Be Not Inhospitable To Strangers

These words are painted on a wall in a bookshop in Paris called Shakespeare and Company.


They’re  actually a paraphrasing of Hebrews 13:2, and when I first came across them I was struck by the power of their message, not for religious reasons, (obviously) as I don’t believe in Angels, but because the words mirror an attitude I have long held, and an approach that has shaped  my life:

Be nice to people, because you never know when you might need someone to be nice to you.

I met a man called Dale in Manchester this week who reminded me of these words.

Having briefly partaken in, and tired quickly of, the dirty fumbling scrummage that Manchester becomes at this time of year, I retired to a suitably busy ale house to gather my wits, warm my cockles and prepare myself for the sweaty stale orgy of unnecessary human contact that the TransPennine Express turns into at this time of night.

I’d already spent too long observing the distinct lack of joy and festive cheer displayed by the throngs of people as they elbowed their way through department stores, dragging confused children behind them with only Shakin’ Stevens for company. And I’d already fought and lost the temptation to randomly pick at the smorgasbord of reasonably priced stocking fillers strategically placed along the zigzag barriers guiding me towards distant cash desks.

The busy streets outside the shops are strangely silent despite the thousands of consumers hobbling and bumping themselves along; their shoulders hunched and weary through heavy shopping bags and growing debts. Hats are pulled down low, and coats pulled up high to create a narrow slit of niqab like protection against the bitter wind and the tinsel clad charity muggers.

And despite Elton’s protestations I was feeling quite disillusioned with it all and was looking for some grass to wipe Christmas off my shoes when an untidy and unkempt man approached me outside the pub, as they tend to do in Manchester, and brought a smile to my face.

My hand is already selecting a suitably sized coin from within my pocket, (which isn’t actually that easy due to my inability to understand how contactless payments work and remember that you don’t need to use a note for every transaction, subsequently I’m generally laden down and limping by a pocket full of shrapnel like a fruit machine addict.) when he asks me a question I’ve never been asked before.

“Do you want to hear a poem?”

My hand stops sorting out my coins, but I keep it in there as it’s nice and warm in there.

“Aye, I do. Why not!”  I reply. (I’ve been back in the north for more than half an hour and regressed to my native tongue.)

“Funny, romantic or meaningful?” he asks.

In amongst this ugly performance of festive foreplay on the streets of Manchester, there is another world hidden in plain sight of those fulfilling their annual obligations of expenditure excess. This world is secret though and is always just in our blind spots, just on the periphery of our vision. We force ourselves to ignore this world, for if our eyes should linger on this world of rags, and blankets of dirty duvets, and tatty paper cups for more than just a second we would shiver with feelings of fear and disgust. We have to ignore this world, push the world to the back of our minds, as we hurry on, how could we enjoy Christmas knowing what is going on in plain sight.

I’ll give him a quid, I always do, I don’t even think twice about it any more. “But what about the fake beggars?”, people often ask. “You shouldn’t give to beggars because some of them are fake”. To be honest I don’t care, if you’ve reached a point in your life when pretending to be homeless on the streets of Manchester is your best option in life, then something is wrong with the world, wrong in your world and I’ll give you a quid.

“Ooh, give me something meaningful.” I say to him.

Come on,

We all bleed the same,

Whether living the streets or a life of fame,

Accent, language, colour or creed,

There’s nothing different the way we bleed,

To hate it’s upsetting

To be hated just cruel,

Always the outsider treated like the village fool,

We’ve only each other, it’s too easy to get along,

Really upsetting how society gets it so wrong

Dale Ross 2016

I empty my pocket of change, (I’d only waste it on Christmas anyway), shake his hand and we part company, both having benefitted from our brief time together. With my weighty coinage burden lifted I go back into the warmth of the pub faced with the challenge of having to buy a pint with a debit card. Dale continues off with enough money for a bed for the night, or for whatever else he might want to spend it on, looking for some other audience to share his work with.

If you are thinking of spending some money on something that has a shelf life of about  as long as it takes to say “Aw that’s nice, thanks very much” before being thrust into a cupboard for an extended period of time and then eventually  finding its way to a charity shop to be sold for a tenth of the original purchase price, then why not allow that money to cross the divide between the two worlds through a more direct and efficient route.

Or if you haven’t got that kind of money to spare at this time of year, then just allow your eyes to linger, to take in the scenes on every high street in the country, and take a moment to consider how you could be perhaps hospitable to a stranger.

You never know when you might need some one to be nice to you..

And if you see Dale, say hi from me, and ask him for a poem,  tell him you saw him on here!

Merry Christmas!




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