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Life in the big smoke

Peeling away the layers

After a week the bed bugs came back. They were a surprise left-over from the previous occupants of the house. The mysterious rash that could have been a bite, the inky spots on the wall in the spare bedroom, the bug we saw scuttling over a pillow on the sofa. None of these things seemed like a problem until a late night Google binge told us they were unmistakeable signs of a bed bug infestation.

It was becoming difficult to sleep. So we decided to rent a steamer and buy bug killing products off Amazon. Gerry tackled the industrial steamer, a blue robot from a seventies science fiction movie. I wore a mask and big gloves and followed him with the bug spray. Then we set off some smoke bombs. A couple of nights passed. No more bites. We thought might have won.

Then they came back and it was time to phone a man with access to more potent poisons and pesticides. The man recommended stripping back the carpets as it was something we’d intended to do anyway. That was last Saturday. A brief conversation over a cup of coffee. “We’ll just take this carpet up”.

The green, sticky mess crumpled in our hands, the rubber fell off the bottom and left mounds of fine sand-coloured dust on the floorboards. We tore up more carpet. More rubber sand. The floor boards were a pale grey underneath. There were gaps and holes, patches and some blackened bits. A mysterious dark shape revealed where a piece of furniture had once stood.

The floorboards clashed horribly with the salmon pink wallpaper. We peeled off a small corner. A big sheet came loose, like a sail catching wind. It felt good. I could almost sense the house shaking off the weight of the years. Another corner, another sheet of wallpaper and then small finicky bits that didn’t seem to want to come off at all.

Gerry used a screwdriver to pry loose one of the polystyrene ceiling tiles. It came off in one go. The next one was a bit more difficult, but he hacked away at it. I kept peeling wallpaper. After a couple of hours the first layer, the one they must have added in the sixties and seventies, was gone.

We found the local dump and drove past HMP Belmarsh, where the UK detained people without charge or trial after 9/11. The road that runs past it is wide and fast. It’s difficult to get a glimpse of the prison. Then there is scrubby industrial wasteland, low warehouses, a large garage full of wrecked cars. This London is a different London.

Back in the house we keep peeling away the layers. We’re now down to the plaster, once painted a dark forest green. The last layer of wallpaper, a yellow geometric pattern with ghostly imprints of large white flowers, is the most difficult to remove. We sponge it down with a mixture of hot water and fabric softener and scrape away at the stubborn bits.

It takes time, the peeling and scraping, but in those moments there is nothing else than the wallpaper. Thoughts of work and worries and the political situation slip away. I can feel the room sighing with relief, the walls can breathe again. The bugs have stayed away for a week. We will keep peeling.

A citizen of nowhere

“Why are you here?”

The man was carrying our belongings into our new house. I had told him I was Finnish. It was a quick and direct question, a sharp icy gust blowing in with the old sideboard and the boxes full of books. He seemed surprised that I had chosen to live in the UK.

He was in his late twenties and from Bulgaria. The older man the company he worked for had teamed him up with for the day was also Bulgarian. Neither of them wanted to stay in the UK. The older man told me his brother was working in Germany. That’s where he was going. “Very money”, he said. “Very money”. The younger man had been in the UK for about a year and was also thinking about leaving. The traffic in London was awful, the money wasn’t great, the city was expensive. Life could be better somewhere else.

So. Why am I here? I was trying to explain it to myself as I unwrapped mugs and placed them in cupboards, uncrumpled tea towels and opened kitchen drawers for the first time. I’m here because I like the UK. I’m here because there is something about London that pulls me back every time I leave. But these are intangibles. They didn’t work as answers to that simple, direct question. “Why are you here?”

I’m here because of work. I’m here because I’m married to a Brit. Those reasons seem too practical, too mundane. The underlying truth is that I’m here because where else would I be. This is my home. This is where I became an adult. This is where my life is. That’s why this whole brexit thing is so exhausting sometimes, because when I woke up on the 23d of June I was no longer equal to most of the other people who call this island their home.

The prime minister Theresa May has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after brexit. Those who have experienced her punitive policies when she was the home secretary know that there will be no warm, sympathetic or humane treatment of EU-immigrants, there will only be the cold logic of bureaucracy. There will be a box, you will need to fit it, otherwise you’re out.

During May’s time as home secretary the income threshold for people from countries outside the EU who wanted to stay in the UK was raised. Those who want to apply for permanent residency in the UK now have to prove they earn over £35 000 a year. If you’re a freelancer, if you’re self-employed, if you’re a cleaner, a teacher or an artist that will be difficult.

If you’re married to a Brit, the policy means your British partner has to earn over £18 600 a year in order for you to stay in the country. For each child you have your partner needs to earn a couple of thousand pounds more. Over 15 000 children have been separated from one parent or forced to grow up outside the UK because of the rules. Even the right wing paper the Telegraph is critical of this policy. It’s created what they call “Skype families”.

Many EU friends of mine in the UK have applied for this same permanent residency during the last six months. They have had to prove that they’ve lived in the UK for five years, they’ve had to hand over bank statements and bills to the state and they’ve had to account for each and every time they have travelled out of the country during the last five years. In the new year I’m planning to do this too. Because this is my home. But simply saying that isn’t enough anymore. Now I have to prove it.

Image by Eduard Militaru.

The first Saturday in the new house

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.

“The subject is always herself”

I have started a new non-fiction project. I want to write about migration and about belonging and excluding and I also want to directly and indirectly write about brexit. The topic of migration is a bit of a prism and many other subjects have been highlighted by the research I’ve done so far. I’m writing down lists of what to explore further – history, archeology, ethics, nationalism, propaganda, economics.

I’ve maybe done about ten percent of all the reading I need to do and I spend most of my spare time in the British Library. I’m not sure what shape the project will take on as it matures. I’m not even sure if there is a publisher out there who will be interested in the project, but I am enjoying the research and am happy to spend my spare time reading about these topics for my own pleasure.

But there is one question that gnaws away at me. The books I’ve been enjoying the most lately have all been personal essays about difficult subjects. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which describes her journey from alcohol-fuelled parties in London to bird watching on Orkney, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, essay and nature writing. The book has had a lot of positive publicity here in the UK and it is climbing the charts, perhaps showing there is an appetite for the personal in non-fiction.

I have also devoured essayist Olivia Laing’s impressive first two books, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring. Laing has done a lot of research and reading and she reasons intelligently about the subjects she explores. What brings it all together is her persona. These books have filled me with joy because they are intelligent, erudite and human. I feel like I’m learning something new and at the same time acquainting myself with the personality and psyche of another.

So the question is, how much of myself should I allow into the writing? How personal should the tone be? The author needs to be honest with his or her audience. It makes sense to bring that side into a piece when tackling sensitive issues like migration. Potential readers need to know where I stand, they need to know what personal bias I might bring to the project. US journalist and writer Joan Didion always put herself in her writing. Some of the harshest criticism aimed her way argued “the subject is always herself”. But Didion believed (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the only true starting point was the personal, because all we have is our own subjective perspective.

A lot of male writers write deeply personal pieces, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway spring to mind. Did they have the same criticism levelled at them? Were they sneered at for “always writing about themselves”?

I feel a certain amount of fear about bringing the personal into the project. I fear not being taken seriously. I fear criticism. I fear not being able to pull it off making the issues and the quite heavy and difficult topics I’m researching interesting and relevant. But I should know better. There is not much I can do to control the way any of my writing will be received and perceived. I can have my own private thoughts and hopes for a project or a piece of writing, but when I let it go what it becomes is up to those who read it. The only thing I can hope for is that each project makes me a slightly better and more thoughtful writer and that there will always be a new project waiting when the previous one has flown the nest.

Image by Dmitrij Paskevic.

Harvest

September. A return to routine. Time to re-focus as the year prepares for the curtain to drop. The beat speeds up and the days rattle along. The nights fight back. Nature knows what’s coming, the trees drop their leaves and pulls energy back to the core. Autumnal storms whip away the dead weight of summer. I look at the calendar and realise I have to do the same. Only a few months and so much left to do.

I’m looking at all the plans in front of me, wondering where to find any dead weight. We’re moving to a new house. We’re going up to Scotland to walk the hills. And then there is the new writing project. Slim, trim, cut away to make space for all of those things that matter. But I thrive when the focus narrows, when life switches on tunnel vision and there is only one thing that matters. That’s one of the perks of my job as a journalist. The deadlines allow me to dig deep into one topic, to focus on one task and allow everything else to fade. The deadline of a new year sometimes help me to finish the projects I started on lazy spring days when there was so much time and wholesome summer months to look forward to.

I like to think seasonally. To sow the seeds in the spring, toil, relax and allow things to grow in the summer and harvest in the autumn. It never really works out as perfectly as that, because living is messy. But I enjoy the rhythm underneath it all. I did start the new writing project in the spring. I’ve worked throughout the summer. I will keep working and perhaps there will be something to harvest in about a year.

ps. You might have noticed the new layout. Thought it was time for a change.

Image by Andrew Small.