Stories from the frontline

The best of our Fellows' blog posts

“When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling. In most cases the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. “Ordinary” is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.”

Studs Terkel

By Michael Simpson

Writing about the lives of others is undoubtedly a powerful vehicle for social change. It challenges assumptions and sways stereotypes. It’s an empathic endeavour, giving us the eyes of others to tell stories that usually go untold. It defies our misappropriation of people’s lives or backgrounds as ‘ordinary’ or unexceptional, moving to trump ignorance or refresh the mind with the glow of a new perspective. It’s the kind of account that oral historian Studs Terkel learnt to perfect.

Insight is central to our curriculum. Diving deep into the lives of those at the margins of society is a key part of understanding issues like poverty, educational disadvantage, or elderly isolation. Sketching out the architecture of a social problem, or the gravity of the day-to-day challenges that someone faces, is often the first step towards implementing a solution.

It’s this human understanding that can give our fellows the legitimacy to help improve the lives of others. Placed in schools like the Globe Academy, older people’s services like Age Concern Kingston and homelessness services like North London YMCA, our fellows have told the stories of the people that they work with on a daily basis.

We’ve included some highlights below.

After a day working in the heat, I head to the park for a game of rounders with a handful of the young people .

The estate looks odd in the sun, the brick monolith suits rain and drab winters better. We’re incongruous too, sweating in our blue overalls while young men in t-shirts wait for the bus across the road.

We look like a perverted vision of the British summer idyll: batsman swaggering majestically to the crease, eager to dispatch a delivery with a swish of willow. In our warped parallel the bat is the sawn-off bastard cousin of its cricketing equivalent, and the proud batsman wears paint flecked overalls, not gleaming whites.

“This bat’s seen a lot of blood, still”, my companion says, admiring the stubby piece of wood. I doubt Rounders is the most popular game on South London estates, but there’s a good market for bats round here apparently.

“It’s my brother’s old bat, innit, he used to take it down Peckham” he continues, explaining why he is something of a persona non grata there now… ‘Can’t go down Peckham if you’re from round ‘ere, trust, man won’t come back alive.”


When I started volunteering at Rape Crisis, I’d spent three years studying feminist theory, protesting about safer streets, and analysing articles detailing a culture of violence towards women. Although I’d read about the depravity of rape, in hearing actual women’s voices I felt in the pit of my gut, more deeply aware of that suffering. Today was another shift again. But along with this added depth of pessimism, I surprisingly felt less cynical. I felt another edge to the shift in my consciousness, a parallel towards the optimism of possibility. Along with genuine, caring support staff, and stories of recovery, there’s plenty of hope to be had. The women of Palmer House have already demonstrated their resilience, their capability for joy, and their desire to share an amazing story. I want to stick around to hear them.


All the buildings were extremely run down with paint peeling off the walls. The whole complex was surrounded by brick walls and iron gates with serrated tops, making it feel more like a gulag then a place to live. It all felt uncomfortably alien to me. This was not the image of 21st century London in my mind. And yet that’s exactly what it was, the underbelly of modern London. Only found by those looking for it. I felt taken aback and slightly ashamed that I had lived in a city for 23 years and been unaware that such poverty existed only a few neighborhoods away.

The inside of the hostel itself mirrored its exterior environment. The poorly lit corridors leading to the cramped bedrooms created a gloomy atmosphere. You read a lot about Britain’s rising inequality and deepening poverty, but words leave much to the imagination. Seeing it firsthand replaced my imagination with a grim reality.

By the end of my first day, I had encountered all of the those buzz words that we all read about in the papers. Unemployment, homelessness, asylum seekers, benefits and child abuse to name a few. Except instead of being represented by a percentage stat, these terms were accompanied by a young person’s face and a story.

A statistic takes on a very different meaning when you have met its human form. Whether that is a young person escaping physical abuse at home or fleeing persecution abroad. I began to understand the human aspect behind these terms. After just one day of being physically confronted with these issues, I had already gained a huge amount of perspective on my own fortunate position within society.


Going through a database of current members today the ‘Living Arrangements’ column caught my eye:
Living alone.
Living alone.
Living alone.

While I was aware that a large number of the members had joined because they had no family around them, seeing it there in front of me again and again – the painful details of people’s lives recorded in such strangely impersonal way somehow make it more real.

I can’t help thinking about how many people there must be hidden away who are unaware of this kind of service or don’t have access to it.


Read the other Fellows’ blogs:
Anna Braybrooke
Katie Slee
Ruba Huleihel
Sarah Johnson
Xenia Moseley

Follow Michael on twitter.