97 – Shacks and Smiles

Walking to Mahle last week I passed fifty or so shacks on a waste ground. At first I thought they were part of an abandoned allotment waiting to be cleared for development. But then I saw a woman washing clothes in a tub. Children playing in the grime. Guys kicking a ball around. Smoke rising from chimneys.

But it wasn’t their houses – crudely nailed together off-cuts of timber covered with plastic sheeting – that shaped my first impression of what was in effect a slum in the middle of Lyon. It was their smiling. The people here appeared happier than the people I passed on the street. The students I taught. The friends I took a beer with. The person I saw in the mirror every morning.

I imagined the fury of the residents nearby in their expensively purchased flats. Looking out from their marbled balconies over a city of plywood. No estate agent fees. No mortgage repayments. No council taxes. I felt their anger and heard their language.

‘Think of our house prices! Those dirty immigrant bastards!’

We could have been in any Western country. House prices being the only thing that matters these days. Forget the chronic housing shortage, or the need to build social housing for people who need it. No. Just the constant inane chatter about house prices and the need to push them even higher. When we should be doing the opposite for the sake of everybody. It’s logical, right?

Yes. Of course it is. But if politicians thought that, they’d be kicked out of power by the people who put them in. Namely the home owning swing voters of Middle England who have decided every election since William The Conqueror. So the situation stays the same: house prices remaining obscenely high until we have another World War. Prices then fall, because everybody will be dead. That’s how supply and demand works, right?

In truth, I’d never really thought about the housing crisis until last week. But seeing the slum made it clear. And it felt like I’d slotted in the final jigsaw piece of a puzzle I’d been waiting years to complete. The fact that we need to build more houses. 100,000s of them and quickly. I’d do it myself if I could. But it might be easier to start a world war.

By the time I got to Mahle I was so annoyed that I asked for five minutes to calm myself down. The secretary asked me what was wrong. I said that I was thinking of buying a house. She looked back at me in shock. ‘A teacher buying a house in Lyon. Impossible!’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘A stupid idea. What was I thinking? Shall we start…’


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