A challenge to homeless stereotypes

The Salt Path

By Raynor Winn

Published by Penguin Books, 2019, £9.99

Reviewed by Heather Rawling

At one level, this is just simply a delightful book, a good read, a love story beautifully written. In addition, though, it is an inspiring true story about a middle-aged couple’s experience of austerity Britain shipwrecked by the treacherous rocks of finance capital. It manages to be a travel book and a page turner. It is Raynor Winn’s first book and was shortlisted for the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize in 2018.

Raynor and her husband Moth have lived their dream. They have farmed and brought up their family in a beautiful part of Wales. Their whole lives are wrapped up in that farm full of memories. It is their home and their livelihood. But they find themselves hiding under the stairs in a hopeless and pathetic attempt to avoid being evicted by bailiffs. They have been deceived by a childhood friend who works in the City, seriously let down by a system where changes to legal aid left them with no right to free representation. As Raynor remarks bitterly, “it may have saved £350 million per year but left vulnerable people with no access to justice”.

The judge rules against them because they had not submitted their evidence on the correct form in the correct way, even though it proved their case. Caught by the new evidence rule, their cast-iron proof is rejected. The author rightly demonstrates how unfair it all is; how under capitalism anybody can lose their livelihood and become homeless. There is no safety net for them and many others. Ray and Moth face this heartbreaking loss with fortitude even when, days after the court hearing, Moth is diagnosed with a rare terminal illness.

These tragic events set the scene for their decision. Rather than become homeless on the streets of some town or take a council-funded room in a bed and breakfast, they crazily and obstinately decide to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path. It is in reckless defiance of the doctor’s prescription of nothing strenuous and plenty of rest for Moth.

The book is scathing about homeless stereotypes and pulls apart government figures that seriously underplay the magnitude of homelessness. It denounces the Vagrancy Act of 1824 which came into force after hundreds of years of legal measures. It describes how the act is used today against anyone deemed ‘suspicious’. Raynor Winn references Alan Murdie, a barrister writing for The Pavement magazine, who has outlined years of discriminatory legislation that describes as suspicious anyone from gypsies, actors, prostitutes, suspected witches, artists and beggars to the homeless.

The original intention behind the act was to deal with the increasing numbers of homeless and penniless urban poor in England and Wales following the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Nine years after the battle of Waterloo, the British army and navy had undergone a big reduction in size, leaving large numbers of discharged military personnel without jobs or accommodation. Many were living rough on the streets or in makeshift camps. At the same time, a massive influx of economic migrants from Ireland and Scotland arrived in England, especially London, in search of work.

Politicians in the unreformed House of Commons, representing only the rich and wealthy, became concerned that parish constables were becoming ineffective in controlling these ‘vagrants’. Today, the act can be used against homeless people – casualties of the recession and austerity – and migrants and asylum seekers – casualties of war, famine and despotic governments.

Winn describes some of the legislation against the homeless and the words used to describe them, such as, beggars, idle, vagabonds and rogues. She explains how the peasants’ revolt resulted in the first act against begging in 1381. The law has always favoured the rich and discriminated against the poor. In the ironic words of the writer and radical, Anatole France (1844-1924): “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread”.

Prejudice against the homeless is a recurring theme of The Salt Path as Raynor and Moth learn to lie about their situation. They experience people recoiling in horror and pulling their children away from the perceived danger when they tell the truth. It is easier to pretend that they sold their farm to follow their dreams.

They quickly learn the tricks of being without money and homeless, finishing off other people’s leftovers in cafés and living on noodles – and virtual eating as they stare at others enjoying a meal. They discover the kindness of some and the cruelty and thoughtlessness of others. They are even denied free water by a shopkeeper after buying the outrageous indulgence (on their extremely limited funds) of an ice cream. The book examines how even a long-term friendship can be compromised when one friend has all s/he needs and the other has nothing and requires a bed for the night, demonstrating how economic relations are integral to capitalism. Their idea of friendship is redefined.

Winn recounts with some alacrity their experience of Christian charity, or the lack of it. They defiantly erect their tiny tent on a Christian estate advertising a stay for just £120 to be ‘renewed and refreshed by God’ – but absolutely no camping or fires or loitering, or dogs off leads, and definitely no tramps. They do, however, discover a cheap, friendly and welcoming campsite for waifs and strays further on their journey. Moth also defies conventional medical practice as he experiences his disease differently to how the doctors advised. The over-reliance on drugs is challenged in a very practical way.

The Salt Path questions a system that ignores the homeless and makes value judgements on the causes of homelessness. Winn rails against the idea that being homeless in the UK is self-induced and that there are too few in that predicament to worry about. She challenges the perception that all homeless people are addicts and wonders what impact thousands of homeless people would have if they all stood together. It is an interesting idea, but how could that become a reality? Only if the organised labour movement made a stand, organising campaigns, demonstrations and industrial action, to force the government to fund the building of enough council houses to accommodate the homeless.

This is just one story of how two people in a lifelong partnership face adversity together with humour and fortitude. It is not the answer to everyone’s homelessness and it doesn’t claim to be. But it is an uplifting story of how one couple turned an impossible situation into a redefining and life-affirming experience.

It is a wonderful travel book, with beautiful descriptions of the walk along the South West Coast Path as they travel through the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea and sky, briefly visiting modern human settlements along the way. Raynor Winn vividly evokes the joys and hazards of wild camping, experiencing the wonder and beauty of nature as well as its harsh and unrelenting antithesis.