On homesickness, homelessness and home hunger
Once there was a sheepdog who lived near me in mid-Wales. Bred to work, trained to work, work was his vocation, his calling, his joy. One day, a farmer from Southern England visited the local livestock market and was so impressed by this dog’s working skills that he bought the dog on the instant and took him away. In his new home, the dog refused to work. Doggedly refused. He lost heart. He seemed sick. He pined.
A year passed. The farmer, frustrated, brought the dog back to the little Welsh town. This dog was rubbish, he said. He’d paid good money but the dog was absolutely useless. The original owners took the dog back. In the hills he knew, the dog sniffed the air. His ears pricked up. His eyes brightened. He shook himself and rolled with the elastic ecstasy of a young and happy dog. His glossy coat rippled in the breeze like long grass streaming in the wind. And at the first whistle he was off; he had forgotten no commands, was keen as mustard again, working as gladly and well as he ever had.
To be on the safe side, though, the owners popped him in the back of the trailer and drove him to the local vets for a check-up. There was no sign of mistreatment, no disease, absolutely nothing wrong: why had the dog been brought in? The owners explained the dog’s baffling refusal to work for a year. His sickness, said the vets, was real – but not physical. The only conclusion they could draw was that this dog had been suffering from acute homesickness.
There is a Welsh word for homesickness – hiraeth – which is famously untranslatable into English. It is a past-haunted word which leans backwards in time and can hold the sense of an impossible longing for a home, a person, or a land that may never have existed, with a yearning sense of one’s incompleteness without it, it is wistful for the unattainable.
There is an equivalent in the Portuguese term saudade, a word from a minor key, the melancholy dream-desire for what was. Kant remarked that people were not so much homesick for a place as for a time, the time of their youth, which Proust expressed so well in the smell of the madeleine. It makes me wonder about the five senses of nostalgia. For me, they would include the smell of lavender in my grandmother’s walled garden on a hot summer day. The sound of wood pigeons in the trees at dawn. The touch of a purring cat. The taste of McVitie’s digestive biscuits. The sight of my childhood blanket, a deep corngold colour.
Homesickness can feel as incontrovertible as the pull of a magnet, as irresistible as the force of gravity. Homesickness is an example of the heart’s laws of physics. The centripetal tug drawing you ineluctably towards the centre, the focus, the hearth of your world.
A Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, invented the word ‘nostalgia’ in 1668, and its symptoms included melancholy, incessant thoughts of home, heart palpitations and fever. From about 1680 it was understood as a potentially lethal illness, and its diagnosis spread around the world. When soldiers in the American Civil War were admitted to the first military hospital for the insane in 1863, the most common diagnosis was nostalgia. By World War Two, soldiers were still being treated for it, though the term used was homesickness.
This word was created in 1756 as a direct translation of heimweh, a Swiss-German dialectal term from Heim meaning home and Weh meaning woe or pain. Heimweh was particularly associated with Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad in the seventeenth century. Famous for bravery, they were vulnerable to homesickness, longing for the mountains of their home. It was considered a serious disease and could lead to desertions, illness and even death. They were banned from singing traditional songs because of the nostalgic pain these songs created. Scottish mercenaries, hearing bagpipes, were thought to suffer the same.
The homesick are, of course, the lucky ones, because they have a home. Too many people (including me) have known the flotsam homelessness of sofa-surfing, the ‘beggarly account of empty boxes’ as Shakespeare writes of the impoverished apothecary. Rents and house prices going up and up like rising sea levels, and so many people were drowning.
Temporary housing is a slow-acting caustic, corroding vitality. For twenty years, it fragmented my work, made it impossible to make plans, and put a terrible strain on relationships. I felt exiled from any sense of my own future: I was permanently temporary, living in waiting rooms, my life on hold. Each move felt like it took a year off my life, in stress and wasted time. The precious water of my life was spilling, pouring away without a cup to contain it. I felt spilt. I lost all my possessions twice over, including years of gifts and presents. I couldn’t keep anything because I had nowhere to put them. To those who hath, more shall be given. To those who hath not a hathing-place, the little they hath shall be taken away.
Of course my experience is nowhere near the worst nor is it rare. It is a horribly common curse, this, of precarious housing, being underhomed, homeneeding, homelacking, homehungry. If nostalgia is an ache related to the past – being far from a home which did exist but no longer does, and if homesickness is an ache related to the present – being away from a home which does exist, then this homehunger is an ache for the future, for something which doesn’t yet exist but whose need is felt bitterly now.
Insecure housing damages both physical and mental health. The staccato of temporary housing gives the melody of life no pause, no rest or serenity. Homehunger saps your energies, dislocates your attention; books are not properly read, food not properly digested, as if you are always leaning against a splintered prow-rail between a slippery deck and a fathomless sea, envying Odysseus for he at least had a home to be sick for. The homehungry hear the siren inside them, the slanted, maddening note of injustice. They feel the oceans around them, as they are jetsam on the waters, driftwood of a para-life.
In the UK, total homelessness rose by 26% between 2011 and 2013. Today, one family with children is becoming homeless every fifteen minutes. Must Cathy Come Home be filmed every new decade for every new decade to forget? When will the greed of private landlords be seen as a cause of shame rather than admiration? At what point, when people buy second homes as toys, while others lack first homes as necessity, does a lack of imagination become criminal? Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, demonstrates that unaffordable housing is a result of widening inequality in wealth. ‘The great housing insecurity of our times has been brought about by a minority becoming the hoarders of property, and this hoarding has been facilitated by successive governments,’ he writes, advocating rent controls as the first and obvious step.
Homehunger speaks the obstacled language of im- ob- in- un. The homehungry are unphrased, ignored, neglected; impeded, obstructed, incoherent, obliterated. Those without a voice are ignored. In the three years since the Tories came to power, the number of young people sleeping rough in London more than doubled. As I write, two thirds of people affected by the bedroom tax are in rent arrears and one in seven have received eviction letters. Almost two thirds of all the tenants who would be affected by the tax have a disability; many of them disabled children.
The housing crisis, which twists so many lives out of true, is perceived as a private grief, a personal difficulty. It isn’t. It’s a public issue; a politically-driven violation of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to housing adequate for their health and well-being. U.N. member states – including the UK – are pledged to observe this. But eight per cent of young people, those under 25, have been homeless in the last five years. Meanwhile the government plans to abolish housing benefit for the under-25’s. More than half of these people are themselves parents. Where will they go? They can stay with family or sleep on the streets.
Human skin is too thin a shelter against a cutting wind, for street sleepers. The human mind, too, is too thin-skinned, too sensitive for such rough living. Without the intimate nest of home, the psyche has two choices. It can stand on guard, on the ropes, jumping at the edge of itself, hyper alert, readied, vigilant and brittle or else it retreats, withdraws, as the self seeks shelter ever deeper within itself to escape the pitiless exposure of an unhoused life.
Where exile or unhomedness is a choice, there can be power and vitality in the decision to leave: an exodus for an adventure; an exile for a divinity; a wanderer for a song. But circumstances force unfree choices.
I met a wandering minstrel in Berlin last year, a latterday Troubadour, walking out one midsummer morning. A performer, dancer and actor, Lars would, he told me, prefer to have a home, but it is too expensive, this human right, unless he gives up who he is. Artists find it hard to be artists these days – there are no garrets for them to starve in. So, making a virtue of necessity, he is a nomad. He has a small caravan in France where he keeps his books, but for the rest, he carries his lares and penates on his back. His household is just that: quite literally what he can hold. He also holds dear his hours, and his metaphors, making a hedge-hearth wherever he can, pared down like a mendicant’s begging bowl and two cupped hands, and finding a home within himself, staying grounded, he says, and true to himself. Lars spent an afternoon once in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where an Indian man asked him about his life.
‘Ah, I see,’ said the Indian at last, ‘you’re a Saddhu.’
‘How did that make you feel?’ I asked.
‘Recognised,’ said Lars, instantly.
Spiritual traditions understand sacred homelessness, living in the present moment so fully that monks and mendicants who have no literal home, can find a home everywhere, spiritually. Mindfulness makes each moment a shelter. ‘It is a virtue to travel through life without a home,’ says the Dhammapada, the sayings of the Buddha. Lars and others are trying to make necessity into just such a virtue.
The price of a home is unjustly high. The price of losing a settled life is also unjustly high: it costs Lars relationships and the possibility of having children. The soft animal body wants a burrow but more than physical shelter, the self needs a place of sheltering, a self-scape shaped uniquely yours, where you can see yourself at the heart of your own life. The present is diminished without witness of walls. The past has no audience. The future is an alibi. Always elsewhere, out of reach, heard like an echo of silence, mute, uneasy, unjust and oddly lonely, the self without a sense of itself.
As the fireplace is the focus of a room – quite literally in etymology, the word ‘focus’ is the Latin for fireside (and think fuego, fire in Spanish, or fuoco in Italian) so the home is the focus of the self. The house tends the flame of the individual. Each person needs a home so their flame doesn’t go out. Thus the habits of our inhabitation are self-reflexive. Fire lights you. The bed makes you. Laundry washes you. Books read you. Wine drinks you. The garden weeds you. The roof mends you. The walls decorate you. Cats stroke you to sleep. The home builds you. The house holds you.