Against Oblivion


Posted by in November's Magazine

Towards the end, people (no, not people, heartless bastards) started stealing money from him. He never once begged you understand; passersby just gave him money unprompted. His name was Arthur… still is thank god. Rather I meant ‘towards the end’ of his time on the streets.

The police staged an intervention, for his own good I guess. Let’s face it, he’d let himself go some and his tormentors weren’t just taking his cash, they were doing so with threats of violence. So it was that 20 years or more of fighting against oblivion on the streets of Edinburgh came to an end in the time it took to get him to the hospital where he would spend the next few weeks.

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And you know what? He loved it. The attention, the small kindnesses, I don’t know, maybe even the routine…the still peace. Essentially a shy, humble man, he blossomed under all that well-intentioned fussing and public goodwill.
Turns out that for a 75-year-old man who had spent almost a third of his life adrift in the capital’s urban sprawl, he was in pretty good nick. His signature (indeed identifier), impossibly long dreadlocks succumbed to the scissors – he was, apparently, quite taken by the new look!

He’d come to Edinburgh from the Seychelles in, let us say, the late 60s early 70s. When I first encountered him (in the early 90s?) there was no shortage of characters on the street. Remember the ‘exploding man’ who careered around the Cowgate? He had the shape and look of a fully rigged Spanish Galleon whose sails had been shredded by too much cannon fire, as if he had somehow contrived to swallow a live hand grenade. God he was huge, if you wanted to circumnavigate him you were well advised to provide a forwarding address.

Arthur was different, he always seemed of and within himself, drink and drugs were never his thing. In those days he used to check into the warm air vents outside the side entrance to John Lewis’s of a night – smart move if you’re asking me – offering, odd to say, a certain Zen like calm amid the cancelled faces of the bargain hunting January hordes. Maybe that’s just me over projecting. Slice it anyway you like; did he come to Edinburgh for love (spurned) or was he trying to outpace the coming military coup (the family were politically connected) that was splintering his homeland? Both are probably true. No, they are true.

What you have to remember about him is his stubbornness, or let’s best call it self-determination. In Arthur, as Nik Cohn would have it, ‘was never a shape to fit’. His (surprisingly extensive) Edinburgh based family constantly offered any form of shelter that suited his purpose, even a return to the Seychelles at the time of his choosing. Typically, he declined with a curt “Why? I’m a Leither now.” (Indeed as I write, back among us, in sheltered housing). He is a man given to few words, but we’ll try these out: he thanks all the NHS staff for their tender mercies and the people of Leith for making sure, no demanding, that he never became invisible.

Arthur Williams, it seems, was never going to slip through the cracks.

102 responses to “Against Oblivion”

  1. Brian says:

    I also knew Arthur on leith walk out side the wine shop as I always passed him a cake on a Tuesday when I done my deliveries on the walk for Boobys foods nice old chap always said thanks

  2. Dawn Lancaster says:

    Thanks for letting us know he's doing okay!

  3. David Fettes says:

    i have recently been curious about his past and how he ended up here so this has helped. i think his contirbution to the community as a character in Leith qualifies him to be looked after in old age more than most of the sponging scumbags that walk the streets of Leith. Take a pound a week from each of the work shys benefits and use it to pay for a bit of luxury for Arthur in his old age

  4. andy b says:

    glad he's doing ok, hopefully he stays indoors and comfy from now on

  5. linsey says:

    Was worrying about him and the fact id not seen him for a ling while. Good he has been taken care of xxx

  6. Graeme s says:

    We used to call him The Shaman of Leith when I was at Uni over a decade ago.

    Kind of fitting. Love that guy.

  7. Shona says:

    Thank god he ok, haven't seen him in ages!!! Glad things are good for him now.

  8. Debbie says:

    We used to get him a big puffer jacket every winter which he would wear for the whole year. Glad to hear he is doing better now!

  9. my husband and I visit my mother – inlaw on a sunday, she stays in balfour st. we would often see him ( arthur we didnt know his name ) outside the wine shop , we wondered what had happened to him. thank goodness he is ok.

  10. C.Hansen says:

    Just so please to know he is alright!

  11. irene wilson says:

    So glad to hear that Arthur is safe and living in more comfort in a house now, he is a very strong character to have lived on the streets for at least the last 20 years that I can remember, what a legend!

  12. Joe Sperring says:

    I used to work in the Post Office opposite the wine shop on Leith Walk, and he'd come in with DWP Cheques to cash now and then. He was always polite. I used to hate some of the -mainly – old wifies that would stand behind him in the Post Office queue blatantly holding their noses and making a big deal that he maybe didn't smell the best (He lives rough duh). That used to piss me off as the guy was more brave and had more soul than any of them mean old bats put together. Anyway good to know he's still out there alive & kicking.

  13. gillian coleman says:

    so glad ur okee arthur xx gillian xx

  14. James says:

    I've moved away from Edinburgh/Leith now, but Arthur is one of my best memories of the place – he is a gentle man and a gentleman. God bless him.

  15. June keating says:

    Glad to hear Arthur is well, and hope he is getting looked after.xxxx

  16. Cath Tuff says:

    I am a Scot living in England & I get the Edinburgh Evening News on line so I have read about Arthur & I nieces who live in Edinburgh & Leith so they tell me about him . I am so pleased he is being looked after & settled for this winter coming in , God Bless you Arthur hope you live the rest of you life in warm & comfy place you are a Leither

  17. Laura B says:

    Thanks for letting me know that he is alright as I have been really worried. So good to know that he is being looked after.,A big gentle giant and a true legend of Leith

  18. chris s says:

    Used to sleep outside my bedroom window on smiths place, I think it was a nice wee spot for him, off the street, quiet and out the wind. Would never accept our offer of a cuppa – always would say he would fo to the bookies for one. Legend around Leith!

  19. Angie Parker says:

    A well known and loved character of whom I have fond memories of sharing the odd sandwich with in a bus stop shelter in The Walk. I'm glad he's off the streets and all tucked up warm and comfy.

  20. alana purves says:

    Glad aurthurs doin good he's a leith legend xxx

  21. Gary says:

    Good to know the man is safe and well. Had to contact police Scotland twice for typical leith junkies giving him grief absolute no need he did no harm to anyone apart from sleep outside the wine shop on leith walk. Least he's now in the warm as it's cold out there :-)

  22. Beth says:

    So pleased to hear that he is finally getting some well deserved r&r, we should always respect each other, whatever our circumstances.

  23. HB1 says:

    Really pleased he is safe and warm. All the best Arthur!!

  24. Derek says:

    Nice to know that he is safe and well.

  25. Stevie Mac says:

    I saw him outside the bed shop the week before he was "taken in"
    I then saw the Facebook pages that showed cynicism towards the policeman (PC Duncan?) who posted the note to say he was in good care as lots of folk had been asking about him.
    The melodramatic piece above is fine … as a work of prose .. but it's not exactly the "news report" that most of us would like to see.
    Like, how is the auld fella?
    Stevie Mac

  26. James says:

    I was homeless in Edinburgh for a number of years and if i had a good day i always gave Arthur money really nice guy. Good to know he's safe and warm this winter. remember people there are still people like Arthur out there and need help even if you look out an old blanket and give it to someone other will make there day. Thanks all the best for Arthur.

  27. Handy Leon says:

    He never smoked weed .Good man!

  28. Theresa says:

    Thanks for letting us know that Arthur's ok, I've been worrying about him since he went into hospital and it's good to see that he's out now and has found a home.
    I hope that you're happy there Arthur, Best Wishes.

  29. Ellie says:

    I don't know Arthur, never met or heard of him , my friend sent me this article link and have now just read all your fab comments about this wonderful guy. you are all stars for caring. What an impact Arthur has made, he has touched all your lives in a positive way and has shone a bright light on all your humanity.

  30. Christine says:

    My daughter sent me the news of Arthur because she knew I thought of him and had been wondering what had happened. Good to know he is being looked after.

  31. Jerry says:

    So glad to hear that Arthur is doing alright. I had heard he was in hospital but nothing more. Eternal shame on those who sought to rob and threaten him, it really makes me sad to know that they live amongst us. However that sadness is tempered by the news that Arthur is safe and well. I hope that he adapts to his new home and am confident that the vast majority of Leithers will continue to treat him with the respect and kindness that he richly deserves.

  32. murray says:

    I word says it all about Arthur LEGEND

  33. Nicola land says:

    So glad he's ok, lovely man, really kind and polite. First saw him about 15 years ago. Used to talk to him when I was coming down leith walk drunk at the weekend! Glad he's well.

  34. Myra says:

    Really glad to hear news of him, pleased he has received good care and support :)

  35. joshua says:

    He passed away few months ago..

  36. Robert reilly says:

    Glad he's doing ok spoke to him a lot always a we smile on his face

  37. kanazawa says:

    My family and I have known the gentle giant Arthur for 25 years. Despite all the help that he has been offered, he has chosen this way of life and hence the hands of the police, mental health workers etc are tied or at at least their help has been limited in the past. It's good to know that he had on this occasion submitted to help. But what is to become of him now? Can you do a follow up report to find out whether he has decided to come off the streets for good? He deserves better.

  38. fiona says:

    Glad to hear Arthur is doing ok ,I made him many coffees when i worked in the bookies,he was always well mannered ,a gentleman who minded his own business and never said a wrong word to anyone for all the abuse he took.

  39. Jackie little says:

    Glad he is getting looked after !

  40. Linda says:

    It's interesting to read the comments that he was missed like he was some kind of local attraction. People noticed him but I wonder how many people actually supported him and took time to speak to him? There are plenty more people living on the streets so go do some good and give a little something next time you see someone living rough rather than just saying it's good to hear he is ok.

  41. andrew says:

    Arthur is a true legend. He is part of leith legend. Its great to know he is doing well and is safe and fighting fit. Though seeing him without gis trademark dreads and beard would be a shock lol. I have grown up seeing him and im happy to say i consider him part of my life story though i have never spoke to him at length not one have i on my 30 years on this earth have i ever seen him bother a single soul for anything and its great to know there are still people out there who still care about him (as if there was any doubt). And to all those who stole and TRIED to threaten him over the years (cause i dont believe for one minute he would ever feel intimidated by the fools) id say you never know whats round the next corner it could be you one day and id call it karma. And i know its not a nice thing to say but they would deserve it if it happened to them. Them just maybe they would know how it feels. And to arthur i would say enjoy ur new life and your new beginnings i cant think of a more deserving man

    God bless you.

  42. Julie says:

    God bless Arthur. Honest and proud. So glad he has a place to stay and hope he is being loved.

  43. kmizz says:

    This man has politely declined many a late night bakery hot pie.glad to hear he has finally accepted some help this winter! Used to always seeing having his wee snooze in KFC :)

  44. Dougie says:

    I always remember seeing him sitting in the doorway of the Playhouse one time, the production on was Les Miserables, every time i see mention of Les, i remember him.

  45. Brian Allison says:

    i am glad he has been taken of the streets he was a lovely man who would take time out to talk to anyone. was taking my grandaughter home just over a year ago when i seen some guy harassing him when i stopped my car i went over and asked what he was doing to him the guy could hardly speak any english he was threatening arthur so i said why dont you get lost well i said it stronger than that so he moved ,so glad he is ok good luck arthur hope you have a lovely time wherever you are

  46. Alastair Whitwell says:

    Remember seeing Arthur quite often. So sad that others would rob him. The world has changed for the worse!

  47. fantana says:

    that's good news. however, i don't really see how it's acceptable to chastise people for being mean to him (which i don't think is acceptable either, before you moan) all the while saying you'd "have to send a forwarding address" to walk past someone because of their weight. makes you look like a bit of a prick, Billy Gould.

  48. Lee Watt says:

    I think that the fact nobody has raised the question as to why our government and even the local council (as shambolic as they both may be) allow people like Arthur to sleep on the streets night after night. After spending hundreds of millions on a pointless, unnecessary tram system, it is disgusting that we can't even give people like Arthur a helping hand to a more comfortable and better life.

  49. chop says:

    All these fantastic good wishes to him. Perhaps he should hear these and the fact that we all miss seeing him.

  50. Louise binnie says:

    I also was used to seeing Arthur in and around leith,he never begged for anything,I always gave him a Big Mac meal or a few pounds..He was always very pleasant,never saying much and bothered no one.So sad to he was to hear he was being harassed by thoughtless people but glad he is now save and sound.I wish him all the very best for the rest of his life.

  51. Eck says:

    Hes been on the go for as far back as I remember he obviously stood out on the walk what a man 75?? great to hear hes fit and well

  52. jennifer townsley says:

    Glad to know he's safe and well ,he's a very polite and gentle soul Leith wouldn't be the same without him. shame on all the low- life's that picked on him and robbed him. I hope he enjoys the warm comforts and good health for the rest of his life God bless Arthur and all the kind folk's that helped him.

  53. mick grubb says:

    Glad he is ok , was harmless-never a bother -used to see him hanging about in the street at the back of the volunteer arms, used to bung him an odd fiver, he was always appreciative and thankful.

  54. Donna Binnie says:

    That's such good news that he's ok. Wondered what had happened to him. Brilliant!!!

  55. Janine baird says:

    So happy to hear old Arthur is alive and in a house
    Warm and safe x

  56. jamie says:

    Im real happy to see all that you guy's care thats awesome.
    im 35 and remember Arthur from walking round town at 13 or 14

  57. david nicoll says:

    I remember coming to Edinburgh as a kid and seeing him and then when I moved here I saw him on a regular basis I hope he is in good health.

  58. Sinead says:

    so lovely to read arthur is doing well. had just been speaking to my friends about him this week wondering if he was ok. perhaps a second arthurs seat can be erected in leith in his name.

  59. Diane Wallach says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, he was is very much apart of Leith. I was just wandering can Arthur have visitors?

  60. kevin says:

    so glad hes ok!!…….can anyone remember old cosmo??…… ..some really kind and obv very caring person soaked that harmless old man in lighter fluid on the steps of st giles and set him on fire……..some people are just wrong!!!!

  61. Denise says:

    So glad he is doing OK.
    He used to come into The Bronx cafe where I worked; he was polite, would always pay for his coffee & never once accept any freebies.

  62. Gillian says:

    I feel so moved by all of these posts .. I have been aware of Arthur since the late 80s… His gift to me was the few occasions when I locked eye contact with him… It made me feel very special … even up until recently … A very special person x x

  63. Marion says:

    So pleased to here he is alright and being looked after properly although I suspect he will be doing a lot of looking after others in his sheltered housing …god bless you Arthur

  64. tracey says:

    aww bless him xxxxx

  65. Lynda says:

    God bless , amazing news , thank you thank you.
    Stay happy and healthy Arthur

  66. Spud Head says:

    King Arthur

  67. Ruth says:

    So glad he's ok. Been wondering where he was.

  68. Aicha Cisse says:

    so glad he somewhere warm and safe now. God bless him xx

  69. Frosty says:

    So happy our Leith icon is happy,warm and well

  70. Ewan says:

    The comments that go on about how it's great that he doesn't smoke weed, drink or take drugs – if he did by chance smoke weed or take drugs would you view him differently? This attitude that all drug-use is bad and a reflection of somebody's character is a bit morally-righteous and quite narrow.

  71. b russell says:

    god bless you arthur so very happy you will spend the rest of your life in warmth and comfort

  72. Ray says:

    Arther was married at one time and stayed in Smiths place, his wife died but the house never went to him it was taken over by her relatives and Arthur was out in the cold. Metal health, bereavement and wanting to be near his home was his long term struggle. Glad he can feel the heat on his face again in November.

    Ray. Ex Outreach Street worker

  73. Lauren Cowie says:

    I remember giving Arthur 'pennies' as a wee girl with my sister at the cosy vents of John Lewis. We liked him and would be disappointed if he wasn't there. He's part of my childhood memories. As I'm sure he is a part of hundreds of people's thoughts. It's comforting to know that Edinburgh has mainly served him well and the cosy hearts of kind folk hopefully warmed his heart like the vents did for his toes. X

  74. Monica says:

    Many many years ago at least 21 every saturday I would pass him 20 regal cigarettes whilst on the the hill leading to John Lewis he was warm from the the air vents. He always thanked me. I no longer live in Edinburgh but was amazed and happy to hear he is still doing ok. Good kind work all you Edinburgh peeps. Peace out. Xx

  75. Chris D S.B. says:

    Arthur is well missed I always look towards wine shop as I pass by to see if he has returned, glad to here he is safe and well being looked after. He liked a bag of chips now and then good look to him passer by C D

  76. Lyndsay Elvin says:

    I actually miss not seeing him every day… He has no idea so many people cared for him… ❤️

  77. Lyndsay Elvin says:

    I actually miss not seeing him every day… He has no idea so many people care for him… ❤️

  78. Lucy mottershaw says:

    I'm so glad to here Arthur has been looked after, bless him . I used to see him all the time when I lived around Leith and found myself looking for him to see he was still there and ok. I'm very glad to hear he's got sheltered housing ! Good one you Arthur , The Guardian of Leith walk! Xx

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