The Path

Yesterday

These hands gouged out ruddy apples of stone,

Torn from clay and born to darkness

Honest as the blue-black shadow at the hunter’s kill,

There in the forest on the fasting hill

Through fresh-turned earth my own path lay.

The very dew

That blessed my feet when they were small

Bled into the sodden remnant:

The broken boulders glacier-ground and hard

As the heart of man

Who harvests time over again

Who leaves no gleanings and taking all,

Extinguished day.

And yet I make so bold as to plant anew

With pebbles washed white as a river bank

Spilling round mottled cobbles,

Swift-doused as the hunter stirs

Before the longest watch begins.

Consumed by silt-clogged clay they lie,

But under it,

Oh! Under the carmine smothering,

The flint will spark and catch the Silvan arms of May

And bluebell bulbs ignite

My azure way.

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No one there.

Searing heat and falling ceiling

No respite, no night without the sound of women grieving

Seek daylight through black-bombed hellish fire.

Leaving, now we’re leaving; climb the wire…

Border guards are turned by hoarded gold;

Everything they owned, their mother sold.

Mountain snow, desert sun,

Babies hidden on the run,

Swim for your lives!

See your brothers drown

Your sister survives –  a while –

And smiles as she slips away

Into the sea, into the deep;

Maybe it’s your turn to sleep.

But, too late for the lost, freed souls

The left-behind have reached their goal,

Months and days pass by slowly

Boys grow out of clothes, so lonely

For the families lost to death or  journey,

Then they come one day and say:

You.

Go.

Home.

No one there.

(We’re gone.)

You can’t wake them

If you shake them.

A lullaby is all they hear:

Siren Aegean waves

washing over war planes

Calling into salty depths of coma

The children who once were here;

whose lives are over.

No one there when you pry behind their eyelids

So don’t stare – you know where they hid

In the dark so you can’t find them,

Cannot hurt them, cannot bind them.

They are just the space they occupy:

Why don’t you ask a doctor why

Emotion is now surplus to despair?

Catatonic?

That’s ironic

In the circumstances.

Homes I have lived in

Born in a bungalow two weeks late

With the cord round my neck but not my fate

To have life taken before it began

I was safely delivered by my Gran.

Then: the edge of a forest, a housing estate

With lots of people from London, mate,

(Boots the dog and a garden gate),

Deer that rippled the shadow’s edge

The secret life of a garden hedge

My Mum delivered a baby next door.

(Flower-patterned curtains; a wooden floor.)

Then back to the town where I was born

Dark flanks of hills always hiding the dawn

Wales just there, a horizon away:

Broken promise of a freedom day.

Oxford, in the years of the Bullingdon boys

The cream of the crop and their chosen toys.

Back then, no need of the welfare state;

We all had a grant but I stayed up too late

With the wrong sort of friends

For fathoming Physics and personal gain;

I applied again.

Our house was for sale when I got back home

Family broken; I didn’t stay long

But made my home on a golden shore

With friends who adopted me, loved me and more,

 

Taught me to drink and what overdrafts are

There were trains all day long; never needed a car.

I learned all the words to the national song

Wanted to be them; to be home, to belong.

 

Shared a house where cockroaches hid in the day

Condemned the next year but never mind eh?

All good things must come to an end

But these will be friends for the rest of my days.

We split up forever, are world’s apart,

But that great gift of home is deep in my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Future-proof housing for the UK

So in the absence of one that I am aware of, here is a manifesto of how to future-proof any new houses that are built after the general election in a few days’ time.

  1. Tear up whatever is already in place and have a fresh look from all perspectives at what we want to achieve with housing sustainability.
  2. It’s not impossible to have good quality site management and building going on. But people need to believe in what they are doing and not just be turning up for a wage.  If you care about your work, good workmanship will follow if there is a cultural inclination for it.
  3. It is very important for social housing partners not to delegate all quality control to private building firms. This is not investing for the many, but lining the pockets of the few. You will not get a good deal unless you are on the ground, treated with respect, not contempt, and ensuring that your new community (yes, yours, UK Housing – you are not separate from community) has space and resources to be involved and to grow organically (a metaphor, but non-metaphorical organic growing always good to encourage.)
  4. Ignore the seriousness of seemingly small matters at your peril. For people striving hard on the edge of survival, all this can add up to an unstable community, with fractious neighbours, people frequently wanting to move out and housing stock ending up in the private rental sector.
  5. Don’t tell lies. We are not stupid and will see through them. It is very annoying and completely pointless. Be honest in your marketing about local connection requirements and the limitations as well as the benefits of the various housing schemes such as shared ownership. Respect your customers and tenants and you can expect respect back. You are on a hiding to nothing if you don’t so it’s worth a go isn’t it?
  6. Don’t think of yourselves as providers, think of yourselves as investors. As a volunteer, I’ve invested countless hours in my community over the years because it’s worth it. It’s my community just as it is yours. Quit paternal habits. You would be a very neglectful parent most of the time as things stand anyway so stop doing what you are not good at and focus on what you are.
  7. Have clear lines of communication every single day of a build including planning and after care.
  8. Never build anywhere without a meeting place – at the very least, some open ground that could be used for gatherings. People can do a lot with very little and will if you give them the chance.
  9. Look after the soil. Properly. Don’t sell off the good stuff. Don’t move it in the rain to save money – it doesn’t in the long run. Put it in neat piles according to soil type and keep a record. Don’t leave your broken trowels, roof tiles, chewing gum papers, random metalwork or breeze blocks just under the new turf.
  10. That sweeping under the carpet thing – really, don’t do that. And while we are on about carpets, make sure tenure is blind on the inside, the outside, in the fencing and in the flooring. (Lights in all garages would also be handy.)
  11. Insulate, insulate, insulate and not just because you have to.
  12. Solar panels are great – put more and have some of them paying back to those who live in the houses even if it’s into a community fund (for the actual community living there).
  13. People will come and live in your houses unless they are really awful, which they won’t be now you have read this, so be their best friend. Lobby for them, care about them, be on their side. Don’t turn a blind eye to issues such as where they will send their children to school, how they will get on a GP’s list, how they will shop if they are disabled or without transport and how they will get to work.
  14. Watch DIY SOS Big Build at the start of every day. Do group hugs. Love thy neighbour (that’s us).
  15. Use your vote wisely. Very wisely. Your children will ask how you voted in 2017.
  16. 🙂 Smile.

A home is for life – and not just your lifetime.

Generation Rent, we were, even though we were a bit old for it.

Not by choice but by circumstances. We were a little bit older than most, with a little less time for a mortgage. I got married in 2008 to someone born in Zimbabwe. He has a British passport and his parents came from Birmingham. His dad, who left school without many qualifications, was one of the children of a former maid who had been sacked for taking an illicit piece of apple pie from her employer (and thank goodness for that tempting treat and mean spirit) and the widower who married her to help him cope with the children he had already after his first wife died. I never met him, but have heard tales of his mischievious sense of humour – telling the children for instance, that Father Christmas wasn’t coming ‘this year’ because his sleigh had come down on a landmine.

I would have had words to say to him about sending his sons off to board in Salisbury (now Harare) and never turning up to support in sporting events. (“Did you know Bob, that the prefects used to drop children over the bannister from the second floor? Yes, they caught them, yes, but did you know what was happening in that place?’ for example.)

I would have asked him if it was necessary for the children to have to hang out of the back window of the car with a gun because of the terrorist threat and why he chose to have them sleep out in the garden instead of in the house? (It probably was. The closest family to them were murdered one night, including a teenage girl, in the most brutal way imaginable.)

Maybe. But maybe, I would have asked him also about building projects. We have a small area of ferns in our garden named Fernhill to remember him. This was the name of his house in Birmingham, built with friends, who were all in the building trade. Electricians, plumbers, brickies, painters, carpenters…they helped each other build a small street of houses. From this he went on to being offered a job with a firm either in Zim or Malaysia, so his first children were born Brummies and the next four in Zimbabwe. Now, they are scattered around the world and I’ve never met my brother-in-law in Pretoria.

Mother-in-law designed her own dream home on a farm next to a game reserve including rondaavels in the grounds ‘for the servants’ but now lives in a council flat in Brum as they got divorced and she moved home to care for her own mother. My husband moved first to South Africa – with his first wife – and then to the UK. He almost turned around and went home when he saw the price of petrol and the parking at the airport, but didn’t and rented a home from a landlord which he was still living in when we met – also our first home together. When we got married, his older children were still at home so I became a step mother to teenagers. After some turbulent times (one refused to speak to me for three weeks but then needed washing doing, one was going through a difficult time for other reasons), they moved out to independent homes. I wanted to have a new start and didn’t see why we couldn’t start looking to buy a home so we moved to a ‘try before you buy scheme’ run by Bromford. We were tenants, but it was a new home. Three weeks later, and scarily early, my tiny son was born. We counted our blessings (and his fingers and toes) as we were now only minutes away from a big hospital with a neonatal unit. Also, unlike many traumatised families there, we didn’t have our baby in a different city to where we lived. We offered support, and a sofa for the night if needed to families we met there – our postbox-sized spare room being taken up by my step son once again as he had lost his job. (For the record, he took himself to night school after this, trained as an accountant, got married, saved up, has just bought his first home in Brum – and is now a lovely big brother.)

Then we learned that two of the main supporting walls on our former Private Rental Sector home had collapsed.

So, premature baby, in hospital for weeks, constantly in pain and crying because of hernias, step son learning the ropes of early child care (and how to use a washing machine), swine flu pandemic and then the riots that spread across the country.

After the riots (which I am very proud to say did not come to our town – they had better sense and more neighbourliness), and having to drive for an hour to get ‘anywhere green’, we moved down to the Forest of Dean. It was close enough to get to my family in one day, but far enough away to feel as though I’d moved somewhere else. We looked for 18 months for work, then my husband got three offers of interviews in Gloucestershire. We had friends in the town we live in already and had done extensive searches on house prices. The only places lower were in the Welsh valleys.  We rented for two years privately – a house owned by a local GP. He refused to listen to what we were saying about damp problems and the walls were paper-thin.  We all had asthma, including our toddler.

We moved again. Homeless again, for two weeks while the documents went through and staying with friends and after the sale almost fell through four times, but we moved.

Thanks to some lovely friends and their families, we were able to get a shared ownership home. Our local connection was a bit tenuous but we did pass the test and have always tried to give back in terms of volunteer work in the church, school, and community. I’ve since found out that my great, great grandmother was from hereabouts. While that doesn’t count at all in anyone else’s book, it did make me happier about living here. I miss our gregarious, fun-loving, multicultural friends in the Midlands. I worry about the down side of growing up in a small town and seek to instill positive values in my son.  I worry about his future but at least we have a small share in a house that we can pass on to him.

When you have been homeless (I have), had to sleep in a doorway because the doormat insulates you from the cold (I have – once), had to worry about forms for housing benefit (I have), had to write notes about what to do about the bailiffs because of debts other family members ran up (I have), have lived in a housing association flat and been driven out of it by threats from neighbours with machetes (I have), had your career destroyed just as you were starting out by illness and bullies (I have), you appreciate sturdy, well-insulated walls, a roof that doesn’t leak and being on the right side of the door when the estate agent leaves you. (Even if your small child then howls the place down because ‘It’s not home Mum! It’s not my home.’)

But there are those around us that are suffering because:

  1. There are no lifetime or inheritable tenancies any more
  2. Soil was mismanaged to such an extent on our estate that gardens became insect-infested swamps so inert that not even weeds would grow in them, let alone grass
  3. No regard was paid to the nascent community or how that would develop, cut off and isolated from the rest of the town
  4. No plan was made for looking after the public areas, or the only road access (#OakdaleRoundabout)
  5. Some houses appeared to be showing signs of subsidence just a few years after being built
  6. Planning permissions changed and new houses were put up blocking the light to living rooms in flats owned by a housing association. They couldn’t be bothered to check this before it went through. Nobody challenged it. Nobody cared enough.
  7. Many, many houses sold off cheaply at auction are now in the (as previously discussed) far from secure or safe private rental sector).

So, UK Housing, really, truly, there is no one who appreciates a home we can afford in a beautiful place we’re not sure we deserve to live in more than me, but is this a model for the future? Are profit-driven schemes doomed to always be like this? How are we planning for best values for future generations? Are we at all? I have satellite photos from Google Earth that show the area planned for Phase 2 of this grand housing vision that was funded by the Homes and Communities Agency. It looks for all the world as though top soil is being skimmed off years before any work begins: an environmental disaster as we have seen here, as well as an economic failing on the part of the housing associations who have (after vigorous campaigning) had to put right many of them as best they can – which means adding paving, reducing permeability and increasing flood risk. Fighting fires. Not a long-term strategy and with the prospects ahead of us, one that we need to talk about for the good of ‘the many, not the few’.

How bullying works: projection and scapegoating.

Politics and Insights

Very few people, when put to the test, have the integrity and moral courage to stand up against bullying, harassment, abuse, threats and corruption. The targets of adult bullying are selected often because they DO have the moral courage to challenge; many people will pass by on the other side.

A target of adult bullying is most often chosen because of their strength, not their weakness. Research shows that targets of bullying tend to have highly developed empathy for, and sensitivity of others, a high degree of perceptiveness, high moral values, a well-developed integrity, a strong sense of fair play and reasonableness, a low propensity to violence, a reluctance to pursue grievance, disciplinary or legal action, a strong forgiving streak and a mature understanding of the need to resolve conflict with dialogue. Often, targets of bullying are independent, self-reliant and “different” in some way. Weak people often…

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