Renters or Second-Class Citizens

The phone rings.  It’s the letting agents.  “This is a courtesy call to let you know that the landlord wants to sell your flat and this is your two months’ notice.”

The words hang over your head, making the air oppressive .  “Courtesy call.”  It’s what you associate with a computer helpline ringing to check you’re happy with the service provided, or with a hairdresser confirming that you will be attending your hair appointment.  A “courtesy call” to inform you that you’re being turfed out of your home.  Yes, your home – no matter what landlords and letting agents bully you into believing.  For as long as you’re paying rent for it, it is your home.  The home that the agent comes to check every six months to make sure you haven’t trashed it.  The home for which you have to pay rent six months in advance because you’re self-employed.  Where you have to ask permission before hammering extra picture hooks into the walls.

Once you’ve stopped reeling from the news, a list of questions pertaining to the required move starts multiplying in your head.  You call the letting agents.  “We’d like to pop in and see you –”

“What is it concerning?”

“Well, we have a few questions –”

“Can you ask them over the phone?”

You raise your voice, “Look, is it all right to come and see you or are we not allowed to?”

At the letting agents’ office, the individual who deals with you enunciates their syllables as though they think you can’t keep up.  Their politeness has so much added artificial sweetener, it positively makes you want to retch.

You’re told that, even if you’ve been asked to move out, you still have to abide by the contractual obligation of giving a month’s notice if you find another place earlier.  That you still have to have the flat professionally cleaned, even though it’s going to be sold and not rented.  They don’t sound particularly interested when you tell them you’d like to stay on the agency’s books.  You wonder why, and then it occurs to you that letting agents may consider it too much effort to notify renters if a suitable property becomes available – it’s up to the renters to hunt through the internet, find properties, and hassle the agents.

Moreover, you discover that your deposit will be returned “within 28 days” of your moving out.  This not only means that you have two months to raise a substantial sum of money, but that you won’t be there when the agents examine your flat, and can’t protest if  they decide to deduct any “damage” costs from your deposit.

Renters in the UK are second-class citizens.  You’ve known this for a while, so why are you so shocked, so upset? Haven’t you heard, on numerous occasions, your neighbours (who own their properties) make comments about rubbish being left around or other nuisance being caused, undoubtedly, by “the renters in No. this or that”? The law is on the side of the landlord, not the tenant.  The landlord has rights.  The tenant has obligations.  It’s back to the Middle Ages.

You walk into the other letting agencies.  They rush to you before you’ve had the time to close the door behind you.  “Hello, can I help you?”

“Hello, yes, could I speak to someone about rentals? –”

“What’s your budget?”

No come in, no take a seat.

You wish you could find your next home without going through letting agents.  From what you’ve experienced, they actually appear physically incapable of any warmth, feelings, or respect.  From the robotic way they act towards you, they seem impervious to any sense of shame.  Remember that word? Shame.  You haven’t heard it used for a while.  Shame.  It seems to have gone missing.  Disappeared.  Like honour.

You look around the flat you’ve cared for and made your home, your sanctuary, for the last two and a half years.  Only two and a half years.  You had so hoped you could have been allowed to stay longer.  You see all the books that need packing.  All the CDs, clothes, crockery, and all the odds and ends that can’t be categorised but which make it your home.  You notice that the bathroom sink needs to be cleaned.  You reach out for the scourer then stop.  What’s the point? You’re moving out soon.  You go out for a walk to clear your head.  It starts to rain.  Let’s go back home, where it’s warm.  But, suddenly, it’s not home anymore.  It’s an assembly of walls, floor and ceiling where you no longer feel welcome.  Where you no longer feel safe.

Time to pack.  You tell yourself your next home will be even better.  Yes, much better.  But how long will you be allowed to stay there?

Scribe Doll

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“Two legs good. Four legs better.”

I don’t understand politics.  Much to my shame, I am not as well-informed as a responsible citizen should be.

So I’m going to fumble a little here…  I just need to express this.  I need to get it off my chest.

I know I’m not the only one who, just over a week ago, watched President Trump’s inauguration with a feeling of sadness, disappointment and, above all, utter disbelief.  The same utter disbelief and shock I experienced when I woke up on 24th June to the news that, apparently, it was the will of the British people to leave the European Union.  The will of the people.  Five words that British politicians – both in Government and in the Opposition – have been whipping us with and rubbing our noses in for the past few weeks.  Interesting that nobody in the Government seemed to have paid much attention to the will of the people when thousands of us marched to protest about the war in Iraq.  I wonder if, years from now, the expression the will of the people will become a synonym of delegating responsibility, passing the buck, and using the response of a misinformed person or people to further your own interests.

For years, I’ve had friends of all (as long as non-extreme) political convictions and not allowed our differences to get in the way of our friendship.  Now, for the first time in my life, I find that I cannot be friends with someone who voted in favour of Brexit.  Just like I  cannot be friends with any US national who voted for Donald Trump.  It’s just too important.  I cannot sit at the same table with anyone who has contributed to depriving the younger British generations of the chances we have enjoyed being a part of Europe.  And I cannot break bread or have a drink with anyone who had a hand in electing as Leader of the Free World an individual such as Mr Trump.  As it happens, last June, H. and I met a couple of US lawyers in an Italian restaurant in London.  They said they would vote for Donald Trump.  They ordered wine for all of us.  We accepted.  At the time, although Mr Trump was already giving apparent signs misogyny, intolerance to some other cultures, lack of concern in the environment, and expressing generally extreme opinions, many of us still believed that he was somewhat “playing to the gallery”.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve often wondered if this American couple did go through with their intention, and vote for him, or if, after hearing one shocking statement too many on his part, they changed their minds at the last minute.  Now, I’m afraid I would not accept a drink from someone I knew had voted for him.  Or voted for Brexit.

Most of us, at one time or other, have regretted our voting choice after the event.  Politicians don’t honour their electoral promises, or else we discover a vital piece of information that escaped us before election day.  We slap ourselves hard on our heads and realise how stupid we’ve been.

But not in the case of Brexit/Trump.

In the case of Brexit, all voters had to do was look around at all the political figures who actively supported a break-away from Europe.  Nigel Farage.  Marine Le Pen.  Vladimir Putin.  Need I continue? All voters had to ask themselves was whether or not they wished to keep company with the above.  It was a no-brainer, as far as I was concerned.

Equally, with Donald Trump, people knew what to expect.  An individual who does a ridiculing imitation of physical disability, whose words on women suggest a misogyny totally out of order in this day and age, who appears to care nothing about the environment.  An individual who wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico, for crying out loud! Had no one heard of the Berlin Wall?

One could well ask how any of us non-US citizens dare protest against the election of another country’s leader.  Fair point.  Except that this isn’t just any other country.  It happens to be, at this point in time, a country with major influence on the Western World.  So, yes, we are entitled to shout our discontent and our disgust.

One thing in particular that strikes me about Mr Trump is his unbridled rudeness.  The parallel with our own Nigel Farage is blatant.  They don’t seem to possess a sense of boundaries.  By this I mean they don’t appear to have any sense of that mark which any decent person should never overstep.  They don’t have that sense of honour which demands that you treat even your enemy with respect and courtesy.  Increasingly, the lines from George Orwell’s Animal Farm ring in my head: “Two legs good.  Four legs better.”

I wonder about Donald Trump, in particular.  Watching him on the news, signing order after order with a flourish, clearly enjoying the process, I wonder what has led him to be so unaware of common courtesy and boundaries.  He makes me think of a spoilt child suddenly placed upon a throne and who sends people to be hanged, beheaded and tortured just because he can.  Does it come with the territory of being a millionaire with the power of hiring and firing at will that you spend years surrounded only by “yes”-people, are allowed to get away with just about anything, and lose your perspective on right and wrong? Did his wealth and power ensure that he was never in contact with people who would establish their own boundaries firmly enough to stop his own from sprawling?

“Two legs good.  Four legs better.”  I can’t get these words out of my head.

When, about fifteen years ago, I watched Tony Blair say that he would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with George W. Bush, I shuddered.  Two days ago, when I saw Donald Trump take Theresa May’s hand to help her down the steps or slope at the White House, I winced.

We are heading into dark times.  Times of tar-like ignorance.  Times when I feel it’s important to take a stand.  The time for wishy-washy evasiveness is over.  There is a right and a wrong.  They are not a matter of opinion.

I know I don’t normally write about politics – but I’ve had enough.

Scribe Doll

 

 

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For the Old to Fertilise the New

Get a large, strong bag.

Clean your home.

Wash the floors,

Polish the wood,

Dust the shelves,

Scrub the sink.

Then drop all the dirt into the large, strong bag.

Walk around your home

And collect from the air and from under the furniture

All the hurtful words,

All the tears,

All the despair,

All the dead-end habits.

Then stuff these cobwebs into the large, strong bag.

Open your address book –

The paper one, the electronic one and the one in your phone.

Pick out, one by one, the names

Of all those you have forgotten,

All those who have forgotten you,

All those who have accepted, yet not thanked,

All those who have talked but not listened,

All those who have rushed to support you in your sadness,

Yet not been able to rejoice in your gladness.

Then empty all these heavy names into the large, strong bag.

Run a bath –

Hot water for strength,

Sea salt for purity,

Rosemary for clear thought,

Frankincense for inspiration

And oil of Rose Otto for joy.

Let the water wash away

All fear,

All anger,

All indecision.

Let the steam draw out the word impossible from your pores.

Then drain all this grime into the large, strong bag.

Dig a hole and bury the large, strong bag –

That the Old Year may fertilise the New Year

And help it sprout, blossom and grow into a year of Happiness, Perfect Health, Abundant Wealth, and Golden Brightness!

Scribe Doll

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Christmas Eve

“Once in Royal David’s City

Stood a lowly cattle shed”.

I hold my breath.  I always find myself holding my breath for the minute or so between the BBC Radio 4 announcer’s voice falling silent and the chorister getting to the end of his solo verse.  An opening verse which, for many, marks the beginning of Christmas.

Will the treble make it smoothly across the four opening lines? Will his voice crack? Will he hesitate? Will he stumble and fall flat on one of the high notes?

“Mary was the Mother mild,

Jesus Christ her little Child.”

He did it! As flawless and straight as a moonbeam, his voice floated up to the stone fan vaulting and caressed the stained-glass window panes.

On my table, the long, needle-sharp flame of the deep red Advent candle glows brighter as the light outside the windows slowly fades.  The edges of the rooftops grow blurred beneath a sky gradually drained of daylight, across which pink-mottled clouds are gently propelled by the chilly wind.

A blackbird is skipping on the gravel driveway, emitting the odd chirp.  It’s a commandeering, purposeful sound.  A crow lands on a chimney top and caws, bobbing its head, calling out to its mate until the latter swoops down.

I notice the white fairy lights of our Christmas tree reflected in the window panes of the neighbours opposite us.  Our Christmas tree, that is decorated in gold, silver and glass and, this year, a few deep red baubles.

In the distance, the Cathedral bells ring an invitation to the carol service within its Benedictine Norman walls.

It’s time to put the kettle on.  I decide to use the white teapot with the blue and yellow flowers.  The first teapot I ever bought, some thirty years ago, while doing my A-levels.  It’s steeped in memories of afternoon teas and midnight discussions about cabbages and kings.  Memories of stripy college scarves, 1980s haircuts and bicycles padlocked to lamp posts.  Steeped in the youthful sense that nothing is impossible.

I spoon Earl Grey then dried rose petals, then pour in the boiling water.  The aroma that wafts out is a blend of citrus and sensuality.

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is closing the broadcast with the customary “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.

I remember that yesterday, I bought some myrrh gum from the herb shop.  I prepare the stone incense holder and the glowing-red charcoal disk, then drop a couple of myrrh grains into it.  The rich, heady fragrance twists and twirls up then spreads through the room like a phantom creature.  I close my eyes and breathe in its message.  It soon becomes crystal clear that I’ve used too much myrrh.  Its astringent smoke constricts my throat and I start coughing.  I add some frankincense resin to mellow the concoction.  Its comforting, familiar scent puts its arms around me like an old friend.

It’s Christmas Night.  And the first night of Hanukkah.  The two coincide for the first time in a hundred years.  I choose to believe that it’s a happy sign.  A sign of good things to come.

Happy Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Yuletide to you all!

Scribe Doll

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The Alchemy of Turning Darkness into Light

A text message the day before, signed in both names, gently confirms that H. and I are to go the the Castle museum entrance a few minutes before the ceremony.

It’s a grey morning but unusually mild for December.  We walk over the bridge leading to the Norman keep, where for centuries, those convicted of crime were hanged.  I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with Norwich Castle.  For one thing, I find its sugar-cube shape on the hill dominating the city rather ugly.  It lacks the charm of Durham Castle’s irregular edges, or the Gothic feel of Edinburgh Castle.  There is something eerie about its bland squareness.  I first set foot in it about ten years ago.  I walked in, bought my ticket, caught a brief glimpse of a series of busts on display, and promptly and almost involuntarily dashed back out at full speed, overwhelmed with a totally unfathomable feeling of terror.  I couldn’t account for my reaction, which seemed utterly irrational, so the following day, determined to act like an adult, I went back, bought another admittance ticket, and marched in.  I saw the busts again and, as I drew closer, saw that some of the faces had twisted expressions.  I read the signs and only then realised that they were the death masks of men who had been hanged. Men who had been murdered by legal means, by the laws of other men who thought their right to judge and punish was equal to that of God.  Laws that respond to violence with more violence, to evil with more evil, and to despair with more despair.

But this morning, I am here not to visit a museum that keeps the memory of fear and suffering alive, but to attend a wedding.  The Norwich marriage register office has recently moved many of its ceremonies from the beautiful building near St Giles to the Castle.  We are shown into the waiting room and are welcomed by the sister of one of the grooms.  With a broad smile, she introduces us to the other eight or so guests, although I protest I’ll never remember everybody’s name.  It’s a small gathering but international.  English, Polish, French and Italian, among others.  The variety of accents all giggling with excitement at this happy occasion immediately dissolves my innate nervousness at social events and I mentally bite my thumb at all the Brexiteers out there.

Photos are snapped in various combinations of family plus friends, then more photos, in case some don’t come out well.  Everything must be done to immortalise the day and, especially, crystallise its happiness.

After a few minutes, the door to the ceremony room is opened by a tall, elderly lady with a kindly face.  H. and I give a little exclamation of pleasant surprise.  She reciprocates our grins.  “Did I marry you?” she asks. “I’m sorry, I can’t remember but when people look at me like that, it generally means I’ve married them.”

She squeezes my hand and hugs me with the tenderness of a dear old friend.

When the two grooms walk in, I am struck by how young they look.  I know they are both in their middle years and yet today, there is a youthful glow about them.

They stand by the registrar’s table.  Vows are exchanged.  For ever. There is a slight crack in the voice, a moment when tears are kept in check. When an overwhelming burst of gratitude, relief and unbridled hope fills the room.  Rings are slipped on fingers.  Gold, like sunshine.  Circular, like perfection.  Like timelessness.

When the ceremony is over and names have been signed in the large book, the registrar comes up to H. and me, and tells us this castle has a special meaning for her.  “When I was fourteen,” she says, “a friend and I came for a walk here one afternoon, to see if there were boys.”  She gives a mischievous grin.  “But we got followed by two American G.I.s – it was at the time they were stationed here – and got scared.  So we walked up to two local boys and I said to one of them, ‘Can we stand with you until the two G.I.s go away?’ Well, I’ve been with him ever since.  We’ve been married fifty-seven years.”

And now, over half a century later, she officiates at weddings in this very castle.  “I love doing weddings,” she says, and her beaming smile makes it clear that she does, indeed.

It truly is a Good Day.  Into this Norman castle, a building scarred by violence, fear and despair, these two beautiful humans who have just embarked on marriage are bringing love, kindness and hope.  And all of us in that room help shine some light where darkness has lingered for centuries like a sticky cobweb.  It’s time to infuse joy and love into these tear-soaked Caen stones.  Little by little, one wedding, one promise to love and be kind at a time.  One beam of light, then another, and then another, until the shadows have faded away.

Scribe Doll

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Sunday Concert

It’s a string quartet today.  Beethoven.  It’s what people enjoy.  The folding chairs have been put out.  The seat cushions have aged flower patterns and were last washed probably sometime at the end of the last century.

Audience members, mostly in their sixties and seventies (though the odd fifty-something can be seen, too), and regulars at this venue, collect their tickets and photocopied programmes from the table at the entrance.  Glances scan the room, lips on smile alert, in search of familiar faces to greet or impress.  In all the rush of opening their handbags and manoeuvring their purses while paying for their tickets, many women have forgotten to put away their car keys.  These jangle in their fingers, the pendant with the car manufacturer’s logo swinging prominently.  A homage, perhaps, to their husbands’ career – or financial – achievements.

The room begins to fill with block-coloured jumpers and block-dyed hair, faux-silk (a.k.a. polyester) floral scarves, large pearl, plastic and wooden beads around necks and wrists, as well as smiles that bear witness to the uncommon bliss of self-approval.  Many have known one another since their children were small.  Children who now have children of their own.  Some wave at other people who, just like them, have a holiday home in South-West France.  They did consider Italy and Spain when they were younger, but they already had some school French, and with so many other Brits already in that area, it was practically home from home.

There is a predominance of chequered and stripy shirt collars peering out of the men’s crew-neck woollen jumpers that look like old favourites.  They trudge with modest, respectable stoops behind their wives.  It’s as though the latter know best, after all.  They’re the ones who always organise everything.  They’re amazing, really.  What with keeping track of the children and grandchildren, remembering birthdays, getting the wallpaper replaced and volunteering one day a week at the charity shop, and lunch with the other female friends every second Tuesday, of course they’ve never had time for a job.  Many probably have a very uninhibited relationship with their husbands’ credit cards, even using them to buy their spouses’ birthday presents.

Before the music starts, I take out my little notepad and scribble away furiously in atypically for me small handwriting, so nobody can read it over my shoulder.  I look around.  I am not a huge fan of 19th-century chamber music, but an aficionado of people watching.  I giggle to myself.  I wonder what these people make of me and if they’ve made up an entire backstory for me, as well.  H. asks me what I’m finding funny.  I share with him, sotto voce, a few of my observations.  He frowns.  He doesn’t like my social generalisations.

He is a kind person.

I am less so.  I, like Mr Bennet, think, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Then the members of the quartet walk onto the stage area.  Four young people.  Much younger than anybody in the room.  They bow and take up their instruments.  They start playing and the music, uncompromisingly Romantic, speaks to each and every one of us equally, yet with different words.  I stop writing, and think that, actually, 19th-century chamber music can speak to me, too.

Scribe Doll

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The Secret of Winter

When winter envelops you in its embrace, the only place you can look is within.  Summer makes you look outwards.  It entertains you with a spectacle of colours, intoxicates you with its heady, floral scents, dazzles you with its bright sunlight, distracts you, takes you out of yourself.

Winter is about turning inwards and making peace with yourself.  It’s about contemplating, imagining and trusting.  It’s about guarding – and, if need be, keeping secret – the flame that those who fear the infinity of its possibilities may try to extinguish.

Summer is for those who believe only what they see, while Winter favours those who see not just with their physical eyes but also with the eyes of their soul.  For those who can speak with animals, trees and the winds.  Those who love Winter are not afraid to let their inner flame grow and burn with endless possibilities.  They do not allow their imagination to be fenced in but dare picture wonders others declare to be impossible.  Those who love Winter are those who trust, those who can already see what cannot yet be seen: that the tree’s bare branches will bloom with bright green leaves again, that the desolate-looking soil will yield fruits and crops anew, those who sense the miracle of birth and rebirth in the darkness of the earth’s womb long before the first green shoot springs out onto the surface.

Those who truly love Winter are privy to Magic.  They smile indulgently – the way one smiles at a yet ignorant child – at the paunchy, red-clad, doll-eyed image of Santa Claus, and, instead, wink at a very different Father Frost.  It is a Sir Christémas with a knowing face and a cloak woven with the colours of the earth – green and russet and gold, sparkling with icicles and embroidered with silver and diamond frost patterns.  An ageless figure with hazel eyes and the arcane knowledge of Merlin, who knows words that can alter elements, can cast spells and brew potions.  A shapeshifter who appears to you in the amber eyes of the russet fox that glint in the street in the middle of the night.  Or the mysterious green eyes of the tabby cat that looks up at your window as you close the curtains in the early evening, and says, if you can hear it, “It’s going to be a long, dark night, so guard the flame that glows within you well.  Cherish it, nurture it for when the time comes for it to grow into a fire that will turn imagination into reality.  A fire full of magic.”

Scribe Doll

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