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The sea, the sea - all you can see is surface

The refugee is vague. He is caught in a condition of waiting. He has travelled from Asia to England but, having no documents, he has never officially arrived: “It isn’t easy to live here. It is a very heavy wait. You know life is quick but I’m always waiting.”

His notion of the sea has no edges. He can’t quite remember how he crossed it, because the sea, to someone closed for several days in the boot of a car, is only slightly different from the land:

“It’s very heavy. I can’t remember dates. From Baghdad to the north we need six hours, more than six hours, I don’t know. Then walk, walk, walk. We sleep at day, we walk at night. We cross a river up to here” – his neck – “I don’t know where it is because nobody speaks my language. They say let’s go this way. They put us inside the car. From Syria to Turkey, perhaps.

“The car drives on to the boat, maybe two days, maybe three days, from Turkey to Greece, from Greece to Italy. I don’t see anything. I don’t know where I am because I don’t go out. When they say they need four people, I don’t ask. My brother pays. No one tells me where
we’re going. Just they give me some bread. I take a big breath. I’m very scared and I go inside.”

After a while, he can tell he’s on a ship because different engines start up and dogs come sniffing the car deck. “Big dogs, they check the car. I can’t breathe I’m so scared. This time I’m lucky but not before.”

Then the sea makes its presence felt as a queasiness, a movement of waves, or “amuwaje” as he calls them.

Ninety feet above him, the ship is layered, like a theological system. The middle decks have shops and cafés where the sea, a blue or grey line through windows, is mostly ignored. In passageways there are charts that show the sea divided by dots and shadows into sections.

Then there are the upper decks, where the sea has a close relationship with light. It marks out the edges of eyesight. It resembles a huge photographic plate that catches the sky exactly. People lean over and all they can see is surface, the uppermost level of another world. It’s as if they were flying over rooves.

The sea has this contradictory quality, that the more you see of it, the more it overwhelms the eye and disappears in its own brightness. Like a flame, whose meaning is light but whose centre is dark, it demands to be undefined.

Anchors away

“It is remarkable,” writes Samuel Johnson, in the introduction to his Dictionary, “that in revising my collection, I found the word ‘sea’ to be un-exemplified.” Imagine him, closed in his room, studying a sea-girt language: when the sea flashes into his mind, it is dramatic, momentary, complete and then gone.

“At the very best,” writes Simone Weil, “a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it a closed space of partial truth. The only way into truth is by one’s own annihilation.”

The refugee holds up his hands: “They have broken my future. Believe me, life is gone. I can’t say everything. I try many times to get from Syria to Europe. I watch the sea every day. There are many big boats and I see just the flag and I think ‘Europe!’ I climb the anchor chain maybe ten or 12 times. There are six of us hiding with the anchor for two days but whenever the boat starts they find us.
We go back. I don’t know when this was.”

With thanks to Ali. Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.