VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 26: The Book of Taps
Chapter written 2001 & last revised 2013
NOTES It was with some reluctance that I left the cosy protection of the Leicester Church Army hostel.  I shall ever associate it with pickled red cabbage, absurd mountains of which were served up with about half a pound of Cheddar every night.  The other residents complained bitterly about it, but I became curiously addicted to it.   I took away with me a considerable amount of knowledge about survival as a dosser of the more active sort - one who moves from place to place with a fairly set routine of 'tapping' welfare offices, monasteries and convents, soup kitchens, night shelters and individual philanthropists well-known to dossers (these usually inhabited very large houses in remote rural areas).  In fact, I became quite enthusiastic about this way of life as a career.  I began to see it as just another job, like brain surgeon or road sweeper.  The only difference was that you had no base where you could store a load of pointless possessions or wash regularly.  You could probably do reasonably well, I thought, provided you went about it scientifically.  To this end I started The Book of Taps.  In the thick notebook I had been carrying around with me for the purpose of political essay-writing since long before my disappearance from home, I began to list all of the taps I came across or heard about from other dossers along the road, with further notes added to each entry as I tried that one out. In fact I intended to keep moving round and round the whole country until The Book of Taps was the authoritative work of reference for the wayfarer, as I now decided members of my new profession should be called.  I even envisaged my eventual elevation to General Secretary of the National Union of Wayfarers, although, of course, it would be necessary to start this organization first.
In Leicester I had discovered that the sequence for tapping the NAB was National Insurance Office for emergency NI number, Labour Exchange for green card for job, interview for job, back to Labour Exchange with or without job, to declare oneself ’homeless and destitute’ in order to get a Form B1, thence to the NAB with the B1 to apply for assistance.  The assistance, if granted after this long day's work, was most commonly in the form of vouchers for a hostel (which you could use, tear up or sell) plus a small amount of money for bus fares for the first two weeks, assuming you had got the job, which was almost inevitable in those days.
However, I soon learned that this was not always how the NAB behaved towards people bearing B1 forms.  It was left to the individual managers.  At one extreme, there were towns where you were naïvely given an amount of cash equivalent to a full week's Unemployment Benefit, as received by people with a fixed address.  At the other extreme were the towns where you only got ’passing-through’ money.  This was supposed to be your fare to get out of town on the next train.  (In these offices, it made no difference whether or not you had just got a job with the green card).  These towns were called 'passing-towns' by dossers, and were actually considered very handy, since the amount allowed for this supposed one-way train journey could exceed the amount allowed for local bus fares for a whole week in those places where they wanted you to help you settle down with a job rather than kick you out of town. Of course, the money for the next train out was most certainly never going to go to British Railways. Unfortunately, in some of the passing-towns you were kept waiting until closing-time of the office, then given a laughable few pence - enough for a cup of tea perhaps, but certainly not enough to go anywhere on a train The bastards were trying to make a statement.  Dossers with more self-respect than I smashed the place up when this happened, and were arrested.
I would love to hear from someone with more recent experience of trying to obtain benefits while 'homeless & destitute' or, indeed, from anyone working in the field.  Does the procedure differ much from my account?  In fact, can you even get any benefits while homeless & destitute these days?You would also be arrested, for fraud, if you applied for a B1 anywhere in Britain more than once in any one week.  You therefore had to keep changing your name, hence the necessity of obtaining a new Emergency National Insurance Number in each town.  This was also a guard against the occasional random arrest just for applying for B1 forms too many times in one year, even if you had never applied more than once in any one week.  There was no fixed quota for the year.  It depended on the attitude of managers, and the police were always ready to take their word for it that you were a persistent vagrant.  Too many times in one year and you would be charged with failing to maintain yourself rather than with fraud.  The passing-through offices tended to be even stricter.  In some of them it was made clear that the police would be called if you ever came back at all.  It was months before you could tap those offices again, or you might be recognised, even with a different name.  Of course, all this information was diligently recorded in The Book of Taps.
Rather unadventurously, perhaps, for the first leg of my round-Britain wanderings I decided to head back towards London, but I had a reason for this.  I had heard much talk of the ’spikes’ - the remnants of the Victorian workhouse system, now taking men only - and in particular, of the largest one in the UK, always referred to by dossers as ’Headquarters’.  It had become obvious to me that you were not really worthy of the name of ’dosser’ unless you had passed through the hallowed portals of the Camberwell Reception Centre, the only remaining spike for the whole of London.  It would certainly need to feature in The Book of Taps.
There being no particular reason to get there in a hurry, I didn’t bother much with hitching (and my one experience of this mode of transport so far had been a somewhat alarming one - see chapter 24).  I think I got one or two short lifts, but walked most of the hundred miles, probably taking a leisurely couple of weeks, and trying out the taps on the way.  The convents were very variable, from those where a hand came out of a hole in the wall holding a dry crust, to those where you were invited in and given a substantial meal, with the nuns providing full waitress service and being pleasantly chatty.  At monasteries you were often shooed away, but at the other extreme I came across one where they insisted on washing your feet before feeding you.  Apparently this had something to do with Mary Magdalene having washed the feet of Jesus.
There were no night shelters between Leicester and London, so I had to sleep in barns, garden sheds, church porches, or even the inside the churches, which were generally never locked in rural areas.  Eventually I arrived back in London and, by asking other dossers, found my way to Headquarters.
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