The Sunday Times: ’Tis the season to be legless

Katie Glass joins a group of volunteers in Liverpool who help young clubbers who’ve had many too many.

At 11pm on a freezing Saturday night, a small group gathers in Church Street, Liverpool. Around them, shop windows are decorated in gaudy green and red tinsel. Star-of-David Christmas lights twinkle overhead. Up the road, carried on the crisp nighttime air, comes the drunken wail of someone murdering Abba’s Dancing Queen. The city is already swinging, but for the city’s five street pastors the night is young.

Street Pastors began in 2003, as an experiment in Brixton. Based on a community outreach project in Jamaica, its aim was to tackle gang culture and gun violence. Since then, the group’s focus has changed. Now — apparently in response to an age of binge drinking, student benders, “2-4-1” drinks promotions, cheap shots and 48-hour weekends — the pastors concentrate on containing the fallout from drunkenness and antisocial behaviour, especially among young people, at night. In the past 13 years, their numbers have swelled: 20,000 volunteers nationwide — whose efforts have been praised by David Cameron and Boris Johnson — patrol the streets of busy cities and towns.

Street Pastors is a Christian group, but its volunteers don’t evangelise. They stand alongside other community groups supporting the police, such as the Cheltenham Guardians, who came to national attention recently when they wrote an open letter on Facebook, addressed “Dear friends of Emily”. In it, they berated the friends of a girl whom they had found abandoned after she had been sick in the back of a taxi. The guardians explained how they had waited for several hours in the cold and rain to put Emily into an ambulance. The letter was accompanied by a picture of an apparently unconscious girl slouched on the kerb at 4am, huddled under a silver space blanket.

In Liverpool, every Saturday until 4am, the Street Pastors’ little team patrols 1.2 squares miles — an area filled with 100,000 people partying. Overseeing the teams is Mark Latham, a marketing manager and sometime actor. Heading up this particular team is Tony Laverty, a jolly giant in his sixties. They are joined by Pauline, a retired nurse; Marie, a middle-aged mum; and Debbie, from nearby St Helens, who is shadowing the team with a view to starting her own.

Stuffed into their van are supplies: a first-aid kit, bottles of water, baby wipes for cleaning blood and vomit off people, space blankets to keep people warm; flasks filled with coffee and Bovril, and — incongruously given the icy weather — flip-flops. They also carry Spikeys, little neon stoppers to prevent open bottles from being spiked, which they give out to women.

 

Tony, with a grin as broad as his shoulders, walks around chatting cheerily to people. We pass down Stanley Street and Tony calls out, “You look lovely!” to a drag queen in fake fur. “We do patrol the gay district,” he says, “but, to be honest, it’s the safest part of town.”

It’s still early, and for now the pastors busy themselves clearing away smashed glass, which people might tread on or use in fights, and checking on rough sleepers. We head to Mathew Street, an area thick with clubs, where people spill onto the pavement. From out of Flares bar, the strains of Whigfield’s Saturday Night compete with Starship’s We Built This City from the neighbouring Sgt Peppers bar and bistro. On the pavement sits a girl, perhaps 20, huddled under a coat. Tony gives her a coffee. “It’s difficult,” he tells me afterwards. “You can’t help everyone. I stopped because that was a young women, if it was someone older and a man I might not have.”

The pastors are dressed in so many layers, they look like Michelin men. By contrast, the young clubbers are hardly dressed at all. The lads wear thin shirts, the girls look like members of Little Mix, in strappy tops, flimsy dresses, bum-skimming miniskirts, bare legs and towering heels. As the night unfolds, women everywhere are being crippled by their shoes. We see them crashing over cobbles in 5in stilettos, some getting piggybacks from boyfriends, others in bare feet padding over pavements wet with vomit and urine, littered with discarded fast food and shattered bottles.

A girl in her twenties, stumbling in heels, calls out: “Please can I have some flip-flops?” Marie reaches into her bag and pulls some out. “No, not yellow — pink!” the girl trills. Up the road, another drunk girl in bare feet is given flip-flops. She wobbles off the pavement as she pulls them on and Debbie has to haul her back as a car skids past. Later, I watch a whole hen party change into the pastors’ flip-flops and pad off gratefully. Last year, they gave out 3,500 pairs in Liverpool.

 

After 1am the atmosphere changes. Now people are more trashed than merry. I see girls trying to remember their phone numbers to give to boys, some huddled in pairs crying, others collapsed on cobbles or crashed out in doorways, shoes off, sharing chips. “This is when we start seeing a lot of vulnerable young women,” Tony says. Many groups of girls choose to start drinking at home while they’re getting ready together. By the time they leave the house to hit the clubs, they’re already well on their way. But the problems really start when they lose their friends. “It’s not unusual for women to go out in groups but end up alone,” Mark explains. “They’ve given everything to a friend — their money, card and phone — and then lost them on a night out.”

As we turn the corner into Concert Square, a girl in a white jacket wobbles over holding out a hand covered in napkins and blood. She’s drunk, she’s lost her friends and can’t remember how she got cut. Tony gets out the first-aid kit. Marie checks she has a way to get home. They often find lost students. “We’ve come across freshers in tears, men and women, because they’re new to the city, they’ve lost their friends and don’t know where they’re going,” Mark says. Pauline once found a girl alone on the street so cold she was hypothermic.

We carry on up Fleet Street and see a pair of tanned legs in high heels sticking out of a doorway. A girl in a thin dress, hiked over her thighs, has crashed to the ground. She has a mark on her leg from where she’s fallen. Tony and Debbie get down to chat. It turns out she’s celebrating her 19th birthday. “I’m so drunk,” she keeps saying, rubbing a hand over fake lashes. It seems she was ejected from a club after she threw up. Now she’s trying to call her friend, who is still inside but presumably can’t hear her phone. It’s not very responsible of a club to kick her out in this state, I suggest. Tony shrugs. “You get people who’ve collapsed and get dragged out by their feet.”

Available: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tis-the-season-to-be-legless-qsnzwbjbw

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