Longing for home: Hiraeth; Ekhaya; Pueblo

Projects are right at the heart of 26 – an opportunity to flex our writing muscles in new ways and, often, take something from that experience into other parts of our writing lives. 26 member Paul Murphy got in touch recently to share how he’s taken inspiration from 26 projects and used this to work with St Mungo’s charity. Thank you, Paul, for sharing this thoughtful piece with us.

“Just 62 words on you and St Mungo’s; I want you to write a sestude,” I announced as several pairs of eyes registered a flicker of doubt at their teacher’s latest implausible writing exercise. Then they got on with it. They were up for anything I could throw at them.

A common thread that runs through 26 is a belief in the power of writing and the harnessing of such a force by working in partnership with like-minded organisations.

It was 26 Treasures in 2012 that prompted me to embark on a personal journey of discovery beginning with an MA in Professional Writing by the sea in Cornwall, that led to Spain and the publication of a book, that led to an interest in teaching Creative Writing as a small part of aiding recovery or therapy. For a while I volunteered for the charity Ty Newydd – The National Writing Centre for Wales, again by the sea where I first encountered the act of writing being used as a force for healing and recovery.

Over time, this journey has eventually led me to working with the St Mungo’s organisation based primarily in London and Bristol, and this year celebrating their 50th anniversary. Bristol is a city with an acute homelessness problem that has exploded over the past decade.

When I thought about it, the issue of homelessness has appeared at several points in my life over the years.

Growing up in a prosperous London suburb in the 1960s, I was occasionally rebuked for being lazy and told that if I didn’t watch it, I would end up on Skid Row. This remained a vague concept until the summer of 1971 when I was invited to spend the summer in New York under the care of a distant cousin. The cousin was a Monsignor in the Catholic Church, assigned to St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Only recently did I appreciate the power of his position on discovering that the Catholic Church is one of the three largest land estate owners in New York City. It explains why perhaps my cousin met me at JFK and shepherded me out via a side door and thus avoiding immigration and police checks. I was probably technically an illegal alien that summer. It also explains why I was allowed to work – without a green card – as a grass cutter in a large sprawling cemetery in Queens. My cousin, you see, controlled all the cemeteries across the city.

He took me on a sightseeing tour, visiting all the usual suspects, finishing up in The Bowery in Lower Manhattan. He told me, with a hint of pride, that this was a No Go area for whites and respectable young men like me as he pointed out the sight of homeless, hopeless human beings, all men, many clutching bottles and sporting long hair and beards. This was when I discovered what Skid Row was and it has stayed with me ever since.

Fast forward a few years and I was Euro Railing around France and Spain. Strapped for cash in Paris, I slept out on the streets one night on a bench in Gare Austerlitz and had my first (and only) experience of being chatted up and propositioned by a postman. I moved on to Madrid and the South. This was over 30 years since the Spanish Civil War, but I was shocked by the common sight of homeless people on city streets. I realised that most had either lost one or both legs, presumably in the war, and had to manoeuvre around on wooden boards with wheels on. A penance for being on the losing side and deemed outcasts. I had read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, but this was a very harsh reality.

Laurie Lee had written of similar sights as he travelled through 1930s Spain, described in his classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. In 2012 I wrote a biography of Lee and crafted it from the perspective of repeating his epic journey 80 years on. This was now Spanish austerity at its height after the 2008 economic crash. Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal all suffered when it seemed that the whole of southern Europe was in conflict with the demands of the European Union. I was struck by how tenaciously the new Spanish middle class clung to their European partners, even as banks were evicting tenants and foreclosing on mortgages. The level of homelessness was once again growing exponentially in a modern civilised society. Is there ever an acceptable level of homelessness?

In “Bleak House”, Dickens captures homelessness and poverty in an area called ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’. It is a London slum within walking distance of the privileged legal world of Chancery and functions as a reminder of our responsibility as individuals and as society for the wellbeing of our fellow humans.

It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people…Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever and sowing more evil in its every footprint than … all the fine gentlemen in office . . . shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it. (Bleak House, Chapter XII, ‘Tom-All-Alone’s.’)

Martin Wolf, a journalist for the Financial Times, recently wrote an article on ‘Home’

Unlike a ‘house’ or a ‘flat’, a home is not something concrete. Its meaning is abstract and personal. The place one thinks of as ‘home’ expresses one’s personal history, identity and relationships. Having a home is not just a matter of safety. It defines one as a person. That is why homelessness seems such a desperate condition.

A child of Celtic parents brought up in London, I often feel stateless. I know what I am not – an Englishman – but not really what I am. English does not appear to have a word that captures the essence of ‘longing for home’ in the way that the Welsh, South Africans and Spanish do: Hiraeth; Ekhaya; Pueblo. One word that can evoke an emotional, cultural response.

I volunteer for the Bristol St Mungo’s Recovery College (one of four across the UK). St Mungo’s aim is to end homelessness and rebuild damaged lives. I joined them by chance, although perhaps there was a subconscious dynamic at work. In the recent past I have become rather too well acquainted with the realisation that there is a very thin line between being a fully signed up member of the residential class and being homeless. Relationship breakdown, physical or mental illness, addiction, debt, a brush with the law, bad luck: they are all relatively small steps leading down a slippery slope but as a combination – catastrophic.

I lead the Creative Writing group. Attendance is good but often sporadic as rebuilding shattered lives can be a chaotic process. Restoring health, independence, stability and trust takes time. Writing takes its place alongside singing, Tai Chi, gardening and other therapeutic activities.

A while back I challenged the group to create a series of sestudes on their St Mungo’s experience. Just 62 words. They took on the challenge of writing openly about very difficult personal issues in an alien style of writing. I think they quickly realised that the constraints of a sestude motivated them to think more about their pieces and they engaged with the necessary rewriting process. They helped each other, engaged with some light-touch editing from me and proceeded to craft their pieces. I think they surprised themselves. Some of the pieces were read out by the authors or anonymously at the end of term graduation lunch and published on the noticeboard. I am very pleased that their work will now also be published online in the 26 newsletter.

Some of the pieces and background commentaries can be read below.

– Paul Murphy

SESTUDE FOR GRADUATION CEREMONY, WEDS 03/04/19

‘HOME OF RECOVERY’

Then
No light, some welcome shade
Zero self-esteem, identity blurred
Terror of the present, no curiosity about the future
Past allows no progress
No reason to be
Hole in my soul: emptiness

Now
I like the shade, now it’s shared with others
I am of service
My job on earth is unfinished, I know why I’m alive
That empty space being filled:  nourishment

Background

I didn’t know I would become mentally unhealthy and, for much of my life I was OK.  Increasingly, I was not OK, far from well, although I did not see it, I struggled on.  My identity was blurred, I was a stranger to myself, had lost creativity and spirituality. 

A number of years later, acknowledgement and acceptance hit me and I sought help from various sources.  One of those sources was St Mungos Recovery College.  People here understand, they understand and know so much. 

From the get go, I have felt safe, welcome, at home and relaxed here at New Street.  Having attended some courses (which I still do), including Creative Writing, I am now a volunteer here.  I am preparing to look for some paid work, but whatever the future brings, I will still spend time here, if you’ll have me!

**

62 WORDS ON THE CONCEPT OF TRUST

I was at Carrington Road for 2 months, then was offered a chance to go to rehab.

I was introduced by my Community Support Worker.  To start with I chose yoga, guitar lessons and then creative writing.  I felt unsure but after a couple of lessons started to believe and trust everyone.

**

A BUTTERFLY

Taken from me without permission
A semblance of my old self remains
What whole do these pieces make anymore
A metamorphosis is taking place
Like a butterfly escaping the cocoon, in comfort
Darkness lies
A shell remains on which to build
The lightness an unfamiliar but welcome friend
Slowly the butterfly emerges
Onto a new dawn
Nothing can be taken without permission

**

GREEK GROUNDHOG DAY

Here I am yet again some time out of hospital.  Another episode where my mind itself has let me down.  Financially incontinent, socially toxic, alienating acquaintances, good friends, memories a scant nightmarish blur.  Every morning my only bedfellows fear, shame and self-disgust.  In a flat that is not home, in a city which is strange.  Am I condemned to be Sisyphus?

Background for Greek Groundhog Day – Rock-bottom

I chose the phrase rock-bottom because I felt it is a good description of how one feels when one is out of hospital and experiencing the big alienated low that comes along to accompany the ‘High’ that has one put in hospital.

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