the Foundation of Light were excellent as were the many other volunteers who manned raffle stalls etc. (I won a bottle of wine which I still feel a little guilty about)

If you would like to help, I would certainly recommend the sleep out next year. You can donate to Centrepoint or any of the other homeless charities and I also noticed this on Facebook. Not connected to Centrepoint as far as I know but very relevant.

Finally, you are probably wondering what it was like sleeping out at the Stadium. I try not to swear in these blogs but it was freezing, absolutely bastard freezing. Despite my layers and my good old sleeping bag I could not get warm. Minus fifteen degrees? My arse. I probably kept half the concourse awake with my snoring  and the next day I was in bed by 6pm.

As I’m sat on my settee, under a blanket writing this blog, I know I am a very lucky man.


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