So, what’s new? ‘Some wankers are doing shit to the place where I live and I can’t do anything about it’? Okay, how about:
Someone has decided to smother the place where I live in an artificial straitjacket, several inches thick, of oil-based plastic derivatives that will not only reduce internal light levels by a third while increasing the rent by a quarter but will also cause the interior of the entire structure to succumb in around ten years to stale air, damp and an all-pervasive, tubercular-comeback mould.
My original theme was about how this insulating material has been inserted into our lives as some form of environmental panacea, and how we’ve allowed ourselves to be conned into swallowing this narrative, these threads spun by vested interests and pressure groups.
So I was going off on styrofoam-related fugues, trying to get my head round various deep State/lobbyist symbioses between the political class and the jackals of late capitalism, aided by their administrative, legal and marketing hangers-on.
The thing I was writing was, in short, turning into a canvas of bile. I contemplated cross-stitch embroidery instead, but there was no way this was gonna fit on a quilt.
I felt like the wild-eyed guy you see on the corner, carrier bag in hand, shouting at buildings.
The title – IKNA (‘Ich kann nicht atmen’ or ‘I Can’t Breathe’) chose itself. But I only started seeing it as prescient (in the privacy of my own ego) when I read about the uninhabited Pacific island – Henderson Island – that was covered, to a depth of several inches, with 38 million pieces of plastic. The 17.6 tonnes total is added to by 13,000 extra pieces of plastic daily. Think of one garbage truck being emptied into the sea every second. Think of hermit crabs living in dolls’ heads.
I’ve moved out since I wrote this – managed to snag a place that I found out, just after signing the contract, has just been sold, so there’s more fun to come, I’m sure. So I can’t imagine how I’d’ve felt, still living in the old place and reading about the planet’s burgeoning strangulation by unbreakdownable plastic nubbins squatting our food chain. If I’d still been living in a place that had recently been covered in styrenated panelling glued on with a polymerised acetonol-composite chlorovinyl bonding agent.
And so we come, inevitably, as a society, to Grenfell Towers. Apparently we shouldn’t politicise this, according to those who have taken it upon themselves to decide what constitutes the political. My definitions (and I hate to phrase it this way) went out the window when I saw that tower block go up like a barbecue briquette.
Fire resistant zinc cladding was replaced with more flammable aluminium cladding, at a cost saving of 293,368 pounds. Which, divided by 80, comes to – for each life – 3,667 pounds and 10 pence. Nearby residents reported a smell of burning meat.
Not ‘a smell like’. A smell ‘of’.
It’s like an illness in the family. Or, rather, the announcement. Neighbours glance at you in embarrassed sympathy. You shrug, smile, say, ‘It won’t be long now.’
You’ve been preparing for it, ever since the first letter came. Energetische Sanierung. Modernisierung. Novellierung. Wärmedämmung. Reminds me of ‘Götterdämmerung’. Or ‘our house is literally verdämmt’. The letter for everyone in the house.
Funny how we call it ‘house’, this collection of apartments – eleven kids, last count, including: six-month-old twins (when their Mum’s on her own with the shopping, she has to bring everything upstairs in stages, like the fox-chicken-bag of seed over the river problem, so you sometimes encounter a placid neonate eyeing you from a pram carriage on the stairwell); two lawyers; a judge who’s at least ten years younger than me (I took a wrong turn somewhere); a graphic designer, skin cancer in remission and water dripping through his ceiling from whatever rooftop activities the workers are busy with; various American coders (a ‘cloud’ of coders?); the schoolgirl learning piano who, every evening at six, spends half an hour with a single index finger transforming the first four bars of Handel’s Messiah into a 15bpm dirge; a sweet little lesbo couple who never leave the house together but just scowl at you singly on the stairs, though everyone here knows they’re a sweet little lesbo couple, and that pair who really rock out with the window open at night so you’re trying to get to sleep to some seriously non-shy and oddly hollow-sounding pubis-to-buttock dermal slapping (turning the whole house into reluctant aural equivalents of voyeurs – ‘auditeurs’ perhaps?) which sounds like it ought to be erotic until you realise, when you meet the guy checking their postbox in the morning, that seeing him naked must be like facing the last chicken hanging in Aldi®’s, and that him bearing down on you in the privacy of your boudoir must be like having a wardrobe fall on top of you with the key sticking out.
So, everyone in the house got this letter from a legal firm – to paraphrase: ‘Sehr geehrte Okkupant/Okkupantin, Objekt Vierzehn, Rollerkoffer Straße, 07734 Berlin. We’re gonna fuck you up and charge you for the pleasure. Details to follow. You have to agree to this in writing by the end of the month, otherwise we will sow your ancestral lands with salt and have you up before a landlord-friendly judge who will authorise us to open your pitiful bank account like a shucked oyster so that you, your dreams, your descendants and your descendants’ dreams shall be as our playthings unto the nth generation. Mit freundlichen Grüßen, Wilhemina Kotzenfutter.’
So the scaffolding is in place, the balcony plants are up to their desiccated stamens in dust, all the original doors and windows will be replaced by their generic Scandinavian-effect equivalents, and the sound of industrial drilling reverberates so intensely and at such low frequency throughout the building that, if you’re sitting on a wooden kitchen chair, it’s like someone’s feathering the underside of your balls with an egg whisk, which is not as pleasant as it sounds.
The workers have Gaffa®-ed in on the ground floor that building-site carpet analogue that prisoners make, the ambient colour of an old lump of plasticene where the original tones have leached into a greasy grey, the carpet also flecked with tufty bits of stringy red and blue, so the whole ensemble resembles what you’d get if you force-fed a dog a fistful of Buntestreusse and then kicked it in the stomach till it sicked up the whole lot. Just looking at it makes my teeth itch.
The entrance hall now has a claggy sort of staleness about it, the carpet smelling like a recently flood-damaged charity bookshop crossed with the back room of a butcher’s where the blood has leached into the sawdust. There’s a certain retch-friendly, umami undertone where weeks of meat-fat cooking smells have started to infiltrate the carpet fibres. The air seems smaller somehow, as if the nitrogen and oxygen were being elbowed aside by free radicals dislodged with each step you take on the weave, exotic molecular compounds slaloming down your glottis to latch their styptic little receptor chemicals onto the alveoli branching deep within your lungs.
The carpet serves as a handy olfactory aperitif to the looming styrofoam main course – this plastinated insulating material that will eventually clad the outside walls in its stifling embrace. Some of this stuff that will cover the house has been linked with birth defects but, happily, the power of lobbyists has ensured that the ban on its use has been put back a year, which is one reason you see so many of these scaffolds being put up now – metastasising like cancer through the body of the city. The location and indeed aetiology of these points of infection depend on various exogenous factors: whether a building has recently been sold to some tentacular tax-haven company with a bland, Esperanto-ish, big-Pharma name (Vivico®, Immo®, Accentro®, Vonovia®, Bonobo) that sounds like a brand of suppositories, keen to monetise the property as quickly as possible; the German legal system that, unlike in most other European countries, doesn’t allow for court cases brought by groups – class-action suits – rather than by individuals (not surprising, I suppose, given her 20th-century history – though [hey] they’ve just legalised gay marriage, so the wheels are turning); what other factors are there?… a lazy-thinking and egoistic political class that conflates putting up buildings with ‘development’, and this whole hegemonic superstructure of patronage, patronising, lies, marketisation, eco-hypocrisy and small-minded, present-dwelling cultural cowardice is supported by a bestiary (look at them circling you like the Hecate scene in Macbeth and you’re in the cauldron), a bestiary of lawyers, lobbyists, investment bankers and hedge-fund managers, architects, accountants, marketers, conference organisers, brochure-, infofilm- and website-designers, chemical companies, copywriters, tree killers, bottom-feeding employers and guppy-faced, Reagan-haired provincial politicians hoisting up their waistbands like they’ve just voided an annoying obstruction (only now you’re in the toilet bowl, looking up as they flush you away), radiating their conceit from placards tied to lampposts with those police-issue plastic handcuffs you always see around lefties’ wrists on May Day, the trailing strap sticking out horizontally, ready to scythe through a passing iris, the superiority in their thin-lipped visages all but inviting anointment with a balloonful of piss, a swirl of freaks and pencil-skirted demons on swivel chairs, a Bosch triptych of expensively tailored leeches on top of their game, getting out of cars and brushing down their jackets, studying spreadsheets at an elliptical conference table of sustainable pine-substitute, specimen jars of untouched Perrier® bottles lined up like a Victorian apothecary’s back-room array of abortifacients, and smiling as they stick a spade into the ground, the ground which now seems to be morphing into the top of your head, the whole Hogarthian gallimaufry cavorting round your brain, bestriders of the Earth surrounded by a Goyan chorus of imps with outstretched mikes and a deadline to make, masters of a prostitute universe, fundamentally and irrevocably altering the face of an entire capital city for generations to come.
Climbing the Walls
The workers follow your basic New Europe hierarchy of labour: Poles on top cos they speak better German than the Irish, then Ukrainians and Bulgarians doing the grunt work, and finally Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians cleaning up our first-world detritus. The ‘architect’ is a kulak German from some saccharine Westphalian dorm-town – he wafted in on the first day, standing outside, communing with his smartphone and plebbing with the craftsmen (well, the white ones), smart-cazh, smelling of hotel shower-gel and with a wedgy-looking Frankfurt-banker hair style, the same greyish-blond as the carpet. I wanted to prise his attention from his (regrettably, as yet unexploded) Samsung® Galaxy Note™ Seven to tell him that, if efficiently lobbied government subsidy were the hippo, then he was the bird extracting insects out of its teeth and that, if the world were just, then he’d be right now sitting at a desk in front of a state-of-the-art computer-aided-design program with his severed hands in a cookie jar, but I had neither the heart nor the vocabulary.
Most of the workers trooping up and down the stairs carry an air of sheepish surliness, so it becomes a challenge to squeeze a reluctant greeting, especially as I feel I’m in effect living inside a sensurround email scam courtesy of styrofoam lobbyists and political hucksters, where besuited aliens are busily transforming a city’s demographic, social and cultural landscape in a way that extracts maximum profit from those who benefit least from the change. And I’m just dreading that insectile six-thirty a.m. drone of the scaffolding elevator or the workers’ hearty animadversions on foam cladding in the echo chamber of the back yard, inhabitants synchronising their bladders to avoid coming face to face with an unfamiliar man chisel-drilling lumps of plaster off the wall outside their bathroom window just as they’re rising from the seat and adjusting their smalls.
This scaffolding elevator drone is sometimes accompanied by the sounds of variously sized lumps of disarticulated brickwork clattering down from above, or the susurrous dust being swept off balconies by neighbours further up, mixed with nubbins of polystyrene particulate that float and settle everywhere, like those eternal atolls of plastic accreting in the world’s oceans and deoxygenating our food chain.
The head scaffold honcho is clearly alive to the social challenges of the situation, masking his awareness of being a grudgingly tolerated gatecrasher by hailing all the neighbours with brittle bonhomie, cornering me with a smile in various dust-, pipe- and rebar-strewn interstices, or saluting me, Juliet-like, from a variety of perches, so that I feel I’m being pecked by a coked-up cuckoo. I usually call him ‘Meister’ (as in ‘Hey, Meister, wie hängt heute Ihr Baugerüst?’), my scrupulous attention to the formal ‘Sie’ affording me a certain distance from the temptation, when he calls down to me, ‘Guten Morgen, wie geht es bei Ihnen? Alles gut?’ as I’m dodging falling masonry while trying to unlock my eldest kid’s bike for school (said kid sheltering from rubble on the prison-issue doggie-vom carpet) to scream up through the yard, ‘Alles ist fucking perFEKT!’
We did try to move out but, like a corner of the top flat’s ceiling, it fell through. Trouble is, the word ‘freiberuflich’ or freelance is, as an incentive to let for a landlord looking to offload a place, akin to ‘leprous’. Or ‘Syrian’. Without a letter from an employer guaranteeing a specified monthly income for an unspecified length of time, you have as much freedom of manoeuvre as Lot’s wife post-backward glance. And, knowing it’s a sellers’ market, the existing tenants are also often not much help. One place we visited, they wanted us to pay four thousand for a kitchen they’d fitted and didn’t want to take. I made a thing of looking in my pockets but they didn’t seem amused. Another lovely lady in a flat we looked at was very keen on telling us how her new, streamlined life necessitated the tragic abandonment of various bits of old Schrott that were cluttering up her place, said Schrott being remarkably accurately assessed, in her opinion (shared with us at regular intervals throughout the conversation) as being worth somewhere north of a thousand euros, give or (in her case) take. After admiring her bric-à-brac, including a Swiss-style mahogany-look dressing table that appeared to be made out of ice-lolly sticks, we took our leave. And, of course, we found out later that someone else had looked at the flat and forked out the necessary wodge, cash down, for the lady’s emotionally priceless in-situ tat.
So there’s the monoculture for you, in a nutmeg. The guys with the aces just want DINKs (double income, no kids). You can have one later, after you’ve moved in but, hey, this ain’t the noughties, far less the fin de siècle when, yeah, yeah, we should have known that a commercially unexploited city would attract a load of young people who were gonna go to bars for cheap drinks and other substances and meet other young people and dance a bit and then go back and do jiggy-jiggy with ensuing babies and perhaps you brushed past Low©-period Bowie in some ur-punk bar and have been dining out on the story for forty years (and, actually, Heroes© was all about Brian Eno round the side of Hansa Studios snogging one of the backing singers) and anyone left behind can just get out of our way because we’ve seen the future and it’s all glassy and bright on the Dachterasse and a bit shady at street level what with all the Spätifizierung but if you pull the right lever the cherries lock together and it’s a lovely flow of concrete- and styrofoam-smelling cash cash cash if you’re standing in the right place, so all the dormice who missed the boat cos they were too broke or sleepy or didn’t have enough from their parents to trust-fund their own little game of solipsistic Monopoly™ can look at a big map of Europe and just blummin’ well go south or east cos that’s cheap (for a bit longer anyway) though there’s no work, or north or west (which is expensive and tricky if you weren’t born there), cos we assure you there’s a lot of competition in the Flaschensammler economy, or the hanging out in the park for hours with half a gramme of dusty weed-business, or standing outside supermarkets and banks with a retrieved homeless-mag, or waiting by ticket machines with half an all-day return, or asking people, clipboard in hand, ‘Do you speak English?’ in that middle part of the Holocaust Memorial where it starts to get disorienting, or someone murdering The Godfather© on the accordion (the only thing worse than a big accordion is a really tiny little one) so play something germane to your cultural traditions please if you wanna see my hard-hustled coinage, cos the unions are pretty poorly represented in the precariat underbelly of our shiny new zero-hours spivocracy, the prospects are fluctuating at best and the pension opportunities, if you’re poking around the belly of a street-bin with an old make-up mirror chewing-gummed onto the end of a selfie-stick are, quite frankly, less than optimal.
And don’t even think about stealing my bike.
‘Energetische Modernisierung’: Well, ‘modernisation’ is a qualitative and therefore value-laden term, so has no business being applied to the act of plaster-gluing styrofoam panels onto a retaining wall and then spraying random colour on the result. Of course it’s a laudable government policy to reduce people’s energy use, but why target an individual who doesn’t even put the heating on till the clocks go back, who bikes or uses public transport, wears hiking socks if the floor gets a bit cold and has never once falsified the results of a fuel consumption and emissions test on a four-door family saloon?
Of the forty-odd apartment buildings on our street, three are currently being caparison’d in styrenated polymer panels either (if we’re lucky) the colour of clotted cream, projectile-ejected Beaujolais™, greenish dun-grey or (if we’re unlucky) a fuscous, infant-diarrhoea beige. ‘Fuscous’, by the way, is defined in Merriam-Webster (1993) as ‘of any of several colors averaging a brownish gray which is lighter than taupe… lighter and less strong than average chocolate, and less strong and slightly redder than mouse gray’. Is there such a thing as ‘average chocolate’? And what the fuck is ‘taupe’?
Though it has to be said, of the new covered scaffolds that have gone up in this street since ours, their gauze does look much more chic and fancy than our by now rather tatterdemalion hangings. Maybe our renovators didn’t pay their dues to the gauze mafia, or got some Albanian knock-off scrim that bypassed the more formal import channels. To be fair though, we did have a few windy evenings a couple of months ago and bits of the lacing got uncoupled from their plastic ties so it’s hanging open here and there, some of the rips following metres-long contours of the stitching so it looks like The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman© if our heroine had laddered her tights. From the outside our shroud does look somewhat like a bored Christo who lost interest half way through and let the interns take over.
Yes – the material, as is the way with so many of our best-laid plans, is getting gradually shredded by Nature.
The thread of the gauze attached to the metal uprights of the scaffold with these beloved anti-anarchist police-issue plastic handcuffs (the makers of these multifunctional ties, what with all the G20 arrests, political posters and scaffolding boom, must be coining it in) … anyway, the thread of the gauze has a cross-stitched warp of tiny, mosquito-sized V-shapes interlocking sideways with the weft, almost like the watermark on a passport. I’ve obviously been staring at it too long, sitting out on the balcony, millimetres deep as it is in lung-busting plaster dust so that, when I come in, especially if there’s a drink involved, I’m walking around for the next five minutes totally chevron-eyed. If I’d wanted macular degeneration, I’d’ve become a proofreadr.
I’ve just been clearing the plants from the balcony so workers can access the area around the doorframes. Whatever device they’ve been using to denude the plaster outer layer (some sort of deafening, arrowhead-toothed rotary chewer that got the whole family fleeing the house last Friday like slugs recoiling from salt), it’s left horizontal, jagged scar-lines of chinked, pale pink brickwork like the Ishtar Gate just after it got dug up and plundered.
The gaps between the balcony floorboards have filled up with variously sized lumps of pale plaster spin-off like someone’s decorated them with a cement-filled cake-icer. For years these gaps were a cobwebby microcosm of soil, wriggling things, cigarette ash, a plastic Bic®-top and the metal, U-shaped mini-bracket that protects the flint and wheel of a disposable lighter (which pinged off one evening when I accidentally used the wrong end of the lighter to pop open a bottle of Schöfferhofer®), these last two items perhaps of some passing archaeo-taxonomic interest a few centuries hence.
But over the last year my eldest has really got into watering the plants post-school. Her normal eight-year-old’s relaxed attitude to mess (the only thing she’s worse at than the Tidying-up Game is the Let’s Watch Daddy Read the Paper game) means the balcony floor plus a goodly area of the front room next to the outer door tends to get flooded as a result of her using the ‘grown-up’ watering can. Fair enough: tipping two litres of water would be a sizeable strain on anyone’s wrist, and she eats like a bird anyway. But, after years of my flicking ash or losing small objects therein, these marly gaps between the floorboards have started to sprout grass – long, parallel lines of uliginous green interleaving the planks of the balcony floor – and even a hardy daisy or three. Which just goes to show how much I know. Out of the spouts of babes…
Her spray-mania’s done the ivy a treat, too. A straggly little excuse when we moved in (I mean the plant, not my daughter), attached to wall-pins with short lengths of cotton thread, the thing generally never really got going until late summer, when it finally managed to push out a few measly leaves that would dry up within a fortnight and drop into the ashtray. This went on for years. But last summer, regularly and indeed copiously watered for the first time in at least eight years, the ivy has really come into its own, great sequoian leaves tapering up its whole length. There’s no way that’s getting chucked; it’s still out there at the moment, and will be for another few days till the windows and doors get put in, so I should have time to bring it in and improvise some kind of Sellotape® ‘n’ dowelling skeletal girdle for it.
One small flowerpot had me stumped, though. I couldn’t figure out what it was for. There was some off-white resinous gloop dried up at the bottom of it, like the fossilised residue of some elephantine ball-juice trowelled out of Kamchatkan permafrost by a Gulag palaeontologist hoping to knock a few years off her sentence by reinventing the mammoth. There looked to be pine kernels and sunflower seeds embedded in it, and I spent at least five minutes gazing at the bottom of the pot in stunned incomprehension like a major-league basketball player faced with the Rosetta Stone before I realised, with an Archimedean splash of intuition, that it was actually my eldest’s hanging bird-feeder, lying on its side, with(I may say)out my permission, in the dust, never to provide avian succour again.
While removing the plants from the balcony, I’ve been accompanied by a large butterfly that got stuck trying to find a way through the gauze hangings that cover the five storeys of the house, and which is presently butting its thorax against the reverse side of the huge plastic banner that the scaffolding firm has draped over the front – something with a giant supermodel’s blown-up face (that’s far too much eye shadow, if you want my humble, and the size of the banner really catches the way her face powder has created little crescents where it’s caked and dried into her pores). Her face reminds me of the advertising on the side of that airship in Blade Runner©. The slogan on the banner, stamped across the orange foundation smeared on her chin-line, is ‘Das neue Gesicht der Fassade’. ‘The New Face of the Façade’. You’ve got that right.
Most of the plants have, as I said before, not survived modernisation’s dream. Yanking out fistfuls of expired clematis with my Marigold®s on wasn’t too traumatic, but a certain melancholy (threaded with the papery wingbeats of the still unescaped Papillon) played counterpoint to my reluctant massacre of the sage. Even though the veins of its leaves were now engrained with a substance the light-brown colour and granular consistency of inexpertly cut heroin, I still got that lovely burst of fragrance when I pulled the whole plant out of the soil – Oh, beauteous, bountiful Salbei, what gnocchi you’ve enhanced.
It’s one of those chunky little beggars, the butterfly: the size of a child’s thumb, and you can hear its wings flapping as it headbutts the back of the giant supermodel’s forehead on the banner’s obverse. I should try and find out its genus – it’s on the list – but at the moment all I know is it’s a biggie, it’s black and orangey-red, and it’s stuck. Stuck in a state-subsidised and smoothly lobbied smothering of residential property in artificial material that will create damp, humidity, juvenile bronchitis and varying degrees of State-sanctioned flammability roughly ten years after the instigators of this fraud have retired to a far-off principality to tan their leathery hides under the accommodating umbrella of a tax regime relaxed vis-à-vis the carpet-grey areas of flexible cross-border capital accumulation.
The step-change now is a result of a Wild West property free-for-all, and a person’s income now trumps their right to shelter. If a supposedly democratic political system can roll over and raise its money-scented scut for penetration by corporate structures whose own interests render the interests of anyone else fundamentally contingent – dependent on income as the primary criterion – where does that leave the system’s duty of care to those living within it? Or is there no duty of care? If this is joined-up thinking, I’d rather be dyslexic. If you can’t sort out the underpinning foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the scaffold, if you like), the need for shelter, then I wouldn’t trust you to run a bath, let alone society. If this is gonna save the planet, we’re shaping up to dam(n) the entire biome.
I’m gonna have to prepare for when my kids come back and do their regular check on the bird-feeder. What can I say when they ask why it’s not in its usual place? It usually hangs upside down on a wire wrapped round a tack attached to the wall, so that birds can either grip the underside with their claws and peck upwards at the seeds and dried coconut (aah, that’s what that white stuff is) which is what starlings and finches seem to prefer or, in the case of heavier pigeons and crows, land on top and excavate the contents through the small hole in the pot.
I may just have to tell the kids that someone took the bird-feeder off the wall cos they could, or cos it was in the way, or whoever did it didn’t know or care what it was, or maybe they knocked it off accidentally. Or I could say that the feeder’s no use any more cos the birds won’t be able to navigate their way through the synthetic gauze-netting or opaque plastic advertising banner covering the façade, but will just periodically boinngg off the material like mental patients in a padded room. Well, at least I’d have company. Or, if they do manage to get through, will just flit around inside the cage like Plato’s representation of consciousness.
Though the butterfly does seem to have escaped now. There’s a lovely, combustible air-gap of about six inches where the steel cylindrical braces of the scaffolding have been bored into the wall and buttressed by a thick spiral cord of machine-woven wire extending from the interior of an extruded concrete jacket whose leading edge has been moulded into a rectilinear arciform C-clamp that looks like a concrete miniature of the Brandenburg Gate and whose other end is fixed to a scaffolding upright by a circular ferro-tungsten anchor bracket threaded around the steel-alloy club-linked bracing cradle into which the cylinder fits.
It reminded me at first of those surgical bolt ‘n’ frame matrices that knit together badly broken bones. The metaphor doesn’t really hold, though, because, for me, the house was never broken. And it’s not getting better any time soon.