The Prince Rupert hotel in Shrewsbury is the kind of establishment where you’re offered a glass of sherry as you check in. A timber-framed oasis of fluffy towels and four-poster beds, its guests have included Margaret Thatcher, Monica Lewinsky and the Liverpool football team. Yet at the start of the pandemic, owner Mike Matthews, who had formerly managed Barbados’s Sandy Lane resort, made the decision to welcome a rather different clientele: the city’s rough sleepers.
Some hadn’t slept in a bed in decades. Many were in the grip of crippling drug addictions. Others were vulnerable and suffering from untreated mental illness. Now, as part of homelessness tsar Dame Louise Casey’s “Everyone In” mission, all were being found temporary accommodation as a matter of extreme urgency. While other hotels also stepped up, none had the Prince Rupert’s four-star reputation and 900-year history.
When foreign correspondent Christina Lamb stumbled upon the story, she realised it encapsulated the extreme kindness that was already emerging from the pandemic and also some of society’s most deep-rooted problems. She has spent 34 years reporting from far-off hotspots such as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, but lockdown had made her appreciate that many of the problems she’d witnessed in the developing world were present in affluent Britain, too: child malnutrition, slave labour and, of course, homelessness.
Having met hotel manager Charlie Green by chance, and heard how caring for others was helping her with her own trauma (Charlie had supported her daughter through a near-fatal battle with anorexia and freed herself from a bad marriage, only to lose her eldest son in a motorcycle accident), Lamb asked if she might move into the hotel and become part of the Prince Rupert “bubble”.
This humane, humble book is the result – a work of scrupulous reportage that offers no easy fixes, dispensing with sentimentality as it chronicles brutal backstories, tender dreams and profoundly disheartening patterns of behaviour while somehow finding grounds for real if slender hope. There is also farce and frustration, all of it building to a rallying cry for more investment in services and social housing.
The evolving pandemic provides a journal-like structure to Lamb’s book, and as the news grows grimmer by the day, Mike and his two “right-hand women”, Charlie and hotel accountant Jacki Law, decide to move into the Prince Rupert too. Much has to change, as the hotel’s logbook makes surreally clear. In place of taxi reservations and champagne orders are fights and calls to the emergency services. Staff acquire a new vocabulary: scrips (methadone prescriptions), mamba (synthetic cannabis), rattling (being in withdrawal). And yet even as those they’re sheltering pass out into their Rice Krispies and set fire alarms ringing, the staff continue to treat them as they’d treat other guests. Or as Charlie puts it: “We treat them like guests – except we put our arms around them.”
At first, they know very little about their new clientele, though they include Shrewsbury’s most prolific shoplifter and men who have served so many prison sentences they’ve lost count. Twice, bureaucratic ineptitude means they’re sent sex offenders. In the majority of cases, though, receiving little to no information about their pandemic guests proves beneficial, enabling Mike and his team to get to know them without prejudice.
There’s bearded Simon, “a philosopher of life” who went to school with the first minister of Wales, protested alongside Swampy, and has lived on the road for more than 30 years, a bottle of red wine permanently by his side. Peter the chef, who writes poems and songs, once cooked for Tony Blair and as recently as March 2020 was living in a three-bedroom house with his wife and two kids, earning £34,000 a year. Hannah is excited to hear that the hotel has ghosts, telling them: “I’m really a pagan hedge-witch.” And then there’s Deb, a small Welshwoman who married a farmer at the age of 16 and was kept imprisoned in his bedroom for nearing three decades, during which he broke almost every bone in her body and the children she gave birth to were taken away from her.
Why are they homeless? As one guest succinctly puts it: “I’m homeless because of life.” For the majority who get to call the Prince Rupert home for a while, child abuse, domestic violence and broken relationships are recurring motifs, as are school bullies. But there are also those whose parents are headteachers and probation officers, and whose otherwise functional-seeming families turn out to live just a few miles down the road.
As Lamb writes of the Prince Rupert staff, the experience transformed them: “All would look at the homeless differently now, having learned how so many had been made to feel like throwaway children, beaten, abused and left to think themselves worthless.” This altered perspective is her book’s greatest gift to readers, too, and the fact that she conveys it while still acknowledging that some of these characters’ stories don’t quite stack up, and that last chances are squandered over and over, as poor choices and self-destructive bonds – never mind the drugs – prove irresistible, only strengthens her message.
Besides, if bad habits become nearly impossible to break, so do good habits, such as Charlie’s way of seeing the best in everyone. She comes up with an acronym for what they provide in addition to bed and board: CCR – care, consideration and respect. Is it enough to change lives? Of the 100 homeless people who stay at the hotel over 14 months, barely a handful leave with jobs and private accommodation to go on to, but as a council housing coordinator points out, that’s not the sole measure of success. There are also the small acts of kindness they take with them – the birthday cake for the person who’d never received one, the all-too-novel feeling of being cared for.