Sunday 30 December 2018

Four Feet Under: Thirty untold stories of homelessness in London by Tamsen Courteney @TamsenC_Writer @unbounders #FourFeetUnder

Tamsen Courtenay spent two months speaking to people who live on London’s streets, the homeless and the destitute – people who feel they are invisible. With a camera and a cheap audio recorder, she listened as they chronicled their extraordinary lives, now being lived four feet below most Londoners, and she set about documenting their stories, which are transcribed in this book along with intimate photographic portraits.

A builder, a soldier, a transgender woman, a child and an elderly couple are among those who describe the events that brought them to the lives they lead now. They speak of childhoods, careers and relationships; their strengths and weaknesses, dreams and regrets; all with humour and a startling honesty.

Tamsen’s observations and remarkable experiences are threaded throughout. The astonishing people she met changed her for ever, as they became her heroes, people she grew to respect. You don’t have to go far to find these homegrown exiles: they’re at the bottom of your road. Have you ever wondered how they got there?

Four Feet Under: Thirty Untold Stories of Homelessness in London by Tamsen Courteney was published in hardback by Unbound on 23 August 2018.
I discovered this book via Social Media, I saw the author talking about it and was intrigued and purchased a copy straight away.

This is a book that is very difficult to read; not because it is badly written, or because the subject matter is uninteresting, no far from it. It is full of human stories; stories that are so emotional, so raw and so downright unfair in this day and age. It's a book that took me a long time to read. I would read one chapter and then have to put it down, to go away, to think about what I'd read.

The book evoked those feelings in me every time I picked it up, but I also felt a sense of guilt and shame for feeling like that. Here are people who are living on the street, with no home, no warm and comfortable beds, sometimes no food for days. They are often the subject of violence and abuse ... from people like me .... people who are fortunate enough to be able to go home at the end of the night and climb into a clean, warm bed, in the knowledge that they will wake in the morning and be able to make themselves a cup of tea and a slice of toast.

Tamsen Courtney's stories do make me feel guilty. Even though I donate regularly to homeless charities, I give money to people sitting in doorways and often buy them food and a hot drink. I do my best to acknowledge them, to smile and show an interest, yet I still feel guilty .... I think that we should all feel a little shame that human beings are forced to sleep outside, in the coldest of winter nights and that they are not safe there.

I so admire this author. She got off her arse and she did something. She hasn't changed the lives of the people that she spoke to; they are still homeless, still hungry, still dirty. However, she gave them her time. She often put herself in danger whilst speaking with them. She treated them as equals, she gave them the opportunity to speak honestly about their situation. She never doubted them, or patronised them. She gave them their voice.

The common theme in all of these interviews is that becoming homeless could happen to any of us. You will hear from people who had responsible jobs, who were married, who owned houses; who were just like most of us.  However, it doesn't take much for things to change and reading these narratives really does bring it home to the reader, just how simple it can be to go from being a home owner to being the owner of nothing except the clothes on your back and a sheet of cardboard.

There are desperately sad stories here, and sadly, the saddest stories were usually those told by women. Not only do they have to put up with the cold and the hunger and the dirt, but for most of them, they have to deal with predatory males; with sexual abuse, even rape. It's heartbreaking and disgusting.

This is one of the most powerful books that I've read for many years. The people featured really affected me. I felt humbled by their stories, and sad, and angry. I admire the author so much, she's put together a collection of human stories so very well. It's a testament to her writing and journalist skills.

Tamsen's first book Four Feet Under is a collection of first hand accounts from homeless people in London:who they are and how they survive. As a photographer her work is accompanied by intimate and moving images. 

Her website is

Find her on Twitter @TamsenC_Writer

She loves music that makes her cry and people that make her laugh. She worries about the fate of the world, is astonishingly accident-prone and totally useless in the kitchen. She is a magnet for sick animals.

She lives most of the time, with her husband, in rural Italy where her region was struck by a long series of earthquakes - read about all that, here:

Before beginning her new career as a 'Modern-Day Chronicler' Tamsen worked as an investigative journalist for prestigious television current affairs programs in Britain: BBC 'Panorama' and C4 'Dispatches'. It was here she became drawn to exploring the darker sides of life and those that are often hidden from view.

She is planning to start on her second book in spring 2019.

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