London is a city brimming with talent, and that talent can often be found in some of the unlikeliest places, and in the most unlikeliest of people. It can even be found in people who many pass by everyday, ignoring, without stopping to think what their story is.
Fifty-four-year-old homeless man Lee is one of those people. Originally from East Ham in the East London borough of Newham, he has spent much of the last four years of his life shifting from place to place in his one-man tent.
Unbeknownst to many, however, Lee is actually quite the lyrical genius, and has been writing poems since he was a teenager. He hasn’t much in terms of education, but when it comes to Cockney rhyme, he is quite the wordsmith.
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If he was to show his poetry to a schoolteacher, they’d probably tell Lee he needs spelling and grammar lessons, and that his handwriting and vocabulary needed work too. But there is a certain beauty in the simplicity of his written poems, which he carries around with him in his backpack.
One poem he showed me was called ‘The Very 1st Time’, which was attached to a clipboard and had red love hearts scribbled into the corners of the page. Reciting the poem in his Cockney accent, Lee read: “The very 1st time that I ever laid my eyes on you, I instantly knew it was you, the woman of my dreams, the most beautifulest girl that I have ever ever seen, my very own beauty queen.”
He continued: “I never ever believed in love at first sight, until that starry night that I first saw you. Then I just knew it was you, love at first sight must be true because Cupid brought me to you. ”
But Lee’s knack for poetry comes from a place of heartbreak and depression, which he has struggled with since he was young. He explains: “I started writing when I was about 14 or 15. I had bipolar disorder, and writing poems helped me deal with it”.
Writing poetry seemingly helped Lee keep himself together for a very long time. He lived an ordinary life in East Ham, where he worked as a painter and decorator. An avid West Ham United supporter, he would regularly go to football matches at the club’s old stadium at the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park, before it was demolished in 2016 to make way for flats.
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He even got married to a woman who he shared his life with for eight years, and had a son called Bradley. But soon enough his depression started to get the better of him, and he started turning to drugs.
Lee says: “I got addicted to crack cocaine and heroin later on in life. I’d never taken drugs before, but depression drove me to extremes. It started affecting my everyday life.
“I stopped turning up to work because I just couldn’t get myself up in the mornings. I had no motivation outside of drugs. Eventually my partner left me and I never saw her again. I don’t know where she is now.
“My boy Bradley is all grown up now. He wants nothing to do with me and I don’t blame him. I’d like to see him again but not any time soon. I don’t want him to see me like this. I want to first get back on my feet and then reach out to him “.
Nowadays Lee says he can be found mostly in the Aldgate area of East London, where he has pitched his tent in a church yard. He says he helps the church with some gardening, and in return they let him stay on the grounds and offer him food.
As he has no money, he cannot always afford to buy himself pens and paper to keep writing down his poetry, but he says he has befriended a manager at a estate agency who donates these items to him from a local branch.
Lee says: “Thank God for the estate agent. He has really helped me a lot. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be able to record my thoughts. I’ve been through rehab and I’ve been off drugs for six months now, so I need poetry to help me get through my hard times now more than ever.
“Sometimes I just sit in my tent and write poems. That’s all I can do. I hope that one day I can find my son and my partner and show them everything I’ve written about them in the last four years ”.