Category Archives: Housing

Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space

Bachelard The Poetics of SpacePost two of three on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space — if you need a refresher on phenomenology maybe read post one. I’m in Wales at the moment doing fieldwork — three interviews today, several hours on rural buses, and I sit in a corner room staring out over a line of cottages to the sea, the ceiling curving gently overhead… one cider and this level of tired and I realised I won’t be working on rewrites as I should.

So Bachelard it is.

Chapter 1.

the house.
from cellar to garret.
the significance of the hut.

… if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

I love this connection between home and the safety for dreaming…

Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world. Before he is ‘cast into the world,’ as claimed by certain hasty metaphysics, man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house. (6-7)

The way we read dreams, memories, selves, through the shape of the home, the way we can map ourselves onto them…

Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in daydreams. A psychoanalyst should, therefore, turn his attenion to this simple localization of our memories. (8)

The way we can read space in the same way, but mediated through our own experience:

It therefore makes sense from our standpoint of a philosophy of literature and poetry to say that we “write a room,” “read a room,” or “read a house.” Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is “reading a room” leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. (14)

It is interesting to think about what it means for us, the depth to which we connect to the earliest spaces of our inhabitation.

But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways; we would recapture the reflexes of the “first stairway,” we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house’s entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. (14-15)

This emerged very strongly in the interviews/sessions that Clare Cooper-Marcus did with her respondents, and the ways in which people are forever responding to what they loved — or what they longed for — in these spaces of childhood.

In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a words to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house. (15)

I like thinking too, about how childhood — and particularly the richness and freedom of it dreaming — can be usefully evoked by space:

It is on the plane of the daydream and not on that of facts that childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us. Through this permanent childhood, we maintain the poetry of the past. To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.  (16)

You know I liked this observation on poetry and its connection to dreaming — and in this context then, its connection to space and the freedom and magic of childhood.

And we should not forget that these dream values communicate poetically from soul to soul. To read poetry is essentially to daydream. (17)

But then, of course, he brings it all back to himself. White, European, male — a very different experience of home and of spaces than my own, yet of course treated as the norm. Of course, much of what is wrong with the world today can be traced to the greed, neuroses, and crazed power dreams of European men, so it is interesting to look at this sympathetic view of how they have grown up in and experienced space. Urban space:

But in addition to the intimate value of verticality, a house in a big city lacks cosmicity. For here, where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings, the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees. (27)

Home space, in a ‘normal’ European house:

To bring order to these images, I believe that we should consider two principal connecting themes: 1) a house is imagined as a vertical being. It rises upward. It differentiates itself in terms of its verticality. It is one of the appeals to our consciousness of verticality. 2) a house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appeals to our consciousness of centrality. (17)

cellar and attic…how many people never have those? I have no vertical themes, everything in this schema is thus thrown off. I do not feel myself to be oneirically incomplete — but suspect Bachelard might find me so. He writes:

By way of antithesis, I shall make a few remarks on dwellings that are oneirically incomplete. (26)

Like, you know, the hut. The dreams of the other and other problematic things:

“hut dream,” which is well-known to everyone who cherishes the legendary images of primitive houses. But in most hut dreams we hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares… the round house, the primitive hut, of prehistoric man …  (31)

‘I live in a round house’ I wrote in an essay once. These sentences are a bit calculated to make me roll my eyes. I hate this use of the ‘we’. While this next thing holds true for me:

We are hypnotized by solitude, hypnotized by the gaze of the solitary house; and the tie that binds us to it is so strong that we begin to dream of nothing but a solitary house in the night. (36-37)

I know those for whom solitude is terrifying. I wish we had better ways to write about these things.

What follows in chapter 2 is House and Universe — as illustrated from quotes drawn from literature…post three. I wanted to keep the rest together though, the meditations on very particular, intimate spaces within a house.

3 – Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes

I rather love that this is the title of Chapter 3. I rather love sentences like this one, that I have no affinity with whatsoever:

As is well know, the drawer metaphor, in addition to certain others, such as “ready-made garments,” is used by Bergson to convey the inadequacy of a philosophy of concept. (75)

This underlines for me the fact that some people have lived in a world of the intellect where they assumed that everyone was just like them. Throwing around Bergson. Seeing things in drawers that I never will. How curious.

These rapid remarks are intended to show that a metaphor should be no more than an accident of expression, and that it is dangerous to make a thought of it. A metaphor is a false image, since it does not possess the direct virtue of an image formed in spoken revery. (77)

I am unsure of this distinction, but like the reaction it provokes.

I will perhaps grant him one universal truth, and it is this:

Does there not exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe? . . . .  (78)

Because yes. Also yes to this:

…for psychoanalysis this is a clear sign … When we dream of locks and keys there’s nothing more to confess. But poetry extends well beyond psychoanalysis on every side. (84)

He ends with the effacing of dialectics! Again I felt that this sentence sparked a million contradictory thoughts, I am not sure what to do with any of them! But I liked that.

Chests, especially small caskets, over which we have more complete mastery, are objects that may be opened. … from the moment the casket is opened, dialectics no longer exist. the outside is effaced with one stroke, an atmosphere of novelty and surprise reigns. The outside has no more meaning. (85)

4 – Nests

For the world is a nest, and an immense power holds the inhabitants of the world in this nest. (104)

I do fucking love nests. A whole chapter on nests.

5 – shells

With nests, with shells — at the risk of wearying the reader — I have multiplied the images that seem to me to illustrate the function of inhabiting in elementary forms which may be too remotely imagined. Here one sense clearly that this is a mixed problem of imagination and observation. I have simply wanted to show that whenever life seeks to shelter, protect, cover or hide itself, the imagination sympathizes with the being that inhabits the protected space. The imagination experiences protection in all its nuances of security, from life in the most material of shells, to more subtle concealment through imitation of surfaces. (132)

I loved all of this.

6 – corners

I also really fucking love corners. Passageways leading to the unknown…just around the corner.

The point of departure of my reflections is the following: every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house. (136)

This evoked Alexander’s Pattern Language, or Cullen’s Concise Townscape. Though if I remember rightly, for them the magic of a corner was its mystery revealed through movement…I enjoyed the contrast with Bachelard’s vision of the corner:

That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined.

To begin with, the corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly — immobility. It is the sure place, the place next to my immobility. (137)

7 – miniature

Happy at being in a small space, he realizes an experience of topophilia; that is, once inside the miniature house, he sees its vast number of rooms; from the interior he discovers interior beauty. (149)

Ah, the brilliance of tiny rooms. There are some dialectics going on here too between inside and outside, but I’ll be damned if I quite know what they are in this example.

Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness. (155)

There is, too, the quality and hours of workmanship that the miniature requires for its very existence:

I haven’t the advantage of actually seeing the works of the miniaturists of the Middle Ages, which was this great age of solitary patience. But I can well imagine this patience, which brings peace to one’s fingers. Indeed, we have only to imagine it for our souls to be bathed in peace. All small things must evolve slowly, and certainly a long period of leisure, in a quiet room, was needed to miniaturize the world. Also one must love space to describe it as minutely as though there were world molecules, to enclose an entire spectacle in a molecule of drawing. (159)

An attention to detail, an attention to space — what can we not learn by performing this, or at second best, describing it and learning from it?

Many a theorem of topo-analysis would have to be elucidated to determine the action of space upon us. For images cannot be measured. And even when they speak of space, they change in size. The slightest value extends, heightens, or multiplies them. Either the dreamer becomes the being of his image, absorbing all its space or he confines himself in a miniature version of his images. (173)

I don’t know what this last quote means at all, but I like it.

8 – Intimate Immensity

In this direction of daydreams of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being. (184)

Ah, the awesomeness of bigness. We become greater than ourselves in admiration.

9 – the dialectics of inside and outside

Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being. Thus profound metaphysics is rooted in an implicit geometry which — whether we will or no — confers spatiality upon thought; if a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think? (212)

The spatiality of thought — what is not to like in that? There is a richness here that I would like to ruminate over, play around with. If I can find the time. I should have drunk more perhaps. But doors…gateways, of course there are volumes to be written about doors.

But how many daydreams we should have to analyse under the simple heading of Doors! For the door is an entire cosmos of the Half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. (222)

10- The phenomonology of roundness

Philosophy makes us ripen quickly, and crystallizes us in a state of maturity. how, then, without “dephilosophizing” ourselves, may we hope to experience the shocks that being receives from new images, shocks which are always the phenomena of youthful being? (236)

This explains why we should read more philosophy… the final post, why we should read more literature.

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Ground Control: Anna Minton

Ground Control by Anna Minton is a great summation and ordering of the neoliberal features of current planning and development in the UK, and how they have developed since the 1970s. It quite brilliantly gets at the main features of planning and housing policies, ordering them in ways that makes a wealth of detail comprehensible while also highlighting its egregious effects on individuals, their communities and society as a whole.

It is a pleasure to read, but not pleasant reading if you know what I mean. Nothing infuriates me more than the privatisation and destruction of housing and the constant increases in control, security and surveillance. Over and over again you see the looting of the public sector and land belonging to all of us by the private sector, facilitated by politicians and planners and academics as well. Not that academics have power, but write the kind of theory that people in power want to hear and watch that shit fly.  Above all, the promotion of profit as the highest and best use, and the purpose of government to facilitate that. So while the Olympics in East London were billed as a benefit and income generator, it turned out as we ‘cynics’ expected all along.

According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee less than 2 percent of the Olympic budget has ended up coming from the private sector. (xvii)

When things began to fall apart in the economic downturn, the Wellcome Trust made a £1 billion bid for the development to explore a more full community use for the land. They were rejected, and Minton writes:

It is amazing that despite the utter collapse of the commercial case for the Olympic development the bottom line remains the only consideration the Olympic decision makers are prepared to consider. (xix)

She describes the rise of large corporations becoming community developers, which explains why so many new builds have so little possibility of generating community. This rise of what she calls ‘Tesco towns’, where a corporation building superstores builds customer’s homes along with it through its regeneration subsidiary Spenhill. It has built homes, schools, and public places in Gateshead, Kirby , West Bromwich Bradley Stoke, Shepton mallet, Seaton, Bromley-by-Bow, Woolich, Streatham.  (xxxv)

A book in itself to explore our new company towns. But I am reminded of that book I have seen on a colleagues shelf, Tescopoly, and am resolved to steal it. Borrow it. Whatever.

Then we have the Docklands as the birth of an idea — land amassed with the support of the state and sold off (cheap) to a developer. It is no longer public but private. New ‘luxury’ residences sit under rigid control alongside bars and restaurants in gated, high-security communities.

Minton writes:

‘…every former inner-city industrial area is trying to emulate this model, from the waterfronts of Salford Quays and Cardiff to the controversial demolition programmes of the old industrial northern cities.’ (5)

God forbid, but I stare at Salford Quays and can see the truth of it for myself.

The very particular form that this has taken in this country is fascinating though, as it is quite different from the states. Beginning in the the 1980s and the rise of the quango — the Urban Development Corporation, or UDC. A very clever way for conservatives to bypass the power of local (powerful, Labour) authorities — essentially giving developers who generally dominated the UDCs power of planning & economic development, power to buy land using compulsory purchase and sell land & spend public money without debate required. Elected figures too often seemed to be a rubber stamp and an air of legitimacy, but the real teeth in planning and public processes were removed.

Thus we have the Docklands — eight and a half square miles assembled and developed with no public debate in the face of immense local opposition. It sits there today, a place that in its form goes against everything I believe quality public and city spaces — spaces that promote wellbeing, conviviality, interchange and a sense of belonging to a wider society — should be.

Minton got some great interviews, this is so telling:

In the late 1980s it was like the Yukon gold rush in the whole Docklands area. Places such as Limehouse were totally overheated and developers were building orange boxes and practically giving away  free Porsches with them. It was exciting, but it was frightening. Then the whole thing went belly up. (12)
— Bob Barlow, marketing consultant with Barratt Homes and others

In 1992 Canary Wharf Estate went bankrupt, in spite of all the public subsidy. I’ve heard Canary Wharf’s ‘success’ in generating profit billed as a success story, instead I think of just how much public taxpayer money went into building such a space for international capital and insanely wealthy individuals who have chosen to put walls and gates between themselves and the local community. There’s ExCel just down the way, I’ve written about that terribly bleak space too, just one of the spaces along the Thames that are all privately owned — like ExCel, with its exhibition centre, six hotels, 2000 homes on ‘one hundred-acre ‘campus” on the old Royal Victoria Dock.  It sits above Canning town, it’s hard to reach from the community, it makes protesting the arms fairs happening there harder. (13)

Of course that in itself is not entirely new — Minton notes the controls and the gating of the old Bedford Estate, particularly along the border with Camden (remember when Camden was full of poor people? Damn.). They:

used uniformed ex-prison officers to patrol their enclave and when a fight over entry into the area broke out, leading to a death, the coroner is recorded as saying that government conduct was “disgraceful in allowing these squares and place places to be closed to the public.” (20)

Leading to a death…unthinkable for so many years, but I think we are returning to those kinds of times once again.

Still, there is something different about what is happening now, about this huge shift in the twenty-first century towards the creation of large private estates — shopping centres and office complexes that no longer sit on public streets. A very clever way of stripping local authority assets. Much of this was made possible in 2004, when a new act of Parliament changed the definition  of ‘public benefit’ to make economic impact rather than community impact more important.

Didn’t see New Labour getting rid of that now did we.

Minton’s tells us that the best place to look for how space will be managed and run, the feel of it, is in the ‘Estate Management Strategy’. Management is all important.

“Insurers like to see developers taking as many measures as possible to avoid a claim and they’re taking an increasing interest in risk controls being put in place in developments”, Gloyn says [Bill Gloyn, chairman of European real estate at Aon]. The consequence is that the private estates are far more ‘risk averse’ than the public parts of the city. This creates a very different atmosphere and public culture, which is now at the heart of all new developments. (33)

It doesn’t matter whether your taste runs to these developments or not, Minton says (I wonder honestly who does like them, but I know I am not hanging out with people from the city):

The real problem is that because these places are not for everyone, spending too much time in them means people become unaccustomed to – and eventually very frightened of – difference. (36)

BIDs and privatisation

We move to take a look at my new home of Manchester and New Labour’s love affair here — putting this city on the cutting edge of the introduction of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and growing privatisation.

Vomitous.

Thus was the Free Trade Hall made into part of a national hotel chain and removed from public life — now I know to mourn. Picadilly Gardens the same. The centre of Manchester is run by Cityco since 2000, in the fashion of a BID though they took over before BIDs were introduced here. Like in the States (I write about them, and they are so much more in your face there), their primary interest in keeping the area ‘clean and safe’. This is entirely about customer experience and about business bottom lines, not community. At least, not about the whole community. BIDs are clearly set up for consumers, Minton quotes another BID manager:

…The whole business of BIDs is moving the problem on, either by putting homeless people in a hostel or making sure they go somewhere else. (57)

In 2002, David Blunkett as home secretary introduced the ‘wider police family’, broadening who could exercise police powers. (45) Minton writes, that the:

flipside to clean and safe is control and zero tolerance. (48)

It is the promotion of the view that people ‘doing nothing’ in a space are suspicious or dangerous. (53) The opposite of what people who actually study public spaces have shown to be true. So we come to the best quote from a Bid manager:

We probably are a bit controlling in your terms, but we want quality control… There’s a trade-off between public safety and spontaneity. What you want is a few surprises, I agree with that, so we add in unpredictability with lighting schemes and water features, anything that adds to the quirkiness of what happens when you walk around as a consumer. We make huge efforts to import vitality. (54)

It really is the best quote. It really explains why those spaces are completely dead inside. Minton notes, however, that BID’s face less opposition here, due partly to tangled nature of the partnerships involved. For example in Manchester the founding chair was from Cityco and head of Brintwood — then Manchester’s biggest property developer — and the current chair is joint chief exec of Argent, the company redeveloping Picaccadilly Place. But the council is also represented. (56)

Defending Space

In the 1970s Britain first moved towards policies on ‘defensible space’ — established by Oscar Newman whose ideas were adopted by Essex County Council in the Design Guide of 1973. They drew on lessons from 3 public housing projects in NY — I mean, really? And then over the last decade we’ve seen the government initiative ‘Secured by Design’ (62, 72), spearheaded by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 1998 as a crime-reduction project. Same as ‘Crime Prevention through Design’ or CPTED in teh States. Still blaming poor people’s behaviour for all the world’s problems and thinking punitive architecture can fix it. Still, insurance companies love it and provide lower premiums when its used, as do security agencies.

So everyone uses it. More gates. Minton describes them as a stereotype of  luxury living. God, I suppose they are, but it wasn’t always…She gives the depressing example of St George’s Hill of Digger fame, which was the first gated development in the 1920s. Is now a golf course and country club. Is now full of absurdly expensive hi-tech homes marketed at men just like other gated communities.

Renewal…

This breaks my heart more than anything, streets of row houses demolished for profit only, communities broken up. Oldham is her example. It’s infuriating and desperately sad. If a building is listed it can only be knocked down if it becomes a danger to the public — good reason to let it become so.

Again we are back to that 2004 Compulsory Purchase Act — allowed economic well-being alone as a justification for purchase and redevelopment. (93) Profit rules.

She gives the example of Wainman Street, here in Salford as one of these places identified by Brendan Nevin, academic and architect of the Pathfinder Policy to ‘restructure housing provision in some older industrial cities.’ (97) Houses were emptied out of people who wanted to live in them through the 2000s, demolished to create land for redevelopment. Pathfinder has been shown to benefit only developers who get control over wide areas of empty land and councils who get government funding for the program, no one else. Definitely not the families who want to keep their homes. New Labour ran with it.

There are, of course, the new HMOs, or Housing in Multiple Occupation: ‘bedsits with high concentrations of economic migrants… Often they clash with the poor, mainly white population…” (108)

In London almost everyone I knew lived in this kind of housing of course, but here up North it’s just coming into its own. Just one of the horrors of the Private Rented Sector. There are bad conditions:

Following the buy-to-let boom, there are now hundreds of thousands of landlords who have not had to pass any tests of competence, demonstrate any knowledge of landlord or tenent law, or prove their honesty, financial probity or absence from criminal convictions, let along have any experience of property management. (111)

There’s Right to Buy — only had impact it did because councils not allowed to reinvest money made through sales back into council housing, combined with the buy-to-let mortgage that really came into its own under New Labour– buy-to-let now makes up a third of the private rented sector. (117) This created huge added costs to councils to provide statutory duties to those who find themselves homeless. By 2005, it was common practice that many of these empty investment rental apartments were leased back to the council as temporary accommodation as they scrambled to find housing for homeless to whom they had statutory duty to house. At exorbitant prices you can be sure. More transferal of money from the public to the private sector.

The Civil Society

The impact of all of this on society can hardly be underestimated. Minton starts with the fear of crime —  looking at where it comes from, and how it increases for those living behind gates. Thus, while it ‘arises from a multitude of complex reasons, underpinned by the emotional state of the individual’,  eventually it turns on trust. Gates tend to dissolve trust, and shutter people away from identification with the larger world.  (132)

There’s a lot on ASBOs here which helped me understand them better — they are very English, emerging from the Labour government’s Antisocial Behaviour White Paper of 2003,  what a travesty. Of course this connects to broken-window theory, which I hate with a great passionate hatred.

Turns out Manchester was the ASBO capital of Britain, with Cityco particularly enthusiastic in this regard. Salford too declred a Respect Action Area…so a lot of focus on the impacts here.

Minton tells us about a mother in Salford describing how her kids can’t go into kebab shops or play on the street. There is nothing in Salford to do for youth, and pubs tend not to be open to people under 21. That shocked me, so I’ve started noticing just how many set age limits above the national ones. A number of them.

A final thought on the crux of it all

So many of today’s fractures in civil society have come about as a result of the single-minded approach to extracting the maximum profit from the places we live in, through policies on property.  (177)

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House as a Mirror of Self: Clare Cooper-Marcus

I quite loved Clare Cooper-Marcus’s book House as a Mirror of Self. I loved the uniqueness of its approach; its fearlessness in connecting the material, the social, the psychological and the spiritual; and the very real insights it develops around the intertwining of our sense of self and our sense of place. Using Jungian therapy is such an interesting methodology for exploring our connections to place, how this is formed in our childhood and how this plays out through our lives. It is a way to get more to the centre of what place really means to us as human beings.

A core theme of this book and the stories within it is the notion that we are all — throughout our lives–striving toward a state of wholeness, of being wholly ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every relationship, event, mishap, or good fortune in our lives can be preserved as a “teaching,” guiding us toward being more and more fully who we are. Although this has been widely written about, especially by Jungians, what this book adds to the debate is the suggestion that the places we live in are reflections of that process, and indeed the places themselves have a powerful effect on our journey toward wholeness. (10)

In this aspect of the book, it is reminiscent of Bachelard’s work on The Poetics of Space, particularly as Bachelard also attempts it from within a Jungian framework. It helps that Jung built his own house and tied it so explicitly in his work to his own psychological development. I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet. it is trying to get at the same thing Yi-Fu Tuan writes about from the anthropological side of things, which also makes me slightly uncomfortable, though just as interesting.

Anyway, like all good psychoanalysts, Clare Cooper-marcus begins at the beginning.

“First houses are the grounds of our first experiences,” writes Australian novelist David Malouf. “Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large: and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there.” (19-20)

I always get a bit uncomfortable on this territory, don’t really like edging towards the psyche — and at the same time I am driven there, recognising that it is only there that many answers can be found in thinking about belonging, as well as things like violence that I have been wrestling with. I felt this way reading Fromm, and I am sure I shall continue to feel this way…

But of course it feels true that most would regard childhood as a sacred period in our lives, and that it is formative in so much of who we are:

We hold the childhood memories of certain places as a kind of psychic anchor, reminding us of where we come from, of what we once were, or of how the physical environment perhaps nurtured us when family dynamics were strained or the context of our lives fraught with uncertainty. (20)

I love this sense of place-making as deeply embedded in our lives and childhoods, think of the desert where I grew up where all of us had places named after us, and we had names for many others…

The designation of special names is an important component of childhood appropriation of space, the beginnings of a lifetime experience with place-making. (25)

She later writes:

To appropriate space, to order and mold it into a form that pleases us and affirms who we are, is a universal need. (68)

So back to the book. Cooper-Marcus qualified as a therapist, worked with people to examine their living spaces as a way of examining their lives. For this reason it was a self-selected group of the middle-class edging upwards — I realise I have no real sense of where middle- and upper-class meet. For so long I thought anyone was rich who had a car they could depend on or pop-tarts for breakfast. Some of the people she interviewed challenged my more mature understandings of middle-classness and sent it skyrocketing upwards. But she is honest and open about this, as well as the ways in which she met people at conferences and through presentations, the nature of her snowball sample in primarily the Oakland Hills, and the limitations of all of that.

The limitations of the well-off talking about housing still really annoyed me at times, but the book was worth it all and engaged with the co-constitutive natures of self and place in a way few other books do, or even could. So a few quotes — though given my interest is in how this intersects with more structural aspects of house and home means I won’t quote quite as extensively as my usual absurd standard. Still, there’s a great quote from Kim Dovey on how some fo these layers come together, and broad meanings of home and belonging:

Home can be a room inside a house, a house within a neighborhood, a neighborhood within a city, and a city within a nation. At each level the meaning of home gains in intensity and depth from the dialectical interaction between the two poles of experience — the place and its context at a larger scale…. Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world. It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. (“Home and homelessness”, 191)

I loved this on the difference between being able to huild a home and shape it over the years, and not just because this is how I grew up and what I rather long to have now:

…the house is me. Because I built it and because it’s everything I wanted it to be; I think of it really as an extension of our family. It is not an object you buy in a showroom, like a car or a piece of furniture. It’s us. Its imperfections are as revealing to me as its satisfactions, like a friend or member of the family whose imperfections we can see… I don’t think we change our habits to suit the house…we change the house to suit our habits, so it’s constantly evolving. We live it, we don’t live in it. (54)

Cooper-Marcus notes that our desire to have control over our home spaces are more significant when we don’t have control over other aspects of our lives. Hell of true.

Also coming out so strongly through these interviews — almost makes me sorry for rich people — was the gendered differences in how people experience place and how they are limited or freed by it. Cooper-Marcus notes the studies that show the ways in which women are much more affected by the location of the home than men — particularly access to services, This is particularly visible in studies of suburbs where distance separates home from services and services from each other.

One study of over 200 couples in upper-middle-class sections of Stamford, Connecticut and NYC found ‘the most satisfied group was suburban men.’ These men spent significantly less time with their children and spouse. (199) That floored me, while at the same time, am I honestly surprised? Susan Saegert summarises another study that sheds additional light on this:

it appears that men prefer residential environments that reinforce the public-private distinction. This may be an inadvertent consequence of the bonuses of suburban life–retreat, outdoor activities, home ownership,relief from the pace of the city– or it many be partially motivated by the perhaps unconscious desire in many men to assure their home will be taken care of by a woman with few other options. (200)

I wonder how much this is shifting, and how this is working with other factors such as the return to city centres and resulting gentrification I wonder all of this in relation to suburban people, mostly white people, this is not a book that examines the kind of neighbourhoods I have long worked in, care most about, at all. But it certainly points towards a very interesting and rewarding way of looking at such neighbourhoods, building on work done by Mindy Fullilove and others.

The real importance of understanding and grappling with this is the way that this creates patterns over the course of our lives and down the generations — particularly in view of generations of segregation. Cooper-Marcus writes:

Research suggests that though few of us remain living in the same specific locale throughout our lives, many of us have a tendency to prefer living in the same type of setting…we each have a ‘settlement identity.’ (201)

This is an identity bound up in whether we prefer, and how we feel while we are in, the city, the suburbs etc… This tends to form in our childhood — whose setting often becomes our ideal, though if a childhood is unhappy people will often chose a contrasting setting. This isn’t a simple thing, but important to understand as taste in home and neighbourhood can be ‘significant indicators of group identity’, particularly socioeconomic identity.

Whether by choice or not, where you live and what you see around you are a reflection of who you are–or who society says you are. Making neighborhoods safe, secure, beautiful, and socially nurturing is not just some pie-in-the-sky aesthetic dream. It needs to be an essential component of urban policy, a high-priority expenditure of tax dollars. If the place where you grew up is as critical to your psychological development as I have tried to communicate in this book, imagine the damage to the next generation of youngsters who cannot freely play outside of their homes for fear of being shot? (213)

The crux of why this matters.

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Cathy Come Home

I knew Ken Loach’s 1966 film version of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home would be harrowing, so I saved it for a time when I had great things to look forward to. The great London weekend of ought-seventeen. Made me miss London. Sadly I am writing about it post great weekend, but it has to be done.

Also, spoiler alert. Though you can probably guess the broad outlines of how this film is going to go.

I can see why it caused nationwide controversy and outcry, can see how it connects to the formation of Crisis and Shelter — from the BFI’s description, it:

gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.

I can see why this is a pivotal film in thinking about housing in Britain. For showing the state of it, for showing what the loss of it meant. For showing how many people sought it in vain. I loved how it abandoned the studio to take us through the city.

Clearly it showed a number of viewers (12 million people says wikipedia, for what that’s worth, a quarter of Britain’s population from the glory days of limited channels) a great deal of the absurdity of judgmental support systems when you are poor. How demeaning, how belittling, how ultimately idiotic they are. How a bit of respectful support early on could stop that terrifying descent and the loss of everything. Dignity, hope, marriage, children. The demolishing of a family. This is a battle we continue to fight, I imagine will always have to fight. People with privilege never seem to quite believe that poverty isn’t the fault of the poor, this seems the most massive of hurdles. Even when the privileged do cross it, the poor or working classes too often remain a ‘class’, a cypher, never become fully human in all their potential and possibilities and everyday kind of flaws. They are always other.

I think one of the true successes of this film, as in Up the Junction, was how Loach succeeded in bringing alive workers and those finding themselves homeless, making them real for a broader audience. These films make them entirely human. They reveal the brutal and exaggerated consequences of bad luck, the easily-trodden pathways to despair that abound in our society for those without wealth or property or connections. Above all, I loved that Cathy herself got to speak and be heard, got to tell her story.

A newly growing majority once again.

It starts though, as life usually starts….Cathy (Carol White) arriving in the big city, falling in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Their romance is set against the housing programme of their times, as they climb up and up and stare out over the slums. ‘It’s all coming down’ Reg tells her. It is only a backdrop here, not yet the loss which will define their lives.

Like the other films, their story is interspersed with bits and pieces of others. The film goes from their from wedding to the visit of a health worker conniving with a daughter in overcrowded lodgings to get her dad put into home. It broke my heart this banal conversation about him as if he were not there even though there he sits, the clinical discussion of his incontinence and his face… oh his face trying to hold in the emotion.

The boys are coming home, she says, we don’t have space to keep him. Like he’s a pet. Yet true enough, there is no space to keep him. There is no larger house on the horizon.

For Cathy and Reg all starts out well. A flat that feels like home. Until Reg’s accident. The loss of his job. Cathy’s pregnancy. They go seeking for a room and there is nothing, and over the top of it all documentary voices discussing the lack of housing, the overcrowding. The documentary voice dissasociating itself from the very human struggles over home.

And thus begins the great descent.

First to Reg’s family’s home. Kids and laundry everywhere, SO MANY KIDS, so many pregnant women. The voices of its residents describing their lives there.

One bedroom, no married life…

You can sit on the toilet and cook your breakfast…

Reg’s mother (Winifred Dennis — poor Winnifred Dennis, the horrible racist mother in The End of Arthur’s Marriage as well) going on and on about her having done her bit, raised her own children, going at Cathy saying she’s been teaching her boy dirty habits, worrying her son so he drove off the road. That awful nitpicking voice.

Still, I liked seeing this life now gone. Hope still lived here with them.

It gets to be too much so they take another step down, to a cheaper street — people talking about how horrible these streets are, the boarded up windows, the rats, the noises from the empty houses. But there is also the camaraderie, the friends, the jokes.

This film is full of amazing views of the old two-up-two-downs. The landlady is kindly, forgives the arrears. But death takes her, and the nephew demands the money.

The council begins to come in to its incompetent and horrible own. A man explains the point system, the lack of housing (and hello Geoffrey Palmer!). They are visited by another council worker telling them their house isn’t fit to live in and he will have to evict them — they are living in one room as it is too damp upstairs for the children. His reaction when they tell him they’re being evicted already by the landlord?

Oh good, it saves me from doing what I don’t want to do.

Day of the eviction they barricade themselves in, bailiffs beat the door down, throw all of their things into the road in front of the huge neighbourhood crowd. There is no drama here really, it just rolls on relentlessly the way poverty does.

Another step down. Off to the caravan, past a long line of junked cars. A cast of brilliant characters, a sense of community. Men in the pub, women bringing in the water. My favourite quote of the film (loosely quoted mind you)

You’ll never find a louse, because we know how to thwart them. With the devil’s dung.

Another telling quote from those not so fond of the life.

Once you’re in a caravan you’ve gone as low as you can go.

With the building of a new housing development, new neighbours give speeches about slums on wheels, hold meetings, speak with all their petty fury about the caravans, and how yes that’s a traditional gypsy camping ground but these aren’t gypsies, they’re scroungers. They throw rocks thrown through caravan windows, firecrackers.

Scenes go from talking about hops, potato picking, enjoying laughter in pub to a caravan set on fire, and dead children. The hatred is shocking.

Cathy and Reg search again. No children allowed anywhere. From caravan they look to a boat. Another good quote:

people tend to deteriorate when they’re living on boat… they turn it into a slum…

And so they yield to the worst — emergency shelter, women and children only. They have to interview for it and again we are face to face with just how horrible the council is as the case worker (or whatever his title might have been) tries to catch them out in lying, to convince them that they don’t want it, that other tenants aren’t very nice. That he can’t accommodate the father, that they have to pay rent for it, that it is only one room. Treats them like dirt.

Nurse sends Reg off at the gates, and you know that this is probably the end for them. Another clinical voice

Many social workers feel that all homeless families are problem families. If they weren’t when they arrive, they are when they leave…

This place is full of even more women and children.

What shocked me, I suppose, was the same old blaming of immigrants for the lack of housing, the same horrible attempts to control the women body and soul, the same treatment of them as less than human. The same program forcing them to abstinence and hunger and the scrubbing of floors on their knees, the same as fucking Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) described in her illuminating investigations of workhouses. It shocked me that so little had changed.

So I was happy to see her get angry, see her talk back to the nurse talking down to all of them. See her snapping at the social workers snidely asking if she’s even married after telling her that her husband has stopped paying for her. Not even a thought to what that means. I was happy, but terrified too, because I knew what that would cost her. Privilege can’t bear to be talked back to. Charity requires humility and submission from its objects, which is perhaps one of the worst things about it. It is the thing I hate most.

I cried as she runs, is caught, is left sitting alone after her children are taken.

I wish that such stories remained in the past. But welcome back to 1966.

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The End of Arthur’s Marriage: Ken Loach

This post is so chock full of spoilers I could not bear for you to read it unless you have seen Ken Loach’s The End of Arthur’s Marriage (1965). Or plan never to see it.

So stop.

Now.

Have you seen it?

Right. It opens with dancing — that funny canned dancing from some 60s television program, and the faces of two old people watching. Prurient, disapproving. It’s rather horrible. And into the script written by poet Christoper Logue, and the poetic chorus sung to a very modern, discordant kind of music. Which was the first surprise.

We are the little investors
We are afraid of Negroes and Jews
We are boring, it is easy to mock us
But what would you put in our place?
… Politicians love us

There’s much more, but I can find the lyrics nowhere, and who has time to transcribe them?

And so we are launched into the story after some nasty comments from the parents, their cross daughter, and the handing over of £400 to Arthur (Ken Jones — briefly in 3 Clear Sundays) with many an admonition. It’s their life savings, it’s the reason they’ve been so miserable all these years, it’s the reason they don’t have nice things, never had a holiday. It’s clear they don’t think much of him, so I had to wonder at why they should do such a thing. It’s some kind of Orwellian test. Father and daughter walk out the door and the camera pans disjointedly over suburban rows of brick houses and endless white window frames, the occasional semi-detached, you can see the subtle class distinctions street by street in the presence or absence of bow windows, the size of the gardens.

The curious greek chorus continues:

We are not very likeable
We are not very easy to like
We work in big cities

They sing of the great lower middle classes. I thought of Erich Fromm writing about how they are the mainstay of fascism, thought of Brexit and xenophobia.

Luckily, a huge brick wall and a door and we escape with Arthur and his daughter Emmy (Maureen Ampleford) into what feels like wilderness, a grass hill, flowers — yet you find out they have escaped into the gas works. A huge hill of slag and earth and they climb to the top.

A funny voiceover (I love these voiceovers, this mixing of documentary and film — a feature of everything I’ve seen so far) describing as a bureaucrat would this problem of a gas works (but not too much of a problem of course). There were Rhubarb fields here once…now just dust and cranes in the distance, industrial buildings. I have a slight fascination with gas works myself, so this has just built onto it another layer.

And so they arrive to stare at their gloomy house. Go inside and pick their way across broken floors, rubbish. Full of dismay. Encounter the agent, encounter a second family wishing to buy. (That’s Arthur on the left staring up).

While the nasty little son is propositioning Emmy and the wife is going on about tearing down walls and saying things like ‘We’re great friends of the Liberal candidate’, her husband pulls Arthur aside:

For god’s sake buy it, I can’t afford it … I buy the Times and read the Express, I’m ashamed of my parents…

The horrible couple get the house! It cuts to crowds cheering!

Neighbours, homeowners, open your ears! …  Many are called but few are chosen…

Lose the house? Arthur and Emmy are overjoyed. The money is burning a hole in his coat and you know his in-laws are right not to trust him. Awful as they were I still felt a pang. But I did quite love his idea of treating his daughter to one impossibly wonderful day. They  take a cab to the west end, walk down Oxford or Regent Street, arrive at Fortnum & Mason’s and OMG THE HATS! Again the old technique of zooming into other people’s conversations and then out again. I love it. Are those gangsters’ wives? They must be. Oh, and I forgot Ken Loach’s own cameo at the entrance.

They wander. I chuckled out loud when the watch salesman burst into song. It was extremely, and I mean extremely, surprising.

They buy a gold watch.

More songs, surprise shot of half-naked indigenous women in their village carrying out everyday tasks. That was a bit worrying really, but over all it is surreal and Brechtian and so while I had expected sadness and depression, instead I was all puzzled smiles. I enjoyed it, I mean, actually enjoyed it.

Still, there were to be honest unhappy couples everywhere. One moral is that happiness is not to be found in monogamy.

They go to the zoo. Police take them aside, walk them through huge space, white walls. But it’s not the wife’s call to the police that’s done it, but a surprise gift as Emmy is the 5-millionth ‘savage’ to visit. There is an absurd and quite wonderful homily on the horribleness of children. Another moral? But the nicest thing about this film is this father and daughter who seem so alien to the crabbed family they have left behind.

It cuts to a naked Adam and Eve running through the woods.

The narrator returns for these scenes, and others cut from a nature documentary, really it’s rather glorious. More songs, and this brilliant line:

that special kind of zoo called paradise

I don’t know quite what that sarcastic line means, but I like it. And then they buy an elephant. Of course. There forms a great parade of bright young things.

Arthur is lovely, absolutely lovely.

So they end up on a barge full of more people dancing, talking, music playing…everything the opposite of the home Arthur is returning to. The elephant disappears…I was very confused about that. I am not alone.

It all goes a little sad then, I guess it had to. Arthur drinks too much, upsets Emmy, throws the rest of the money away to float down the Thames. I was rather cross with him myself. His wife’s packed a suitcase for him and meets him at the door, and Emmy disappears inside. I worry about her, not so much Arthur who tosses the suitcase in the bushes and walks jauntily off.

I did like this film very much. Because it was so strange, because it felt so unpolished. And because it was fun. I did, however, find a great quote from Ken Loach himself, which I shall end this post on:

Yes, I was guilty of that (film). Christopher Logue, who’s a fine poet, had written a very funny, imaginative script, a surreal fantasy with songs by Stanley Myers about a man given some money to pay a deposit on a house and goes off and buys an elephant with his daughter. There were scenes involving the elephant going down a canal on a barge. There was no way I could achieve that. I could see it in my head, but I didn’t have the technique or experience to bring it off. I was the wrong person for the job, unfortunately. It was the first time I had shot anything on film too, and it was a total cock up
— Ken Loach on directing The End of Arthur’s Marriage (as found on Letterboxd)

Life is more than that house, that car, that work and more work endlessly striving for material possessions and life measured in their worth.

But money is really nice.

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From the Lowry to Manchester — A February Canal Walk

We started at the Lowry on Saturday — arriving in Media City. My partner argues it should be pronounced Mediacity, which does better reflect how shiny it is, how empty and windswept yet expensive, how soulless though it has gone a half-hearted length trying for soul. A few families gave it some life, some heart. But it feels alien from the vantage point of the estates that lie near it:

Salford to Manchester Canal Walk

And honestly, how dared they name the outlet mall after one of my favourite painters known for his incredible street scenes full of workers, children, dogs and cats, sympathetic views of all of us with all of our deformities and sadnesses and tired loneliness showing. Against a great backdrop of factories. One of the great painters of the working classes, the misfits, the outcasts. What I found most poignant was that he painted what would soon be lost. Preserved memories of a city being demolished around him. Like St Simon’s church here:

Street Scene (St Simon’s Church)

And now here he is in the ruins of the lively docks. I wish I had seen his pictures in the old Salford Art Gallery. First public library in the whole of the UK. I could see why some were upset when they moved them, though inside the new gallery the space is lovely. But honestly, the mall.

But this post isn’t about Lowry, not this one. (For more on Lowry you should read Mark Bould’s amazing post here.) It’s about some of the landscapes and the factories as they appear now.  Nothing at Mediacity called for a photograph somehow, not even by its ugliness. It’s just bland despite its bling, built for consumption and status. Uncomfortable. Cold.

I love water, and yet the water along these old Salford Quays was nowhere inviting or picturesque until we left the regenerated area behind us. I loved the canal, however, the vibrance of the graffiti down alongside it. The exuberance of colour and character. Educational too, as I learned all about David Icke and his belief that we were being invaded by lizard people from outer space. Then there was the kid who walked past us with a backpack disguised as Captain America’s shield.

Happiness.

But regeneration was everywhere — in the great banks of painfully plain boxy buildings that could be either offices or ‘luxury’ apartments, in the old factories still beautiful and tastefully renovated, but swallowed up by the cheap new build. In the still empty lots strewn with rubbish and the poverty looking even dingier. This regeneration sat strange and isolated alongside the asphalted motorway, the wreckage of earlier decades that tore down neighbourhoods to build roads of great size funneling speeding cars past with a roaring and a coughing of fumes. Much of this walk was experienced as the city planners’ great fuck you to the pedestrian. I wondered who had thought a sign welcoming the driver to Manchester in a desolate traffic circle might be a good idea, especially alongside the changing neon sign that carried advertisements for Sky News followed by a notice in small font that the city was working to end homelessness.

Seems like there are more people sleeping rough every evening I walk through the streets.

Still we found pockets of awesomeness, a sense of the past. A reminder that more existed in life, in our humanity.

Everywhere these contrasts. Click any photo below and it will take you to a slide show…

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Georges Perec on the Uninhabitable

Georges Perec Species of SpaceI just finished Georges Perec, Species of Space and Other Pieces, it is wonderful. What struck me most forcibly was this list he gives of the uninhabitable, as it has struck so many. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read, without quite being able to put my finger on why. It captures somehow capital’s destruction of the earth, its destruction of urban spaces and housing, its carceral geographies. The madness of this world we have somehow created for ourselves. It invokes the misshapen forms that inhabiting the uninhabitable has produced, but in their absence. All this in a list.

I have thus set it apart. To read. To re-read. To return to.

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds

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Poverty, Quesadillas & Alien Interventions: Juan Pablo Villalobos

Juan Pable Villalobos I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal
by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.

En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.

On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:

It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.

Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.

This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?

I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.

Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)

In English:

We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas.  The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.

Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:

A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)

In English:

My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.

A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.

Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.

And then:

Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…

— No puede ser verdad…

¿Y por qué no?

¿Por qué no, papá?

¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)

In English:

A giant interplanetary ship appeared…

— It can’t be true…

And why not?

Why not, papa?

Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?

All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:

al final, in the end:

Ésta es nuestra casa
Ésta es mi casa
Ahora intenta tirarla (186)

These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.

This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.

Just try.

But, as always, the victory is terribly fragile.

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