Refusing to be dead

Posted on September 18, 2011


There is a terrible thumping.  Regular, solid, dreadful.  It comes from the grave in front of me.  Each rupture of sound accompanied by an equally terrible rupture of the grave itself – its lid lifting momentarily before slamming back down against the stone.  The dead want to speak.  It is my uncle, dead less than a year, and he has something to say.  He is angry.  He does not want to be forgotten, and he refuses to be dead.  His brothers and I join together to help him through this terrible place, but I can’t help feeling he has a right to demand to be heard even as he does, by transgressing the boundary between living and dead.

His home was a boardinghouse. A place for the forgotten: those who are dispossessed, disappearing, and dismissed, and yet – it was a place he called home.  He lived there with the same men for most of his life. He was reclusive: out of sight. Each year he would come less and less to family gatherings – eventually completely withdrawing.  When cold turned to a chest infection, there was no-one on hand to help him to the doctor.  Nor did he reach out for help.  He died.  He was delivered to the morgue.  He lay there for a month before the authorities got around to notifying his relatives.

My uncle’s reappearance in my dream-life reminds me not to forget him, but also, to remember that his life could have been longer had our society valued those who, for whatever reason, are living on its edges.  What society will we possibly create if we allow these acts of forgetting to become the norm, a collective unseeing?

The recent riots have been attributed to many factors.  Cameron branded their roots in ‘pure greed’ while his Justice Minister, labelled rioters as members of the ‘criminal classes’.  The Government’s response has included a raft of measures that are highly punitive, not just of the individuals, but of their families and arguably their communities. These include notably, eviction of the family of a rioter from public housing and withholding benefits from the household as well as disproportionate custodial sentences for the individuals involved.

But this is the most lurid and controversial end of the Government’s agenda, far more insidious is the suggestion that Governments no longer have a moral obligation to local communities – it is communities themselves who must help themselves. The Localism Bill currently making its way through Parliament will enshrine so much of this ideology.  It is beautifully 1984 in its double-speak: entreating a new civic society on the one hand, while on the other, using this enhanced civic pride to obviate any responsibility of government(s) for ensuring people’s needs are able to be adequately met in a fair and just way.

The forgotten and marginalised in this scenario are all of those who cannot advocate for themselves. These forgotten people are everywhere.

Boardinghouses in Sydney, where my uncle lived, are part of the forgotten fabric that is unfortunately so all-pervasive.  It is estimated that 105,000 people were homeless on the night of the last census (2006) and around 20% of these were in boardinghouses in Australia. Homelessness in Britain is on the move again too.  Had there been a simple visiting programme in place (where a medical professional visited once a week or even a fortnight), my uncle could possibly still be alive.  But of course, these privatised institutions are full of people who for one reason or another are not the easiest to engage with.  That is of course partly why so many of them are living in boardinghouses.

What happens to these people under an agenda which forces communities already under pressure to be responsible for the hard to reach, the dysfunctional, the disaffected and the dispossessed?  In some strange way the riots point to an answer.  Young kids who have made outlaws of themselves are so terrifying because of the potential that they may be carrying knives.  In their power they become invisible.  Do not meet the eye of that kid he might knife you.  Well, perhaps that kid might get some attention if he burnt down a whole department store.  Forgotten in plain sight?  The balance of rights and responsibilities is of course bound up in this seeing and invisibility. It is not the only thing at play and the consumerist malaise that somehow makes stealing just another way of acquiring is certainly tangled up here.  But perhaps they are connected by the desire to be recognised and to belong. In attempting to understand how these strands of forgetting and not seeing can become plain, surely the first step is to say: ‘I see you’.