Monday, January 16, 2012

Blanket Man, I owe you...

photo from

Yesterday Blanket Man died. Ben Hana was a well known Wellington icon; I’m not going to write about his life. You can read about him here and here. I passed him often on the street and we always shared a mutual nod of gidday, kia ora, how’s it goin? He really enraged some people- those that don’t like the streets littered with anything other than designer brands and successful people. But he never bothered me... because he never begged.

When I first became aware of Blanket Man, we had just returned from nearly 2 years living in Bristol. The streets of English cities are lined with beggars; mostly under the ATMs. They sleep there in blue, purple and red Asda sleeping bags, waiting for you to get your early morning cash and ask you for some. They approach you in train stations, London tubes, street corners and, well anywhere you might have change jangling in your pockets. They are all suffering from the particular poverty caused by drug and alcohol abuse. The money you give them won’t go to pay the rent or buy food for the child some of them drag along with them. It will go straight down their throats, up their noses or into their veins. After the first assault on your social senses you soon become immune and cease to notice them. So coming back to Wellington I was shocked to see beggars on the street, where buskers used to play. I thought ‘This is a joke right? they are pretending to beg and any minute now a candid camera style crew will leap out and say ‘Haha!’ as I try and avoid the entreaties of the man or woman in front of me asking for a dollar. Where the heck did they come from? And what happened to their welfare benefit?

The old days of alcoholics sitting down at Cabbage Patch Corner or in Pigeon Park sharing a happy flagon of sherry and slurring amongst themselves has now gone it seems. Now they feel the need to ask for money. Is this a mark of the recession?  Or did they Google their contemporaries in the U.K and take a few tips? Either way I do not support begging in any form where there is (barely) adequate state assistance. Which brings me back to Blanket Man. He never asked for anything but a smile or a nod. My daughter waitressed at Nicolini’s Italian Restaurant for 4 years on Courtenay Place and said he always paid for his meal, ate it on the street and returned the plate when finished. You might ask why he didn’t cook for himself? I ask you, where would he keep his pantry store? Not in his pants. He never wore any!

At the same time as returning from Bristol, I had been accepted into the IIML to do a MA in Scriptwriting. I was incredibly excited to be accepted into a select group of ten masters’ students and set about figuring out what my thesis script would be about. Suddenly any creative inclinations scarpered from my brain like unruly terriers off after rabbits; they didn’t bring any back though and I was left panicking. Each morning I would catch the bus into town, walk up to Uni bereft of ideas, nodding to Blanket Man on the way and wondering who he was and why he was dressed in a loin cloth, saying nothing, smiling at the sun and the passersby. He seemed so at ease with himself and the world around him. No begging bowl, no sign imploring charity; the only hand outstretched was to wave. I thought in another setting he’d look like a Tohunga. I called him The Chief in my mind and played with the idea that he wasn’t really a homeless person at all, but someone from a different realm keeping an eye on us and influencing outcomes where help was needed.
Then one day I wrote these words:
A figure wrapped in a blanket materialises on a park bench. As Becka passes, the blanket twitches. C/U on a rheumy old eye opening and gazing after Becka.
I had it! I had my thesis idea, Wild Cards, a kid’s TV drama  was on its way. I finished it, got a Merit pass, wore a capping gown and morter board and have since played with turning the whole script into a novel. I think it has legs, and when I think of the Chief in my story, I always see Ben Hana his own legs crossed and hold out my hand in thanks. I didn’t give him anything at all, but he gave me heaps.

4 comments: said...

Enjoyed your post Fifi and love the photo of Blanket Man - the Bucket Man inspired a Maurice Gee novel, so your idea may well have legs. I had never thought about the non-begging aspect of Blanket Man, just always wondered how he kept warm and admired him from a distance, if admiration is the right word - perhaps not - watched, and wondered.

Tony Carr said...

I was shocked on my last visit to Wellington about a year ago that there now seemed a regular group of people who "slept rough" around Courtenay Place or Cuba Street.

They weren't the obvious junkies or mentally unwell you see in parts of Sydney and just seemed fairly ordinary people. I don't know whether I was surprised or resigned that they were almost all Maori.

They didn't seem to be beggars or chancers either and perhaps were on the way to becoming characters?

Penny said...

Great post, Fifi ... and nice to hear the legacy he's left you. Ahhh, so he was the inspiration behind Wild Cards, eh?

Mary McCallum said...

Lovely story, Fi.