London is a strange place, and the longer one lives in its shadows the stranger it seems to become.
Commuting home, we hardly notice those sitting or standing around us, our hands so full of newspapers and books, our heads crammed with the day’s ups and downs—some of import, most not. The last thing on anyone’s mind is the person sat opposite.
Until, that is, something extraordinary throws it all into relief.
And in this city, a few years back, that something crawled to the surface and, for a while at least, stood in full view for all to behold: proving too much for some, too little for others, and altogether too late for the unfortunate woman concerned.
This city: so full of people and things, and, yet, seemingly with such an emptiness at its core. A recent film documented this like no other I have seen. Paradoxically, it has a Festive setting; but this is definitely not A Christmas Carol, or for that matter It’s a Wonderful Life—quite the reverse in fact. There is no redemption here, and, perhaps, therein lies the reason why it still haunts me so.
Documentaries rarely make any money when shown in cinemas. One released at Christmas, dealing as it did with a lonely death, was always going to be a hard sell. And so, not surprisingly, Dreams of a Life made a pittance at the box office when released in 2011, but it did gain some impressive reviews.
The subject? A young woman who died alone in a drab apartment, remaining there for three years until the property was repossessed; by which time, her skeletal remains were waiting for the bailiffs. During those years, she had been sat in front of a television set that was still on, surrounded by recently wrapped Christmas presents. It couldn’t get any more pathetic, or maybe more insightful, into an aspect of London life many would prefer not to know about. In this Christmas tale, there is to be no comforting ending: no ecstatic Scrooge, no overjoyed George Bailey reunited with his family. Instead, it is one that ends in tragedy, with an accusing finger pointing at all of us.
And yet, there is something “Dickensian” about the scene nevertheless. Charles Dickens: considered by some in England at least, as a reference point for what now passes for a “traditional Xmas”; a decidedly secular alternative, and one with but a veneer of feasting and rejoicing, sharing and caring, love and goodwill to all. In this narrative, however, all that was inverted, shown to be as flimsy as the tinsel that pervades it. The shiny wrapping paper of the gifts, the Christmas decorations, the “festive viewing” playing on television—all given a macabre twist, not for one but three Christmas. In that cramped apartment on top of an anonymous tower block, as isolated as its occupant, it was to be a peculiarly morbid “anti-feast”, and an eerily perpetual one at that: without family or well wishes, celebration or joy, peace or salvation. Instead, illumined only by the light of a flickering screen, and whilst circulars and mail endlessly piled up by the front door, a corpse sat rotting into a skeleton.
The film pieced together, as best it could, who the woman was, interviewing those she had known, although, tellingly, her family wanted no part in it. She had a good job and appeared to be liked by those who knew her, all only adding to the sense of hopelessness of ever understanding what exactly went wrong. In the end, more questions were posed than could now be answered; and the filmmakers came nowhere near answering the real question: Why?
The woman, initially identifiable only from dental records, was Joyce Carol Vincent, born in 1965; but it appears that there was not much else about her life that was in anyway as concrete. That said, many of the characteristics of her life I could, to some extent at least, identify with. The constant moves around London, the transience of both place and people in such a large city, with, by the end, all too little for her to hold onto. My path was not hers, thankfully, but, in my time I have met many like her—people with pasts as vague as their future plans, who came and went, and were never heard of again.
Only this time, one such made the front page.
I vaguely recall when she was found alone in that flat. It was the type of sensational stuff that the tabloids feast on. No doubt there were endless phone-ins to the local radio stations, and articles in the Evening Standard, London’s evening newspaper, about the lack of community, and not speaking to one’s neighbors, and so forth. More than likely it flickered across our collective consciousness, just as the dull light of the television had flickered against the shadows in her apartment, before being quickly suppressed, and then forgotten, just as she had been for three whole years.
And, as the newspapers the commuters read turned the page, we hastily moved on too, heading for something suitably reassuring after this far too real Christmas “ghost story”; and, all the time, with the passengers on that home bound train still oblivious to those who sat opposite or beside them, no matter how desperate their eyes stare. Such is the way of it.
My only surprise was, and is, that there aren’t more like her. For London is an entity far from benign. An elderly and holy Jesuit priest once told my wife that the streets of the capital were “full of demons”. Maybe what they are full of are “gaps”. Perhaps, predictably, when interviewed, one of her former acquaintances stated exactly that, saying that she had simply “fallen through the gaps”. In this city, there is always, close by, a very real sense of the Abyss. And, with just one wrong turn…
Ultimately, it left me unnerved, maybe the correct response to such subject matter; nevertheless, the filmmakers were rightly praised for their efforts. To say the least, it is a thought-provoking piece, disturbing even; I couldn’t stop thinking, or talking, about it for days after. Much of the film consists of staged recreations, interspersed with the interviews from those who worked or socialized with her.
Throughout the film, however, its subject’s face remains obscured, only briefly shown on screen in a few blurred photographs—until the end.
Viewers are told of how she attended a London concert held for Nelson Mandela sometime in the 1990s; she later claimed that she had been introduced to him. In the final scene, the shot opens with Mandela speaking to his audience. It is an unremarkable sequence, until, that is, the camera freezes. It then moves across the backs of those assembled before settling on one head in the crowd.
The head turns, and looking directly at us is Joyce Carol Vincent; now, at last, found, if, still, forever lost.