Sally Trench discusses her book “Bury Me in My Boots” ; part 1
BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:29:38
Humanitarian and author Sally Trench discusses her book “Bury Me in My Boots,” her work with the homeless communities in England, her journeys, and her belief in self-help with Studs Terkel. Terkel reads an excerpt from Trench’s book “Bury Me in My Boots.”
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Studs Terkel The Queen invited her to Buckingham Palace. We're talking to Sally Trench. Sally Trench is, how would I describe her? Well, some would call her a remarkable kind of social worker. To me, she's a girl on the road. Sally Trench is a British girl, now walking through America, literally, hitchhiking rides, has a book called "Sally Trench's Book" that Stein and Day have published in America, though it's caused as I understand it quite a stir in London, and it's interesting, perhaps, just to read the flyleaf, as it's rather fascinating. "George Orwell went down and out in London. Sally Trench went further. At 18, Sally decided to become an unusual kind of social worker, and like Orwell, she's no do-gooder. She spent four years among beats, vagrants, alcoholics, drug addicts, and she's shared their lot," and Sally's had difficulties, too, with them, but there she is with them and now she sleeps wherever she is, and lives as best she can, just, I guess, trying to find out what the human race is all about. Or what is it you're trying to find out, Sally?
Sally Trench I'm just trying to find out here the problems of America in comparison to the bombing problems in England, amongst the alcoholics and down-and-outs there. I spent a week on the Bowery in New York and was very interested in seeing the problems there, and decided after that to sort of just generally bum around America and see who I came across and what sort of person I met.
Studs Terkel Well, I suppose before we ask you about your observations of America, you, in London. We begin with--there's a foreword by a Jesuit father here, Father Thwaite, who speaks of his meeting you and his being overwhelmed by what you're doing, and the question is: How come? You come from an upper-middle-class family, don't you? We start at the beginning. Who was Sally Trench as a small girl?
Sally Trench A very difficult, naive kid who had problems at home and was sent off to boarding school at the age of five and was eventually expelled at 15, and the nuns--I was a Roman Catholic and the nuns just couldn't stand me any longer. At fifteen they rang up my father and said, "You know, I don't mind Sally influencing the girls, but now she's influencing my nuns. Out!" And out I went. And, I suppose because I felt so much a failure and a reject, I had a common bond amongst other failures and other rejects, and one day when I was about 16, I was walking across one of the big London railroad terminuses, at about 11:30 at night, and I counted 87 dirty, drunk, flea-ridden old men lying on the benches, under the benches, the evening paper their mattress and the morning paper their cover, and I thought, "God, how disgusting," and I walked on. And I suddenly pulled myself off and thought, "What a dreadful Christian I am, walking on the other side of the road," and I turned back and I went and sat between two of the dirtiest men in my pearls and evening dress, and--
Sally Trench And I must admit, as soon as I sat there my Good Samaritan feelings left me, because the smell of gasoline and urine and nausea, it was quite disgusting. But I couldn't leave, because the two alcoholics on my left and right were leaning on me as a sort of bolster, and I knew that if I got up, they would just fall on top of each other. And I was wondering what the hell I should do when a West Indian came across to me and looked me up and down and gave me the eye and said, "What's a nice filly like me doing here?" And I thought, "Oh, dear, oh, dear. How am I going to get out of this one?"
Sally Trench Yes, I was all alone. And he suddenly said quite nicely, he said, "Go home. You shouldn't be here, not a nice, pretty kid like you. Go home and thank the Lord you've got a home to go to." And I said, "Well, what happens to these 87 dirty, drunk, flea-ridden old men?" And he said, "You're trespassing on their bedroom now," and I think it came to me that very minute that here are people, utterly homeless, utterly unwanted, uncared for, and nowhere to go and no one to look after them. And I went home and I think for the first time in my life I got on my knees and I thanked God for parents and for a home, and I made a vow, and it was moonlight and rather romantic, that I would do something about these people because God had made me aware of them. Of course, next morning, when it was light, I felt a bit stupid. I was penniless at 16, and I thought, "What the hell can I do for them?" But then I decided to get a job and I worked in a shop, behind the counter.
Sally Trench No, I was still living at home. And I went out and earned a weekly wage packet and I spent it on food, coffee, cigarettes, clothing, and when I didn't get enough money, I pinched a few of Father's suits and things, and I started a night vigil every night at two o'clock in the morning I used to climb down the drainpipe, I didn't dare go down the stairs because they creaked and Father would have heard and I know he wouldn't appreciated his 16-year-old daughter going out with dirty, drunk old men. And I climbed down the drainpipe, got on my bicycle and bicycled six miles across London and arrived about two-thirty in the morning and I gave out the goodies, the food, the coffee, the cigarettes, and the blankets. And at three o'clock I returned home and went to bed again. No one--I did this for a year--no one knew anything about it except the bums who were sleeping on the station slowly dying.
Studs Terkel Of course, the question asked, I suppose, as you describe this, Sally, is obviously quite moving. How come you were a reject? What about your parents when they--well, how long would this keep up? You were living at home and you were doing these strange nocturnal errands.
Sally Trench I did this for a year and then at the end of the year my father suggested I came abroad with them for a holiday, and I had to refuse because I hadn't enough money, and he said, "Well, look, you've been earning for a year, you haven't spent any on clothes, we haven't demanded any money from you for living at home, where has all your money gone?" And I refused to tell him, and we had the most almighty row, and he said, "Oh, for God's sake. You've been difficult ever since you were seven years old," and he said, "Well, obviously you are not getting any better. For God's sake, get out of my house and stay out." And he didn't really mean it, I don't think, he sort of just lost his temper, and I lost my temper, said, "Right! If that's the case, I'm leaving," and I left, and both of us had too much pride for (a) for me to return and (b) for him to get back on his word. And that was when I suddenly realized I had no friends, because I hadn't been going out like most young girls in the evenings, you know, and this sort of thing, and all my money had been spent not on clothes but on food and cigarettes for these people, and I suddenly realized I was homeless myself, and I thought, "Well, this is a fantastic opportunity to share these people's lives and to identify myself with them and get to know them and why they are like this." So I became a bum, too. I slept out on the stations, I slept out in derelict buildings, on bomb sites, amongst the rats and the debris, and I learnt what it was to be totally unwanted and to have no home. I learned what it was to go four or five nights without sleep, because it was just too cold to put your head down, and you knew that if you did put your head down you'd just never wake up in the morning. I learned what it was to go six or seven days without food, and grovel in the gutter for the thrown-out bruised potatoes, the cabbage leaves from the market, because we hadn't any money to buy it, and I suddenly realized that these people had rejected society, and that even if society wanted to help them now, they didn't want help. They had to--they'd lost their self-respect, but they had too much pride to accept charity, and so they sat on bombsites amongst the rats and the fleas and the debris drinking petrol, which is gasoline here, wood alcohol, eau de cologne, burnt-on boot polish. And this was their escapism from the world they were having to live in, and they were all basically alcoholics. They all started off--I think most of their problems were, in the war they had learnt how to fight, and when they came out of the war
Sally Trench Oh, well, they were all veterans, yeah. And when in 1945 they came out of the war, they had nowhere to go, and they didn't know what to do and they became alcoholics, and soon they, you know, their whiskeys and their gins and their cognacs were just too expensive for their money, and they looked for something cheap and that's when they started drinking gasoline and losing everything they ever stood for.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Sally Trench, English girl, upper-middle-class family, in fact the father, soon perhaps to be knighted, doing this, and I've just got a copy of your book. I feel guilty not having read it, I just received it. It's interesting as you talk about this, some people probably listening are saying this question, that you raise in the first paragraph of the book I just happened to see. "He was surrounded by a high wall and barbed wire. There was one entrance and one exit. The grounds are well-kept and many matchbox buildings were of clinical appearance. It looked like a prison, and in its corridors behind those formidable walls I could feel the sense of foreboding hangs around our penal institutions. When I was told where I was, I felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach. I was in a mental hospital," and is this probably why you were--well, how did this happen?
Sally Trench Well, having spent two years on the road amongst these people, learning to deal with people falling in the fire and their legs being burnt off and people dying around there, I suppose you would say I got so emotionally involved that I couldn't sleep with such a guilty conscience or anything like this. And I was now mixing with young people as well, and they were giving themselves abortions and I was becoming a sort of rock-like figure amongst all these people, and I just took on too many burdens, I took on every down-and-out kid, whoever it was, and it got too much for me and I collapsed eventually and found myself in a mental hospital. But I suppose it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a wealth of experience. This is the reason my whole book starts in that mental hospital, because I think it was the wealthiest experience I've ever had, because it taught me so much about myself as well as other people, and horrified me because when I came out, the stigma on myself of being in a mental hospital, I suddenly realized what it is to be an ex-convict and come out of prison and have that stigma of being an ex-con. It was a fantastic experience and I don't regret one bit of it. Not even the mental hospital.
Sally Trench Well, I'm--whereas you're the cynic, I'm the eternal optimist. I don't believe that there are bad people in this world. I believe everyone's got good in them somewhere. And I think if you look for it, you find it. And--
Studs Terkel I'm playing, I'm deliberately playing devil's advocate. I want Sally to just tell more about herself. You, Sally Trench. I notice, too, that you've had some pretty rough times. There you are with all the outcasts. I mean truly outcast, as was said in the flyleaf, you went beyond the down-and-outers of Orwell's experience. And the question will always recur, as you recount your experiences, we're talking, and how you live. And the writing, by the way, of Sally Trench is excellent. It's straight, it's simple, own kind of trenchant quality, although she is gentle. You say you were a reject and you--what--how did you learn to--this is a tough question to ask, I suppose to answer, too. To identify yourself with the others. This is way out of line with a girl of your breeding, of your bearing, of your background.
Sally Trench Yes, I had various disadvantages. One was my accent, which in England is called very much the "Oxford" accent, it's not a Cockney accent, you know, the sort of working-class accent, and people became very suspicious of this, and they decided that in fact I was a policewoman in disguise, and they used to beat me up every other night to try and make me tell the truth. But fortunately, I had nothing else to tell them, so they eventually gave that up, and I think after about a year they accepted me because I lived amongst them. It wasn't a question of coming down at nine o'clock in the morning and spending the day with them and going back to my warm, comfortable home for a hot meal and a nice, warm bed. It was a case that I shared their sufferings with them, and I think I got accepted eventually and it wasn't easy, it was two years of sheer utter hell at one point. I was so lonely and so miserable, but, you know, I had tremendous faith that I could get through to these people, and at the end of two years I think I did, and it was mainly done by example and by being constantly with them, sharing both the good and the bad, and most of it was bad with them, and not preaching to them. I didn't go down there and say, "I am here to help you." I went down there and more or less said, "Here I am, a wastepaper basket for you. If you want to throw things at me, I will take anything you throw." And I did. And every time they threw something at me, they stabbed me or they put a bottle over my head or something like this, they always thought, "Right. That's what I was going to say. I'm not having anything more to do with you." But every time I came out of hospital I used to rush back to the guy who had done it, and I used to throw my arms around him and say, "You know, I've been thinking about you while I've been in hospital, and I've missed you so much," and I just gave him a big hug.
Sally Trench Oh, he was astounded. I mean, no one had ever loved him, and certainly not after knifing a person, you know, you expect a person to turn around and say, you know, "God, I'm having nothing more to do with you," and because I didn't, they suddenly realized I was actually genuine. I did love them, and I was prepared to go through anything to share their life to understand, and in the end they respected me so much for it, and eventually turned to me always for help.
Sally Trench Oh, I think so. I--well, I like to think so, because I'm so egotistical, but I think it did, that I can now say that I've got people off drugs and people off gasoline. I'm not interested in statistics, I'm interested in human beings, so I never chalked the number up, but I've got over a couple of hundred people living perfectly normal lives, and these were the hopeless cases of today. And I think it wasn't because I offered them materialistic things. I never offered them money (a) because I never had any money, and it wasn't because I preached to them. It was absolutely through example of caring and loving and giving up my time. This was the most important thing to them, that I gave my time. It could be 48 hours, it could be 56 hours, it could be five weeks, but I would give my time to these people, and whatever they went through, whatever they did, I would share it with them. And you know, it was never a question of "Right. I'm going to help you on this." It was always a question of "I'm here to support you if you want support," but nothing else. You see, you can never help a person who can't help himself. Therefore, I always expected the people to come to me and say, "Right, Sally, I want help," and then I would turn around and help them, but I would never go and put myself there, impose myself
Studs Terkel But you just said something, that you could never help those who would not help themselves. You're talking about giving or, not giving, but opening a window, perhaps, where that someone who has no sense of personal worth develops a sense of personal worth, that he says finally, the people you mention, the 200 or so people, they're saying, "I'm somebody, rather than nothing." Is that the idea?
Sally Trench Yes, I think so. Yes. They have learnt that through love and compassion that I was able to give and nothing else, I'm not qualified to give anything else. All I have is love and compassion. They learnt to regain their self-respect through this, that someone cared for them, whatever they did, however wicked they were, I mean, if they went and stole 50,000 pounds, if they would land up in prison, my attitude would be, "This is your fault, but makes no difference to me, I love you just the same." And you know, they used to test me like this. I mean, they used to clot me and stab me and all sorts of things to see how far I would go before I'd turn 'round and say, "Right. This is it," but because I continued coming back and saying, "You deserve what you've got, but never mind, let's get you out of this position when you want to get out of it," they suddenly realized here was someone who really did care that they were a human being, however down and out they were.
Studs Terkel Informing.
Sally Trench These were the only people I would ever inform upon. And I informed on some drug peddlers and they didn't like it very much, and when they came out of prison they went for me and they bottled me one night in a dark alleyway, and I received a fractured skull and I was blind for about five months, totally blind, and then, fortunately, I got one eye back so I can get around now.
Studs Terkel The book, we should point out again, Sally Trench, Stein and Day are the publisher of the American edition, and just as I'm talking to Sally now, I'm just doing two things, asking her, listening to her, and also reading it quickly because Sally is in and out of town. She is traveling, walking, thumbing rides, and if necessary, panhandling a meal or two. As you do that, what are people's reactions? What have you found so far when you stop people?
Sally Trench Well, they're slightly amazed (a) that I'm alone, and secondly that I'm an English girl. You know, they seem to think it's very courageous, but I often tell them that ignorance and innocence is a very good substitute for courage. And I think mine is ignorance, an innocence, really, that I should do this, but I've done it so much before. When I was 15 I went off to Africa and bummed around in Africa for
Studs Terkel Where
Sally Trench I have once worked for an institution and that was for a year when I ran eight houses with a probation officer for schizophrenics, homosexuals, drug addicts, and a few other sort of people like that, and this probation officer was tremendous help to me because I was about 17 and he taught me so much. And it was an incredible experience that I was dealing with 250 maladjusted people like this. It was a wealth of experience and taught me how to deal with myself as well.
Studs Terkel Well, I suppose that one of the questions that arises: What you yourself have learned? I mean, this is something you are doing. Again, and I suppose, this phrase is not for someone, the word "do-gooder," though I don't know why people object to that phrase.
Studs Terkel I hope in one sense, the question I want to ask is, "Do you want to be a 'do-badder'?" You see, what I ask, someone says, 'do-gooder.' But you're doing it for your own, I take it for your own, about to say, salvation. Your own
Sally Trench Oh, no, I didn't do it for my own salvation. I suppose I do it because I love people so much, and I just don't believe that there is such a thing as a hopeless case in this world, and it's the hopeless cases that are left out. I mean, this is the reason, I mean, having been blind myself, I feel very drawn towards helping blind people. But so many people are helping blind people, and the real down and out, the real hopeless case who wanders with nowhere to go, has got no one to help him. Therefore, you know, this is the person I'm trying to
Studs Terkel help. What about the young? You know how you also have been, you're young, of course, Sally, you're now 22, right? And you began this 16, 17, and 18 you went into the lower depths. The young.
Sally Trench I'm very interested in the young basically because I'm young myself, and I feel possibly this is an advantage for me to help other young people. And this is the reason when about two and a half years ago I decided to channel my own work in towards helping young people. And I went down amongst the beats and the drug addicts in London. And you know, again, when they wanted to come off drugs, I helped them to do this and helped them settle back into a normal society again. I think my future work will certainly be with young people. I'm hoping to start a project in 1970 where I'll need about $90,000 to buy a derelict house and pay these kids to renovate it, and so helping them to learn to work. And also that living within a permissive society that I would give them a permissive environment, they would eventually be able to go back into proper society and live a perfectly normal life. This project is for ex-reform school kids that I'm starting in 1970 when I get the money.
Sally Trench I have a derelict building in mind in Yorkshire, which is near Scotland in England, certainly. And I've got all the details worked out. It's just a question of finding the money and the backing.
Studs Terkel School, strangely enough your approach is not too removed from his, he's a teacher/educator where that's a school. You said in which they will renovate it. You're speaking again of now self-help, aren't
Sally Trench Yes. Well, I'm a great believer of self-help, having survived it myself and I think young people today are against authoritarian, they are against establishment, if that's the case, you've got to find a substitute. And the only substitute is self-help if they're going to be against authority.
Studs Terkel By the way, in your travels you've traveled through various societies, haven't you? You've been up and down Africa, you're traveling through America now, England of course, and you find there's sort of international feeling among the young.
Sally Trench Oh yes, it's universal feeling that the old are not with it, don't understand. And this tremendous rebellion against their parents. I find in Africa, the Middle East, and here in America, that there's one sort of common denominator amongst all young people and that is to fight authority, whether it's parents, school, university, whatever it is, it's fighting authority and they all run from it. They did seem frightened of it, I didn't know why, and every kid on the road I've met is always running from something and it's always authority of some kind. And that's the reason I feel that if that's the case, if they're not going to accept establishment or authority or conforming to what their parents want, this then has got to be self-help.
Sally Trench No, well, my father was the stern character in the family and had all the say in the matters and everything. My mother, you know, just went, you know, along with him. That's the reason I mention my father. He's the big wicked ogre. He's not even, delightful fellow, but he was the big wicked ogre in my eyes when I was about ten, you know, always thumbing down on me and telling me I can't do this and can't do that, he was very Victorian in his outlook, and I certainly suffered from this very much, especially because I am a fairly wild, free spirit myself. But of course we're the best of friends now.
Sally Trench Well, you know, children and parents always go their own ways, and I think parents have got to come to terms that children will go their own way eventually. And the parents' duty is to bring them up that they can go their own way on the right road.
Sally Trench That wasn't, I call myself a bit of a St. Trinian's people because I was just very naughty at school, you know. I used to buy cart-horses and put them on the revered hockey field and this sort of thing.
Studs Terkel I want to ask about your observations in the time you've been traveling through America. In a short time you've been to New York, Canada, and now Chicago, you'll be heading to the West coast, and the way you travel. I want to stick with the young for a moment. This--what you say--I mean, do they this--how do the young feel about you? You know. When I say the young, that's a general phrase, too, what kind of young have you encountered is the thing? These are kids on the road,
Sally Trench Yes, kids on the road. They call themselves 'beats,' but I think this is a fairly old word, really, there aren't such things as beatniks now, but they were, what they were, they were beats, they're now just basic tramps, I think, just bumming around. Most the young in London I've been in touch with are young homosexuals, prostitutes, and drug addicts, and these are kids between ranging between 15 and about 25. In fact, the youngest drug addict I knew in London was 12. But these people, I took quite a long time to get in with them, because, again, they didn't trust my accent. And secondly, I used to go off and wash a couple of times a day, which is really quite out, you don't wash when you're on the road. And I used to keep myself clean and I didn't break the law. And they didn't understand this. You know, they said, "Well, if you're one of us, why don't you take drugs? Why don't you break into houses and steal money?" and this sort of thing. And again, it was by example that eventually they came 'round to my way of thinking, and I said, "Well, you know, if you break into a house, you don't know whose house you're breaking into, it might be a person who hasn't got a lot of money and perhaps even got less money than you, isn't it?" And you know, I used to sort of try and reason with these people, never preached to them. This is what I was always trying to avoid. I didn't want to preach at all, but I always did things by example and trying to reason with them as ordinary human equal beings. I think parents today have a terrible mistake and certainly my parents had with me that they never treated me as an equal. I was always a child, and I was never going to be allowed to grow up, and I think parents, a lot of parents, have this fault today, that you know, their kids are kids, and therefore don't treat them as equals, and kids get terrible inferiority complexes because of this. And again rebel.