As soon as the blue shadows fall across Shadwell, the last swifts have flown and we approach winter solstice, each year, the council sends a letter offering a ten pound Christmas bonus. In the next breath, I’m told what will happen if I’d somehow claim my bonus more than once. (No spoilers: it’s not good.)
The Plain English Campaign rewards British councils with a Chrystal Mark for letters that are clear, concise, well-organised. As well as appropriate to the intended audience. Being in receipt of housing benefit, and living in social housing, I receive a lot of these. You are entitled to ten pounds.
The language is plain, but what might be even clearer is the ‘intended audience’: the not-so-automatically-deserving poor. My annual bonus brings little cheer. To be honest, it makes me feel loathed. Last time, I thought of the Tesco pudding I was meant to buy with it and decided to skip Christmas dinner altogether this year, just make devilled eggs with my eighteen year old son, back home from uni, and watch a film on TV. We had a lovely evening. Curled up together on the sofa. That most christmassy little unit. Mother-and-son.
Winters are great up on the eleventh floor. Lights all over the city. Luminosity. Warmth from the neighbours’ walls. Full moons can be seen ascending in the evenings, huge blue balls at night, travelling all through the sky, paling at sunrise.
It’s spring, when a tower block starts feeling cramped, too far from the ground, from the trees I can see rolling up the hills on my horizon, Sydenham, Chrystal Palace.
This lockdown Easter, I watched a father below me, walking his infant in a stroller, straight-edged loops, round and round, for hours, between the four corners of the roof on a lower block.
And so, back to the council. More clear, concise language. There is a website, House Exchange.com, for people in social housing. Once you find someone who wants to swap, there’s a procedure for the landlords to process the paperwork. It’s all explained, blow by blow, online. I wrote to over a hundred candidates. There’s an auto-reply you can click if you don’t want to swap—Sorry, I’m not interested—and I received a lot of these. Finally, I considered exchanging my big, 2 bed for a 1 bed flat. My one wish was to be closer to the damp, ivy scented air of Bethnal Green, where my son and I lived before moving here.
I wrote to Bobbi. On the 14th floor. He or she sent me four photos on Whatsapp. It was impossible to see the flat in any of them. One (the 1 bedroom?) was only a jumble of blankets, the other pics were stacked to the ceiling with baby chairs, trains, plastic toys, cribs and other kiddie stuff. You couldn’t see the windows for the piled up paraphernalia. It looked like a crackhouse for babies.
Still in shock, I stared at the photos. It was July 21st. Around 6 in the evening. I’d barely caught my breath, when Bobbi’s next text arrived. Are you interested?
All her subsequent messages were equally blunt and to the point. I slept on it, googled a floor plan, a pic of a different flat in the same building, where I could at least see the windows. Bobbi’s flat was in Bow, not Bethnal Green, but even closer to the source of that scented air, Victoria Park’s green lung. The next day, still in the middle of lockdown, my son and I knocked the door. Bobbi’s mum opened, let us in. Artex ceilings, crumbling down, woodchip paper on every wall. But it was Bobbi herself, a tiny heap of tracksuit clad limbs on the sofa, who somehow clinched the deal. She was shaking with nerves. Her three kids, seven, two and the infant, all more or less gathered in her mother’s arms. Bobbi barely met my gaze. The kitchen was piled with laundry and dishes, the bathroom drooped sadly from a flooding upstairs.
It’s a no-brainer, I said to my son as we walked away, towards Vicky Park. This isn’t even about us. In a way, it’s made it so much easier. No painful deliberations about am-I-really-so-much-better-off here. He nodded. Just meant to be.
Bobbi visited us the next morning, and we put in our applications the next day. That’s when the Plain Writing Act kicked back in. Soon, we were once more the not too deserving poor.
Guy Standing calls it ‘supplication culture’, the way the ‘precariat’, those of us lacking labor-related security in the globalised, now de-industrialising world, go about affecting personal change. ‘Supplication’ replaces the exercise of rights, as we spend many hours filling out forms, copying documents, collecting supporting evidence, waiting in endless automated phone cues, writing pleas to authorities.
Just this week, Bobbi and I finally won an appeal for our exchange. The landlord’s letter told us so. You must not move until you and your exchange partner have signed all of the legal paperwork, it went on. If you move before this you won’t have the right to remain in either property and you’ll be at risk of losing your home.
Clare House. My new home—once I’ve signed the paperwork.
But clarity in a sentence isn’t necessarily about how clean it is, how simply it conveys its meaning. As council letters show, simplicity can be simply brutal.
Clarity is about the heart. About cutting short the route, in words, from the concrete facts of the earth, our physical home—Are you interested—to the spiritual ones of the soul. Sometimes bypassing the head altogether.
Clare House of course isn’t named after the Poor Clares, the Catholic nuns who like St Francis’s follower Saint Clare, practice these ideas: simplicity, charity, clarity. No more than it’s named after the government’s brutalist ‘clear’ prose. It’s named after John Clare (1793-1864), the naturalist poet.
But I’m reminded of metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633), born exactly two centuries earlier, and his best known poem. The Collar starts with Herbert crying, Abroad! He’s tired of the restrictions of his faith, and wants to live in ‘freedom’. These ties to God, are just ‘like sand’, he claims.
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word
Me thought I heard one calling, Child
And I replied My Lord.
Though the metaphysical poets were known for the ‘obscurity’ of their ideas, these four lines form perhaps the clearest sentence I know. The clarity comes not just from the simplicity with which it states its meaning. Not even from the simplicity of the idea itself. Parent and child. That luminous unit.
I wonder if the clarity comes from a third layer, the one missing from council letters, for all their efforts at being clear. Could that layer be visceral, the feeling we get when we listen?
Read George Herbert’s sentence out loud, and you have a soundscape, a musical piece, clear within its earth-and-fire tones, an undersong, that sounds like coming home. Or so it does, to me, when I listen with my innermost ear.
We all need a place to come home to. John Clare wrote about the natural world.
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
His language was simple to the point of being homely. But I relate to his need to come home to nature. It’s what this whole house swapping thing is about, for me.
Throughout lockdown, like many in the city, I’ve really scrambled for our green spaces. Clare House is right next to one of our oldest, liveliest ones, and I can’t wait to live there.
I’ve learned about trees in lockdown. And shrubs, and flowers and birds. I’ve learned to listen, and hear the clarity in their voices. The soft hum of London planes, with their magnificent trunks, the dappled blue through their leaves, their huge, generous arms, like a shield against everything we throw at ourselves, the cancerous toxins we rain from the sky. Their barks absorb it all, that’s why they peel—it allows them, and us, to breathe. That is the sound that you hear, when you walk underneath. You hear the air. Clearer.
We need clarity, not just plainness, to address nature. Or we’ll keep degrading her. Loathing her. Our not-too-deserving poor.
We need words, pronouns, to speak of trees. Of soil, of the moisture roiling underneath. Having grown up in Holland, English summers to me are never green. Not compared to Dutch polders, land claimed from the sea. With its near-audible rush of groundwater, always pooling invisibly just under your feet, the woods teeming with beeches so majestic they bestow us with grace just for walking beneath them.
For my Indo grandmother, green was the monsoon market towns of Indonesia, set high among the mountains. As it is for me, haunted as I am by Bukittinggi, an old colonial town cradled among volcanoes in Sumatra, where I conceived. Zinging with tectonic song. Rain, markets, murmur.
For my brown-skinned son, it’s the California redwoods, where he grew up when I volunteered at a tiny Buddhist school, in a cabin in a clearing. Smelling of coniferous soil, chanterelle mushrooms and ferns. Silence.
We need pronouns for beeches and redwoods, volcanoes and fields. Words that give them their full personalities. It’s easy, when I speak of multiple trees. They are Them. But a single plane. A shower of rain. The earth herself. Are they She?
Like John Clare, like George Herbert, I depend on nature to take me out of the clamour of my head, and into my breathing, listening body. In my head, there’s too much ‘freedom’. Abroad!, it calls, and off I go, to screens and the neurological feedback loop of social media. Deaf to the murmuring pulse of nature and birth.
As I rave and grow more fierce and wild, with every word, more distant from the earth, I think I hear a call.
I take a walk, smell the soil, the planes just after rain, and look around.