An Englishman’s Home 2
The effect of needing a small plot of land and a house paid off over a lifetime kept alive a fundamental English concept; that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. InÂ the 1930s a set of volumes entitled the Arthur Mee Childrenâ€™s Encyclopedia ranÂ an article on â€˜How To Build A British Houseâ€™, the end photograph showing a man standing on his roof behind actual crenellations, beneath a fluttering Union Jack, clenching a pipe stem between his teeth, staring pompously into the middle distance. But was this a better solution to the housing crisis than renting? Heath Robinson wrote a very funny book, ‘How To Live In A Communal Home’, so the fear was clearly on people’s minds, but after the war in EuropeÂ some 20â€‰million people were homeless, while 17â€‰million â€˜displaced personsâ€™, many of them former PoWs and slave labourers, were roaming the land.Â Half of all houses in Berlin were in ruins; so were seven out of ten in Cologne.
More than 2,000,000 homes were destroyed in Britain by enemy bombs, about 60% of them in London. A great many more were severely damaged. Boarding houses appeared everywhere. Prior to this there were only two occasions when we shared digs – once as students, and again when secretaries came to the city, living in communal houses ruled by fierce landladies. Communal living did not go well, and if anything drove the British deeper into privacy. The concept was criminally exploited, giving us the word RachmanismÂ (named after slum landlord Peter Rachman) as a synonym for the exploitation and intimidation of tenants. Purpose-built flats existed all over London in the early 20th century, but they had mostly been built for those who had country places and needed a bolthole for town.
Europe had a long history of renting good flats in fine buildings. L’esprit D’escalierÂ was a concept borne of shared lives, meaning of thinking of a reply too late. It comes from French statesman Jacques Necker; ‘lâ€™homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier Ã ce quâ€™on lui objecte, perd la tÃªte et ne se retrouve quâ€™au bas de lâ€™escalier’Â (‘a sensitive man such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs’).Â The Yiddish trepverter Â and the German Treppenwitz are similar, although the German expressions suggestsÂ events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context.
In Italy and Spain we have a further sense that the lives of others are co-mingled. In my building in Barcelona, built in the late 19th century, we have a strong sense of comunidad, sharing front doors, clothes lines and – because of the voluble Latin nature – conversations. The first thing that happens when you move into a Spanish flat is that you get the ‘dropped sock visit’. A neighbour calls, apologising for mispegging a sock on her clothesline, and ostensibly comes to see if it fell onto yours, while actually using the visit as an excuse to check out who you are. See the excellent film ‘La Comunidad’ to see how badly that can turn out!
The sense of privacy possessed by the English is well-documented, but it’s not intentionally unfriendly – people will help when needed, then leave respect your space. The phrase heard most is ‘It’s none of our business’. When London was at its most crowded and insanitary at the end of the 18th century, habits evolved that are still with us. You’ll occasionally still see smokers holding their cigarette the wrong way around, cupped inside the fist, not out. This habit dates from the respect for personal space, but also carries a working class association. Forty years ago JG Ballard imagined a future London ruled by the rich in tower blocks, and suggested a societal breakdown would occur, but what’s more likely is that a new set of rules for group living will appear. An English person’s home will remain a castle, even if it’s a two-bedroom flat.