Cornell Toman, 53, WH Smith, Norfolk Street, King’s Lynn
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I’m ex-Army, I did three tours in Northern Ireland, one tour in Bosnia under the UN and one in Singapore. I spent six years in the army then I got close to an explosion in Northern Ireland in the late ’80s and bust my eardrum. It made me totally deaf in one ear and then I got a medical discharge. After that I just ended up getting in a lot of trouble. A lot of drinking, a lot of fighting.
I was sleeping rough in St Martin-in-the-Fields in London when The Big Issue got off the ground. I was one of the first vendors. A bloke told me about it and asked if I wanted to earn some money, so I went there and bought some magazines and by the time I got to the Tube station they were all gone. I’d bought 50 and they were sold in 10 minutes. I thought, this is good actually.
I’ve sold the magazine on and off since then. I ended up selling it in Maidstone for a while then I moved to Peterborough and got myself settled. I got a job at a decent firm building diesel engines and earning good money. I had a mortgage. Then the bank went bust and I lost everything. I owed £150,000 and they wanted the property back. It just put me in a bit of a spiral, and I went through a bad patch, getting back on the drink, sleeping rough, sofa surfing. Then I got a tent, then a caravan and now I’ve got a room in a private rental. I’ve been trying to lift myself up. I’m working towards getting a full-time job and having a better life. I get work occasionally, I can do anything but it’s mainly warehouse operatives. I’m a massive Crystal Palace fan so it would be nice to be able to afford to go to the games again one day.
King’s Lynn is very friendly, there’s a lot of good people here. Very good people. Through lockdown some of the locals and my regulars got in touch with The Big Issue and asked if they could ring me. They sent me some money to help me out. It made me feel wanted, part of the community. It’s still a bit quiet on my pitch, I used to sell more than 50 magazines a week but these days it’s more like 25 or 30. But people have been coming up to me and offering to help – certain people go out of their way. Last year I was in hospital for seven weeks with an infection to my foot caused by diabetes. Two of my customers, Patricia and Graham, looked after my dog Punky while I was in hospital. I could have lost my leg and my dog at the same time and I’d never been more scared in my life, but in the end I only lost two toes and thanks to them I kept Punky too.
He’s11 and he’s a Staffy-Jack Russell cross. I got him when he was two years old, I heard from the RSPCA that there was an ex-Marine who had memory loss and had two other Jack Russells. The RSPCA told him he had to get rid of one of his dogs, and I’d looked after Punky a couple of times so I said I’d take him.
Ex-service people don’t get a lot of backing from the government and when you’re left by yourself you tend to spiral downwards. In my case I just lost everything, my self-respect, self-confidence. You were told everything that you had to do then suddenly you’re in a situation where you have to look after yourself. You’re bored and you just end up drinking. You give your loyalty and your life to defend the honour of your country and then when you can’t serve any more you’re just thrown back on a heap. You’re tossed away and forgotten about. I’ve got some scarring on my face from the explosion, but my mental health is pretty good in spite of everything. There are things that I did and didn’t do that I regret but I try not to think about it. The less I talk about it the better for me.
Interview: Sarah Reid
Images: Gary Evans Photography
W H Smith, Norfolk Street, King's Lynn, UK