Room to live

Our numbers are overwhelming the planet, even here with our population of 5 million. We need, it seems, tiny living spaces to accommodate us all and to prevent urban spread onto productive land and wildlife habitat.

A friend and I went to an open home in a new complex of high-density townhouses on Sunday. The house we went into was suitable for paper-thin people with foldaway furniture; elbows clenched to sides at all times and breathing restricted to shallow breaths. There was a tiny square of artificial grass with room for only a vertical garden built on the fence. Overlooked in all directions. No room for parking. And the houses are not cheap. No trees, no birds. The open space opposite with views to the river will soon be crammed with similar housing.

They have all been sold. Many to investors, I would think, who will use them as rental properties or airbnb. There was something disturbing about the hype of the open day: the slick real-estate people with fake tans, the shiny brochures, the gourmet food truck. The developer’s website shows two possible floor plans: square or rectangular, take your pick.

I am a ‘homebody’ and I was torn between feeling out of place in the house we visited and imagining ways to make it homely. But it was not a space I could be comfortable in. You would need to be mainly away from home – at work, or elsewhere, using the house for sleeping, showering, eating – although there’s little room for cooking.

My house is a simple wooden one built in 1930; about 100 square metres on a 455 square metre section. Compared to the new townhouses it seems to have room for all aspects of living and is warm in spirit. It’s the only house I’ve owned and the only one I can imagine living in. I’ve gradually improved it, painting inside and out, removing layers of paint on wooden doorways, panelling and window frames, rewiring and insulating it and, of course, gardening, over the 35 years I’ve lived here. Having a flatmate in the early days helped pay the mortgage.

Design programmes on television show people building spacious houses with landscaping and views, and the on-trend infinity pool. How alien this must seem to many people. Too much of it and it becomes distasteful.

Preferable are the houses which people build themselves or which are restored or which are centred on shared spaces and gardens.

But so many people have few choices. A woman in a programme about Cornwall said a house should not be seen as a financial asset but as an essential of life. In that part of the world, locals cannot compete with the prices people from outside will pay to have a holiday house there which sits unoccupied for much of the year. Instead, young people get work where they can, living a kind of nomadic life in caravans and sheds.

While the purpose of pandemics is to decrease the population when numbers threaten to overwhelm resources – a harsh solution often seen in the natural world – I like the idea of re-thinking our perception of what housing should be: Essential.

Being human

Poetry has a way of getting to the core of being human. Joe Bennett’s column in today’s newspaper is centred on the poem Naming of Parts by Henry Reed, first published in 1942, which makes a sad, ironic comment on human behaviour by contrasting the beauty of spring with the hard metal of weaponry.

And so I think of the pleasure of wandering in my garden in the morning as I go to collect the paper from the gate. It is like swimming in new growth which is now waist- and shoulder-high in places, while the golden kowhai reaches overhead.

Then, I sit down to read the paper and re-discover all the complications of human life. Housing shortage, global pandemic, racism, war, disputes, cruelty, and the current new series of articles entitled “This is how it ends” (alluding to Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men) about the sixth mass extinction and climate change.

On the lawn outside my window the hens peck. Sparrows, blackbirds and starlings come down to see what’s on offer. The foxglove flowers are beginning to open. Their lives are as simple and as complicated as the circle of life.

And we humans are superior beings because we have a brain. Find the evidence in poetry.