Poet Ruth Padel’s Christmas book highlights London’s homelessness crisis

Sarah Young illustrated Tidings by Ruth Padel

Sarah Young illustrated Tidings by Ruth Padel - Credit: Archant

‘Of course the problem is all year. Homelessness is for life, not just for Christmas.’

It’s officially nearly Christmas. The clock has struck November and hats and gloves come out of their annual retirement.

“Christmas stands for the family hearth,” says poet Ruth Padel, who has just published her latest book. “Father Christmas coming down the chimney stands for the hearth, there are more and more people who don’t have hearths.”

Padel’s illustrated narrative poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey, tells the tale of a little girl named Holly, a homeless man named Robin and his fox friend – all tied together by the presence of the Angel of Silence.

The book follows in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas and T.S Eliot, and its illustrations by Sarah Young bring its magic to life. The pictures remind Padel of her great aunt, Gwen Raverat (sister of Charles Darwin, Padel’s great grandfather), who created woodcut illustrations.

“I wanted to counterpoint the child who has her nice, family Christmas with Robin who doesn’t,” she says. “It’s a challenge when you write about Christmas not to sentimentalise it.”

Padel felt that she couldn’t write about Christmas without talking about the other side of it: “the people who don’t have enough to celebrate.

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“Of course the problem is all year. Homelessness is for life, not just for Christmas.”

The book is dedicated to Focus Homeless Outreach and Street Population in Camden, who Padel greatly admires for their work in an area where there are so many people sleeping rough.

While the poem has a serious message and touches on issues of loneliness and longing, it is full of compassion and festive magic.

Charoum, the Angel of Silence, can speak for one night on Christmas Eve: “Tonight I play a part in everyone’s secret search for something better,” he says in the second stanza.

“Silence, a reticence and not speaking is really important in poetry because poetry is the art of saying as little as possible,” says Padel.

Holly, the little girl, represents those of us who take Christmas, its comforts and her secure life for granted. She enjoys the delights of family and presents under the tree, but doesn’t much think about the world outside her living room. Padel’s poetry shows how easy it is to forget:

“Holly’s walking back with mum. In Goldington Crescent Park she spots an animal, not a dog or cat but wild, she can tell, like a wolf but smaller, beside a man slumped over the fake boulder Holly likes to climb. He is just sitting there, like stone, in the dark, in the freezing rain. But now she’s home…”

Tidings by Ruth Padel is available for £9.99, Chatto & Windus.