I met Peter in a Kebab shop in Liverpool. It was winter, it’d been snowing and the glow from the takeaway was lighting up the pavement outside. Someone was in a payphone, someone else was standing in doorway from the wind and a few blokes stood outside the bookies smoking. The kebab shop man wanted to throw Peter out, he looked homeless, and the kebab man was worn down by the city, he wasn’t interested. I bought some chips. Peter’s only possessions were a small classical guitar in a bin bag and a sleeping bag. He wore an eye patch, a cotton bomber jacket and a black woollen hat. He wanted to tell me about himself and his cave home.
‘I have survived on the streets for nine years. But many people I know have died. Why is that? I think it is because of the way I have chosen to live. I have an awareness of nature and I would like to share this knowledge with others. In a way I’d like to run a project with people to show them how to survive outdoors. You see, we all need a place to sleep don’t we? Whether it’s in that hotel over there or in a doorway. The thing is it’s how we do it that matters and I think I have a way that has value, it could be taught. I’ve always sought out green spaces in cities if I have to sleep rough. I use nature and it protects me. It’s safe because often nobody knows I’m there and if they do, like gardeners then they just leave me alone.
I’ve been living in this cave now on and off for a few years. A few people know about it and we’ve taken turns in staying there, including a friend of mine ‘Big Bird’ who died of an overdose. We keep the knowledge of this place secret and at one point there were three of us sleeping in there. We call it ‘the cave’ but it isn’t a cave, it’s a disused catacomb built high into walls of the cemetery at the foot of the city’s Anglican cathedral. High up, maybe 20 or 30 feet up, it can only be reached by climbing a ledge and most of the time we go there at night. The thing is this has it’s own risks because local kids go down into the graveyard at night and drink. I’ve been beaten up a few times but now it’s ok. They used to ask me to buy them alcohol.
I survive there by hiding the place with leaves and branches. Nobody knows I’m there. Sometimes a tourist who has wondered down here will spot me and take a photograph or sometime the dog walkers first thing in the morning. Waking up here, the sun comes in over the city and lights up the cave. At night I can hear the horns from the ships on the river at night.
My brother is on the island of Lewis in Scotland and it’s there that I learn’t how to be outdoors. I’d like to live up there. Just me and a little dog for company, thats my dream. When I close my eyes here I can think of Lewis. This would be the place that I could run my course, my project to teach people how to survive outdoors. How to use nature.
I went to visit Peter in his cave and sometimes wandered past the streets above the cemetery at night wondering if he was asleep down there like some winter hare. Once on my way to the supermarket I could see a column of smoke climbing up through the tree canopy from the cemetery. I knew that this must have been him cooking up food, or as was the practice at the cave, burning the belongings of squatters who’d often camp in his spot when he left for the day.
Some years later I would visit Lewis myself and now when I look at the photograph of the Minch, the stretch of water between the Lewis and the mainland, I think of Peter.