Lime Legal

News from the front

Published 06 May 2023

Paul O’Hanlon finds Robert Capa’s war photograhy reflected in hostel life.

I have lived in my Salvation Army hostel for longer than I would have cared to. It is not real life – more like living in a bubble. Whether bydesign or accident, the hostel lifestyle can be one of the most protected, benign and cosseted you are ever likely to experience.

You simply do not have to think for yourself. You live in a dwelling that is cleaned for you every day. Breakfast (though not continental) is provided at a suitable and convivial hour – a light repast at 11am. There are two modest lounges dedicated to the daytime smorgasbord of terrestrial TV channels.

Battle fatigue: German soldiers captured by the Americans during the Normandy invasion of 1944.

A range of activities to engage you throughout the day is on hand, from learning how to plaster – rather than getting plastered – to facial and spa treatments and ‘relapse prevention’ through the medium of interpretive dance. I may have made this bit up.

Every room has personal cleansing equipment, ie a sink, refreshment facilities, ie a kettle, and a personal lifestyle module, ie a wardrobe. But most residents pay little attention to such niceties.

Paul O’Hanlon is a hostel dweller and former civil servant

Grown men have an almost infinite capacity to produce pestilential odours with seemingly little effort. Men seem to labour under the belief that a daily dousing of cheap body spray constitutes a healthy and adequate hygiene regime. Furthermore, that such spray has magic properties to mask the pungent smell of skunk and cigarette smoke in your non-smoking room – it doesn’t.

The beds are functional not luxurious, and clean linen is provided every week. Early evening brings the two-course main meal of the day served with a range of beverages and stimulating bons mots from the staff and fellow diners.

Evenings are enlivened by your neighbour’s banging techno music and occasional guttural shouts. At all times, pastoral and emotional support is provided by a large number of staff, trained to deal with spiritual and practical complaints. A small selection of snacks is available for those who require sustenance through the night.

‘The dirty yearning faces of people allowed to sleep in the hostel’s lounge could have come from one of Capa’s World War II photos’

I never came across such benevolence and protection before. If you are open to it, the help provided is mostly non-judgemental. We get more input on a personal level than most of you out there reading this. It has to be argued that most residents need more input than most of you reading this, but I would imagine that anyone would benefit from their own free life coach.

Although to most outsiders, it may seem a frightening and barren place, inside it has the charm and style of a surreal hotel. Compared to the alternative, it is luxurious, comfortable and protected, especially when referenced against the lives most residents led before coming here.

The shared experience is as tangible here as it is hidden in normal life. As a rule you do not generally walk out of your front door, grab any unsuspecting passer-by and pour out your life story in minute detail and then glibly go on your way. In hostel life, any journey through the building is fraught with the possibility of witnessing a Jeremy Kyle or Trisha style confession from a fellow resident, sometimes simply a bizarre precursor to going to the toilet.

There are, of course, flipsides, like most of life, the yang to the ying. The writer Geoff Dyer says in Anglo-English Attitudes that ‘glossy magazines present idleness as achievement. One way or another, leisure and repose are two of the mainstays of the image industry’. He is writing about the war photography of Robert Capa. Dyer says that Capa was ‘one of the great photographers of rest – rest that comes of weariness, fatigue, exhaustion’.

‘Men with fractured and dissolute lives are given some respite and a chance to build on shaky foundations’

Having seen Capa’s photographs I can immediately relate them to the things I have seen in the hostel. Images of repose and stillness of troops on the warfront, dead on their feet with 1,000-yard stares.

The torn clothes and dirty yearning faces of ‘safe sleeps’ (people without a room in the hostel but allowed to sleep in the lounges) could easily have come from Capa’s pictures of the Aragon front during the Spanish civil war, or soldiers in the fields of Normandy. The crucial difference is that this is not a people’s war, but a skirmish fought entirely with and by yourself. Here there is a reprise from the battle, somewhere you are given help to rejoin the fight with vigour and energy. But for all the help available, you have to do it yourself.

You can get in by answering a limited number of questions. Men with fractured and dissolute lives are given some respite and a chance to build on shaky foundations. If not there would be an additional 60 men on the streets of Plymouth every night; I am continually amazed and grateful that such a place exists.