The Prince Rupert Hotel for the Homeless by Christina Lamb review – bed, breakfast and respect | Society books

Jhe Prince Rupert Hotel in Shrewsbury is the kind of place where you’re offered a glass of sherry when you check in. A timber-framed oasis of plush towels and four-poster beds, its guests have included Margaret Thatcher, Monica Lewinsky and the Liverpool football team. Yet at the start of the pandemic, owner Mike Matthews, who once ran Barbados’ Sandy Lane resort, made the decision to welcome a rather different clientele: the city’s homeless.

Some hadn’t slept in a bed for decades. Many were plagued by crippling drug addiction. Others were vulnerable and suffered from untreated mental illness. Now, as part of homelessness czar Dame Louise Casey’s ‘Everyone In’ mission, everyone was urgently finding temporary accommodation. While other hotels also stepped up, none had Prince Rupert’s four-star reputation and 900-year history.

When foreign correspondent Christina Lamb came across the story, she realized it summed up the extreme kindness already emerging from the pandemic as well as some of society’s most deeply rooted issues. She spent 34 years reporting from distant hotspots such as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, but the lockdown had made her realize that many of the problems she had witnessed in the developing world were also present in the Wealthy Britain: child malnutrition, slave labor and, of course, homelessness.

Having met hotel manager Charlie Green by chance, and hearing how caring for others helped her overcome her own trauma (Charlie had supported her daughter through a near fatal battle with anorexia and freed herself from a bad marriage, only to lose her eldest son in a motorcycle accident), Lamb asked if she could move into the hotel and be part of the Prince Rupert “bubble.”

This humane and humble book is the result – scrupulous reporting that offers no easy solutions, forgoing sentimentality as it tells brutal stories, tender dreams and deeply disheartening behaviors while finding grounds for hope. real but thin. There is also farce and frustration, all turning into a rallying cry for more investment in services and social housing.

The evolving pandemic provides a diary-like structure to Lamb’s book, and as the news gets darker by the day, Mike and his two “right-wing women,” Charlie and hotel accountant Jacki Law, also decide to settle in Prince Rupert. A lot needs to change, as the hotel logbook clearly indicates. Instead of taxi reservations and champagne orders, there are fights and cries for help. The staff acquires a new vocabulary: scrips (methadone prescriptions), mamba (synthetic cannabis), rattling (being in withdrawal). And yet, even as those they host pass out in their Rice Krispies and set off fire alarms, staff continue to treat them as they would treat other guests. Or as Charlie puts it: “We treat them like guests – except we hug them.”

The entrance to the four star Prince Rupert Hotel. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Observer

At first they know very little about their new clientele, though they include Shrewsbury’s most prolific shoplifter and men who have served so many prison sentences they have lost count. Twice, bureaucratic incompetence means sending them sex offenders. In the majority of cases, however, receiving little or no information about their pandemic guests proves beneficial, allowing Mike and his team to get to know them without prejudice.

There’s bearded Simon, ‘a philosopher of life’ who attended Welsh Premier’s school, protested alongside Swampy and lived on the road for over 30 years, a bottle of red wine always by his side. Peter the chef, who writes poems and songs, once cooked for Tony Blair and as recently as March 2020 was living in a three-bedroom house with his wife and two children, earning £34,000 a year. Hannah is thrilled to learn that the hotel has ghosts, telling them, “I really am a pagan witch.” And then there’s Deb, a Welsh girl who married a farmer aged 16 and was imprisoned in his room for almost three decades, during which time he broke almost every bone in his body. and the children to whom she gave birth were taken away from her.

Why are they homeless? As one guest succinctly put it: “I am homeless because of life. For the majority who have lived in Prince Rupert for a period of time, child abuse, domestic violence and broken relationships are recurring motives, as are bullies at school. But there are also those whose parents are school principals and probation officers, and whose seemingly functioning families happen to live a few miles away.

As Lamb writes of the Prince Rupert staff, the experience transformed them: “All would look at the homeless differently now, after learning how so many of them had been made to feel like disposable children, beaten, abused and left to believe themselves worthless. This altered perspective is also her book’s greatest gift to readers, and the fact that she conveys it while acknowledging that some of these characters’ stories don’t quite stack up and that last chances are wasted again and again. again, like bad choices. and the self-destructive bonds – not to mention the drugs – prove irresistible, only reinforcing its message.

Plus, if bad habits become nearly impossible to break, so do good habits, like how Charlie sees the best in everyone. She suggests an acronym for what they provide in addition to room and board: CCR – Attention, Consideration and Respect. Is that enough to change lives? Of the 100 homeless people who stay in hotels for 14 months, barely a handful leave with jobs and private accommodation, but as one social housing coordinator points out, this is not the only measure of success. There are also the little acts of kindness they take with them – the birthday cake for the person who never received one, the all-too-new feeling of being cared for.

The Prince Rupert Hotel for the Homeless: A True Story of Love and Compassion Amid a Pandemic by Christina Lamb is published by William Collins (£20). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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