Nathan Johnson
Edinburgh, Scotland; September 1997

The young man sat silently, head down on the brick pavement outside of a McDonald’s restaurant on Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. Pedestrians rushed past, this way and that, in a hurry to get to the office. They took no notice of him, stepped around him. All except for a young woman, dressed in a business suit, who crouched to meet his eyes and ask if he’d like a coffee. The man said that he would, with milk and two sugars please.

The scene left a lasting impression on me: that so many people had walked past ignoring the man; that just one person had decided to stop, to take time out of her busy morning to buy him a coffee; and that, rather than just being grateful for having a coffee bought for him, he had retained the dignity to clearly state his coffee preference.

I observed this before walking into the adjacent HMV music store, putting on headphones at one of the listening posts, selecting the song of the moment and turning it up at high volume.

I get knocked down, but I get up again,
Are they ever going to keep me down?
I get knocked down, but I get up again,
Are they ever going to keep me down?

I was 18, a young man in search of inspiration, and Chumbawamba was in my face. Far from being a pop band that sang only about pissing the night away, they were, above all else, anarchists with a deep suspicion of government, politicians, the Church, landlords, bosses, union leaders and other forms and figures of authority. While I didn’t share all of their extreme views, their music and lyrics awakened something inside of me. They made me aware that my natural empathy and allegiances lay with the poor, the workers, the minorities, the outcasts, the scapegoats, and the otherwise downtrodden and disenfranchised.

I listened to their tubthumping while pissing the night away with my English and Czech companions, and during my travels around England that summer.

He drinks the whiskey drink
He drinks the vodka drink
He drinks the lager drink
He drinks the cider drink.

Their tubthumping accompanied me around the West Country, where there is plenty of cider to be had. I heard their tubthumping on my way to Cardiff, to Bath, and to London. Their tubthumping kept me occupied northwards to York, where the bitters and ales of northern England are favoured. And finally, I was tubthumped all the way to Edinburgh, where I ambled about the Castle and lodged at a youth hostel with a flooded bathroom.

After some weeks and months, my attention turned from their radio anthem to The Big Issue – a track about the homeless, and named after the magazine that Britain’s homeless sold on the streets to make a few quid (long before the publication appeared in Australia).

There are those, spend the night
Under bridges
Over by the river, down in the park
Through the winter.

It made me recall the exchange between that young man and woman on Princes Street.

This is the girl who
Lost the house which
Paid to the man who
Put up the rent and
Threw out the girl to
Feather his own sweet home.

Yesterday I saw a middle-aged homeless man sitting quietly on the pavement near my work. He was stroking his pet dog’s head – a gentle action that made me feel he was approachable. I asked him if he would like a coffee. He said he’d like a cappuccino with three sugars. I bought him the coffee and he thanked me, though he needn’t have. I’d learned from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London not to expect gratitude at such mom