Andy Palfreyman is 51 years old, wears a feathered hat, and smokes a pipe. His mum was a postwoman and his dad a soldier. At 16, he saved his earnings to go travelling around Europe for three years; when he returned, at 19, he became homeless. He's now been off the streets for just over two months.
"I basically became homeless by not living up to Mother's expectations," Palfreyman tells me over coffee that he insists on paying for. "I wanted to live life my way." He was cut off from his parents, and discovered years later that they had both died, as had his brother and sister, in the space of three years. "That screwed me up for a bit. ... But time is a healer," he says.
He continues: "When I first came to London – the first three nights – I didn't sleep. I was too scared. We have a saying on the streets: You sleep with one eye open." Once, a group of "hooray Henrys" coming out of a wine bar decided it would be "hilarious" to set fire to his sleeping bag. "My language was colourful, let's say, but what could I do? There were five of them – so-called respectable people."
Palfreyman prefers to focus on human kindness. "I had my regulars, people who'd pass every day. They'd not give me money, but they'd give me more than that. Ten minutes having a chat, you can't buy that. It makes a big difference to your day."
Recently, Palfreyman photographed his London resting places from the last 30 years for an exhibition called Cardboard and Caviar. Here are a few of his photos, along with their backstories.
“This is my favourite place I ever stayed," Palfreyman says. "The door wasn't there before – they put that up after I had to leave. I used to go down the stairs and just on the left was a huge archway to sleep under. Walking up in the morning, I'd bump into Ken Livingstone when he was the mayor of London. I don't think he knew I was homeless. He just used to say hello.”
“This was one of my summer residencies, off Tottenham Court Road. I could wake up with the sun on my face, which makes a huge difference to your day.”
“You learn to look for certain things; it was such a narrow street that the rain couldn't get in. The theatregoers here were usually really nice. There are two sides to every coin, though: There was also some disdain. It's all part of it.”
“That was a great spot – the fence wasn't there at the time. I used to crawl under there, clean it out, and at about six o'clock every morning the road sweeper used to come along and pop his head in for a chat. 'You OK?' he'd ask. He was on such low pay, but he really cared. I sometimes bought him a coffee.”
“The neighbours didn't mind me being here. It was on the South Bank – a block of flats next to a gallery. Eight other guys moved in though, drinking a lot, taking drugs, urinating, and the police moved them on, so they had to move me on too. That was the end of that place."
“I like this one as it looks like a bed. I kept getting asked to leave, but I couldn't resist going back as lovely warm air came up that vent. Eventually I left, as I was sick of being pestered. I understand though... People pay mortgages, they pay rents. People take homes for granted, and rightly so!”
“Down there opened up into a huge cellar – it was superb. The eight-storey building was being renovated; top floor, working down. They knew I was there, they were quite happy. As they finished each floor, I knew I had seven months, six months, five months left. Then one day they had painted a sign for me: 'We're starting work on the cellar and unfortunately you'll have to leave. Really sorry to put this on you.' They were really nice people, brilliant. I went back and thanked them.”
“This was a lovely dry alleyway. But in those days I used to drink, and I had to climb over the fence at night. I was very lucky not to do myself a serious injury!”
“This was a fantastic place – but when they move you on, they put the barriers up. It went down into an alleyway where there was a storeroom, so I was tucked away. There's a great story to this one, too. Every second Friday, at about quarter past 11 – you could almost time your watch by it – a couple would come in and have sex. Professional, well-dressed. I was around the corner, biting my sleeping bag as I was laughing so much. The lady was quite...enthusiastic.”
“I loved this spot – just outside the RADA building. It was clean, it was dry, and I used to have a chat with the cleaner at six o'clock every morning: 'Hello, how are you?', that kind of thing. I used to leave the place cleaner than I arrived. There were university halls next door, they used to party all night. They'd leave me alone, but occasionally they'd come round and offer me a beer. I'd sometimes sit and have a chat with them, but you could tell the difference in our ages – we had different values, if you know what I mean.”
“This was my last address, in Covent Garden. The manager of the bookshop won a national award. She was a beautiful human being. Locking up at night she'd chat to me and my friends for hours, offer us cups of tea. It's the little things that make a difference.”