February 04, 2005

A sense of Porpoise

I always liked Muriel's Wedding, even before it helped to change my life. Or change my name, at any rate. When the thought came into my head, five years ago, to try and wrench my life into a different direction and to try and kick off - and symbolise - that process by changing my name, it was, I'm sure, Muriel changing her name to Mariel which first gave me the idea.

So when I took that decision - or rather, as with most of the life-decisions that most of us take, had that decision thrust itself upon me - and cashed in my first name, Edmund, for my middle name of Justin, it was an appropriate coincidence that in looking for a joyful piece of music to commemorate the moment, I should light upon Abba's Dancing Queen. It might seem a strange choice, not a choice I would have made had I really thought about it. But it was an appropriate choice, at any rate. It's not a choice that moves me, when I think about it, which I do but rarely. Nor one that I think has any profound relevance. No hidden significance. I wasn't born, or reborn, to Dancing Queen or anything like that. It was just the sign that marked the passing of the time.

I'm moving out of Brixton on Saturday. I can't think of any sign that will mark the passing of the time. I remember Holden, in The Catcher in The Rye, not wanting to leave Pencey and go home until he'd got the right 'goodbye' from the place. I know what he meant. I've had the occasional right sort of goodbye, times when I've known I was leaving for the right reasons and in the right way, leaving a place that had done me little hurt, and maybe going to the right place as well. Now and then, now and occasionally then. But I don't think I shall get any sort of goodbye from Brixton. I've never felt I belonged to the place. I've never been able to belong.

There are places where you know you're temporary and transient, and places where you think you're permanent, and I prefer the latter. But either will do as long as it is what you know it is. It's when the two are mixed up, when you're held back or when you're wrenched away, that places become miserable, either in the staying or the leaving. To be trapped in a place where you thought you would be only temporary, to be unable to settle when it's what you want and need - that is what wears you out, either with the constant moving, the insecurity, or the never moving on. The never being able to move on.

I find myself in both situations at once. When I moved down to London, three years ago now, the intention was to stay here for only two. Long enough to pick up some work experience and to hopefully pay off most of my debts, and then move out. Move north, move to somewhere where I could afford a flat or even a small house. It didn't matter where, so much as it was somewhere, somewhere that would offer me a job, somewhere that would offer me a palace to settle. But then the housing market went mad and suddenly - it seems like suddenly - everywhere was out of reach. It was dispiriting. Demoralising. Leeching of will and of morale. The syndrome whereby the harder you try, the harder you try to work toward a goal, the further away the goal becomes.

I cannot imagine ever being able to move away now. So I am stuck in London. But where in London? I have no overriding objection to London as such, being a city that I know, being the city where I was born. It is too big for my taste, and too expensive to live in, but it is far from intolerable. It has compensations in the provision of accessible culture for what it lacks in the provision of accessible countryside. But London, as it is right now, makes itself impossible. Because you cannot settle. You cannot become part of the community, for the nature of community is that it is settled, and you cannot settle. You cannot move.

Coming from that direction, you are trapped. But from the other direction, you cannot settle either. Any way you look at it, you lose.

You cannot settle, because you cannot find secure accommodation. You cannot buy anywhere, that much is axiomatic, that much is known to everybody. Council housing is impossible, a thing of the past, or, if you ever went on the housing list, a thing of the impossible future. Social housing, maybe. But there is a list for that as well. So it is neither permanent nor temporary but a limbo between both. A permanent transience. A city which wil not let you rest.

You cannot even find a place on your own. That much is not known to everybody. It's amazing how many friends, on hearing that I was on the move, asked "can you rent a studio flat or something?". And no I can't, not unless I have about seven hundred pounds a month to spend on renting one, which is a great deal more than I actually have. It is impossible, this city. This prosperous and ancient city cannot provide affordable housing - affordable in any sense - to a single individual in full-time employment. You have to share - which you do not really want to do when you are 39, and an unsociable and withdrawn 39 at that - or lodge. That is your reward for nearly two decades in the labour force. A fuck you from the society for which you have worked.

Now this would make me less angry than it does, if it were known more widely. But when you are in that position, you get the persistent feeling that you do not really exist. You do not really exist as far as the provision of housing is concerned. No provision is made for you. You are outside the market and outside all the provision made for those who are outside the market.

But you are also outside the public view. There are a thousand television programmes about home ownership, about buying and selling and doing up your house, about buying a second house, about looking for a second house, about what happened when you went to live in another house you'd bought in France or Greece or in the Falkland Islands. There are a thousand mentions on the news about a quarter-point rise in interest rates or the prospect of a quarter-point rise in interest rates or the fear of the prospect of a quarter-point rise in interest rates.

But there are no mentions of the prospect of a rise in the price of rented accommodation, or the fear of being on the street. No programmes about the search for somewhere to live, following our subject's search for rented accommodation, having a fly-on-the-wall crew film them running through the adverts and registering on websites and rushing all over London and having stupid interviews and not being called back by the people who promised they'd call you back and trying to get their deposit back off the previous landlord in order to pass it on to the new one.

Which is odd, really, because the number of people who have to go through that experience must be enormously larger than the number of people who ever find themselves looking for a pied-à-terre in Brittany. What's more, it must include nearly everybody who works in the media and produces television programmes about people trying to find themselves a pied-à-terre in Brittany. But we remain invisible nonetheless. Not as invisible as the homeless people you see everywhere. Not remotely so desperate and so hideously treated as they are. But invisible nevertheless. And, because invisible, without value. Whoever is not acknowledged is not valued. Their requirements are not valued. Their contribution is not valued. And their inability to find themselves community is not valued.

I have lived in Brixton for two and half years and never really felt part of it. I have never really tried to feel part of it, because how can you feel part of it, when, at any moment, you might find yourself having to move on? I lived in Oxford for fifteen years. By the end - by long before the end - it had become rare for me to get a bus into the city centre to do half-an-hour's shopping without bumping into one or two people I knew, from football, from chess, from any of my political involvements or any of the places I had worked at or any of the pubs I drank in. And I had drunk in all of them, because I went out of my way to do that, to knock every single last one off my list.

It seemed to be a way to get to know every corner of the city I was living in. So it was. I could find almost anywhere in Oxford even now, provided you gave me directions according to what pubs the place was near to. But I would never have started, never have made so many acquaintances, never have tried to get involved in Oxford in the way that I did, had I not felt that I was going to be staying there. You cannot build a house if you think you might be whisked away before you've so much as laid the foundations.

So you don't. And you don't. And you carry on like that, not building, not starting, not even waiting, really, because what you were waiting for is never going to happen. You carry on until you move on, and then you carry on again.

I believe in community. Community is stability and security. Community is time. Community is people together and what they do together. And community is people considering themselves as community. Not merely as individuals ("and their families") who simply buy houses and go to work and purchase commodities for their personal consumption at the shopping centre. The collective, rather than the individual. The bus, rather than the car. The cinema, rather than the video. The library and the school, rather than the drive-through and the phone-in. The helping hand, rather than the lashing out. The Labour - the gut Labour- rather than the Conservative. The social animal, the zoon politikon, the human being - rather than he who stands alone. Alone, and angry, and afraid.

I believe in all these things. I believe in the fundamental nature of these things, their fundamental nature as requirements for a stable and functioning civilisation, as fundamental in their way as democracy and taxation and a system of law. But they depend in themselves on a stable and secure population, which in themselves depend on things we do not have - secure employment, homes for all. Because without these, we cannot settle. And without settling, there is no community. And without community, there is no social animal. Just somebody waiting for nothing very much to happen.

At the end of Muriel's Wedding, when they leave Porpoise Spit to go back to Sydney, they stick their heads out of the windows in the back of the taxi and shout goodbye to everything they go past: "goodbye shopping mall!" and so on. The impression we get is that they've had enough of these places, that they want to get away from them and the stultifying, small-town, small-mind world of which they're part. And so they do. But in order to recognise them, in order to get away from them, in order to reject them, they had to know them in the first place. You cannot say goodbye to what you do not know. And so I shall leave Brixton tomorrow, for East Dulwich, without saying goodbye, not, anyway, to the town itself. Because it is a town I never knew. Never had a chance to, really. And I'm sorry about that.


At February 04, 2005 5:38 pm, Blogger aurora said...

Justin, I really enjoyed reading your post today.
It's so true about all those stupid tv programmes. I often wonder why they dont have one devoted to, say, maximising the minimal space in your council flat or something.
Good luck with your move.

At February 04, 2005 9:26 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mrs M here...

Brixton will be a poorer place without you. I hope you find contentment in East Dulwich.

At February 04, 2005 9:51 pm, Blogger Mike said...

Sorry to hear you're moving out of town.
Good luck with your new gaff!

At February 04, 2005 11:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent rant there. Good luck in your new "home".


At February 04, 2005 11:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*Loki posting*

The EDT (East Dulwich Tavern) is a great pub (or at least it was when we used to go there a few years ago).

Good luck with the move - like I mentioned on your thread we're in the same boat, moving tomorrow so I'm writing this in a sweaty mess in bewteen packing.

At February 06, 2005 3:03 am, Blogger envirohack said...

You write like an angel Justin. Keep at it

At February 08, 2005 2:20 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Chris F]

Well done.

This whole farce is the Emperor's New Clothes. I am one of the 'lucky' ones. I bought a house for £63,500 nine years ago and I am now told that is worth £220,000. Basically I am told that I have 'gained' over a grand a month over that time and I ought to be slapping myself on the back.

But, er, no. I need to live - here - where my job and family are. The house that I bought as a single man all those years ago is now a bit too small for a family of four. Not overcrowded, just not enough bloody room. But now because everyone else has 'won' the gap between my house and a good sized family house is now £80,000 instead of £20,000. So I am now faced with moving much further away, commuting more, driving more. And I am a winner?

And who the hell wants to pay £220,000 for my house? It's not in any reasonable analysis of the situation worth that. A couple might - they'll both be well paid and so they won't have any children or if they do their care will be contracted out. A very well paid single person might - they'll buy the house and still sublet a room to help pay the interest only mortgage of £900 per month even after (and talk about throwing good money after bad) their parents have re-mortgaged their house in order to give their child more capital - estate agents openly suggest it now. And lastly, the culprit behind it all, an investor will buy it. It's got the potential, modern, tidy, near the hospitals and the university, but most of all near the ring road - Oxford's most important landmark. And the investor will find two people willing to pay £600 a month each. Three of the four houses in my block will be sublet to tenants who can ill afford the rent and be detached from the rest of the community. As you say, invisible, not registering, uncommitted, not involved.

In the end no one wins. Only dead people and their estate agents. The agents themselves are on a winning streak right now. But like the pensions missellers of the 80s and the endowment mortage missellers of the 90s (they might all be the same people) they know that this is a short-term blip and that they will be despised and - above all else - they must milk this until it is bone dry.


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