This year the staff of the Financial Times have voted for Habitat for Humanity to be our Seasonal Appeal partner.
Habitat for Humanity is a global housebuilding charity. Inadequate housing affects people’s education and life prospects, as well as their mental health. Habitat works towards a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live.
The charity builds houses in 78 countries, spanning North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Internationally, it helps more than 22m people build or improve the place they call home.
Here, four FT writers explain what “home” means to them.
Martin Wolf: definitions of home
The dictionary defines “home” as: “The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” But, it adds, home can also be: “The district or country where one was born or has settled on a long-term basis.”
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.
My home in the broader of the two definitions is London. It remained London during the six years I was a student in Oxford and the 10 subsequent years, when I lived in Washington DC with my wife and later with our two sons as well.
Neither Oxford, though I loved it, nor, still less, Washington ever was my home. I felt particularly unrooted in the latter. Even to many of its American inhabitants, Washington was not home. For me, this was even more true: Washington was a single-industry town whose industry was the government of a foreign country. It took living in the US to make me realise just how foreign it is.
London is far more my home than is England or the UK. My father and mother were refugees from Hitler’s Europe, from Austria and the Netherlands, respectively. They had come to England in order to save their lives. They also had no close relatives in England.
In this broader sense of home, my father felt he had none until his death: his first had turned on him; and his second remained foreign to the end. My mother, however, did feel London to be her home. So did I: when I returned to London after my 10-year stint at the World Bank, I knew I was coming home.
My home in the narrower of the two definitions was, first of all, the house in London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb in which I grew up with my younger brother, under the care of my beloved parents. The house itself was detached and in the style of William Morris.
I know that my parents bought it in the early 1950s for £4,000. This purchase, they were advised, was risky, since this price was clearly the top of the market. Today, the house must be worth close to £2m. The Garden Suburb was an example of “rus in urbe”, the “country within the town”, which the English love so much.
I was fortunate to have an enormously happy childhood, enjoying love, security and far more than adequate comfort. More than half a century later I remember the grief I felt the night before I left my family’s home for extended travel between school and university and then on to university. I knew that I was leaving quite naturally, because I was no longer a child. But I knew, too, that this house had been home in a way that nothing else could ever quite be. I have carried the home of my childhood inside me ever since.
Not long afterwards, when I was 21, my parents moved to Hampstead, about two miles away. But their new and far more beautiful flat never felt like my home in the way that their shabby old house had once been. In my mind, I had already moved away.
Yet the places I lived in when a student were also not home, until, that is, the last one: in my final year at Oxford, I lived for the first time with my then new wife. While the flat we lived in was rented from Nuffield College, her presence made it something wonderful and new to me: the first home of my own family. Her presence has made that also true of all the flats and houses that we have subsequently shared (six of them, on two continents).
When we came back from Washington, 10 years after we left Oxford, we did something that many Londoners find rather extraordinary: we bought a house south of the river Thames, in Sydenham Hill.
For someone from the north of London to move to the south seemed slightly shocking. Many who live in north London regard the Thames almost as Italians view the Mediterranean: the watery boundary between themselves and something very foreign. I sometimes remark that we could only have made this move via Washington.
In making this leap. it helped that my wife is herself not a Londoner: she had no attachments to any part of the metropolis. The big advantage is that housing was cheaper than the equivalent in the north. To me, almost four decades later, south London is still not quite “my” London.
For three years, we lived in Sydenham Hill. This felt like a home to me in almost all respects: it was in London, even if in this strange southern part of it; we owned it; and we had our children with us. It was a proper family home. But it had one disadvantage: it was too cramped to be an ideal home.
Just three years later, we moved less than two miles away, to a classic semi-detached Edwardian house, which we bought in Dulwich Village. That is still very much a village, albeit one swallowed up by London more than a century ago. It is, again, also an example of “rus in urbe”, with its beautiful Victorian park and the grounds of Dulwich College, a well-known public (private) school.
For more than three decades, this has been my home: it is where we lived when our daughter was born; it is the house I have shared with my wife, my three children (and then, after they left home, with my wife alone and, quite frequently, with one or more of a growing number of grandchildren).
My first real home was the home of my childhood. My second real home is my present one: the home of 34 years, the home of my maturity, the home in London, the home of my family, the home that contains objects I love and memories I love far more.
I am shocked that this house has increased so much in price. A house, in my view, should be a home, not an investment. This is a bad thing for our country, even if it has been good for me, personally. Yet I do feel extraordinarily blessed to enjoy such a home.
Martin Wolf is the FT’s chief economics commentator
Kesewa Hennessy: the man with the lion hair
The last time Neil called me was one teenage birthday. He said I couldn’t phone back because the place where he was staying wasn’t very nice and the other men there were dangerous. Where he was, he wouldn’t say, but it sounded cavernous and dark. It didn’t sound much like a home.
We joke about flats the size of postage stamps and rooms too small to swing a cat in. But if you lost everything, like he did, your home could be no more than a tattered photograph kept in your pocket.
We’d last met one Christmas, five years before, as guests in an unfamiliar family home in an affluent part of London. The man with the lion hair had lost weight. He was grizzled and shorn. Where was the gifted artist with the market-stall patter and dreams of the stage?
This man, looking so much older than I remembered, marvelled at the reckless way children these days waved their money around in the streets. Then he hid a pound note in my Christmas cracker. Now, I wonder how much that money might have meant to him.
What happened to him in the missing years? Even now I don’t know. There are people who do, and I could ask but it’s awkward.
Over time I’ve learnt a little more about that notorious, “not very nice” place, though. There are films, books and songs that help fill in the gaps.
They say it was built by philanthropists for men from overseas who fell on tough times. And they tell you what brings people to places like this, these last resorts before the streets: addictions of various kinds, job loss, family breakdown, mental breakdown. Shame too powerful to let you return to the homeland you left. Alongside the hardship, they say, there was comradeship.
A long time later, I ended up with a job close by and got a good look at the grand old building. A red Edwardian façade, like Harrods but with small windows like narrowed eyes. There were bars at the entrance and signs inside starting: “Anyone found to be . . . ”
As I walked past to work, I’d wonder: did anyone in there know of him or what had happened 15 years before? With a life expectancy of barely 40 for people without homes, it didn’t seem worth asking.
There’s only one thing I know about his life there, and it taught me what home can mean when there’s nothing else left.
When he died, not long after his final birthday call, in his pocket he was carrying a picture of the child he hadn’t seen in five years. I still have my copy. Whatever unimaginable things had happened to him, that scrap of colour he kept in his pocket looks to me now like a fragment of comfort — a portable remnant, vivid and torn, of a home that had long disappeared.
Kesewa Hennessy is the FT’s digital editor for audience engagement
Rebecca Watson: learning to make and remake home
During a recent period of flat hunting, colleagues and friends older than me often asked if I was “looking to buy”. However many times I heard the question, it still surprised me. I would splutter back an inarticulate response — too alarmed at the prospect to do much else. The idea of buying a flat wasn’t just inaccurate: out loud, it sounded ridiculous.
Being part of a rent generation is not something I spend much time thinking about, it’s just what I know. A third of millennials are expected to rent for their entire life, while for those looking to buy their first property, London is the least affordable place in the UK to try. As both a millennial and a Londoner, I do not look good in the statistics.
As a renter, the notion of home is temporary and uncertain. This year, when I asked for my deposit back on my previous flat, initial reluctance was followed by silence. The dispute still continues — fortunately with the help of pro bono legal advice. You have little power. Even if you can trust your landlord or estate agents to look after your money, there are always other things to fear: rising rents, owners selling, buildings being converted. Home is tinged with this awareness. The happier I am, the more intense the risk feels.
The meaning of home becomes more conceptual for those who don’t own homes: home is a place, never quite mine. But though home to me is necessarily transitory, it’s not quite immaterial. I learn to make, and remake home. It’s in the large indoor plant with broad, curving leaves that gets a pint of water every Saturday morning, or the cycle route I follow on weekdays, without having to manually remember each individual direction. The way my books and my boyfriend’s sit together on the shelves is — acutely — home. I rely on these iterations of home, because I know I can take them with me.
I’m as secure as I could hope, but sometimes the gratitude for that lessens. Every month, more than half my salary goes towards rent. When I think about the future: of taking time off to write, the consideration of children, even pets, I’m disheartened. I am unable to save much, and what I do set aside stays put, waiting for the moment I am unexpectedly uprooted so that I can cover the varying upfront fees. At times, home feels restricting. As a renter, the emphasis falls the wrong way: I support home, it does not support me.
Rebecca Watson is editorial assistant for the FT’s parliamentary desk and newsroom
Neil Munshi: the local haunt
I have lived in 10 cities on four continents in 18 years. On a break between two of those cities, I met my wife, Sarah, in Goa, though she’s originally from Antwerp. We’ve lived together in Mumbai, Chicago, New York and now Lagos. We have two daughters, the first born in Chicago, the second in Brooklyn, and acquired two cats (the first from a pet shop outside Milwaukee, who has since lived in five cities himself, and another from the streets of Mumbai, who is on her fourth city and third continent).
Some of these stints were as short as four months, so I’m not sure they actually count as living. The longest was five years, which I’m sure does. People often ask how long we’ll be in Lagos, and my stock answer is that our postings are usually two to five years, and I’m hoping we hit four on the inside.
When I reach a new place, I never know how long I’ll be there. But I know that making it feel like home means getting stuck into some small corner of the city. For that, though it might sound clichéd, you need a local haunt.
In Mumbai, we had a rooftop bar at a ratty hotel near the sea. Lobo, the mustachioed waiter, knew our orders — double Blenders Pride for me; vodka tonic for her — and those of everyone who met us there, regularly, multiple times a week. It’s important to have a place from which you can stumble home.
In Chicago, I was partial to the Half Acre brewery around the corner from our house, where I could take our newborn for an afternoon beer or three and she’d sleep through the music no matter how loud it played.
When I returned to Brooklyn for my second stint, the newborn was less new, so the local bars we sought were coated in rubber rather than brass. The playground at PS 149 on Cortelyou Road was where we could be found every weekend all year round, and most of our summers were spent in Prospect Park.
Now, just a few months into Lagos, with two kids in tow, we seem to have found our latest haunt. They have great kibbe and strong Lebanese coffee. The owner is cantankerous but his employees are wonderful. They don’t serve booze, but they have a large fenced-in playground, a bit run-down, in a city where those are rare. Now, we stumble home under the weight of a kicking toddler, screaming about how she never wants to leave.
Neil Munshi is the FT’s west Africa correspondent
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