A Machine For Living Part 1
I was raised in the street above, in a small terraced house of the type that existed all across London, with a front room, a back room, a kitchen and scullery down three hall steps, a first floor landing with two rooms leading from it, two more bedrooms and a sloping tiled roof. Such houses were mostly late Victorian and Edwardian, put up cheaply, and parts of them fell down easily, as evidenced by the bombing raids of WWII, they still survived. They were compact marvels, with a little front garden, a small back garden, a narrow yard for bins, shared walls.
It was the kind of house you still see from every aeroplane heading for Heathrow. The house was littered with half-finished projects and the back garden would have won an award for being one of the most neglected in London. There was a tortoise somewhere, and a cat. Although nobody in my family drank very much, it seemed that every major change that affected us was announced and discussed in a pub. We went out a lot, but never far.
My parents both worked, my father as a scientist, my mother as a legal secretary, and the house was a chaotic sanctuary. I certainly never intended to duplicate it when I left home, but that’s exactly what I did. As I moved back and forth across London, from Belsize Park to Brixton, I left miniature versions of my childhood home behind me wherever I went. I never thought of our family as being very English but it was, absurdly so, every week marked with unbreakable rituals.
For the next 30 years I duplicated this happiest of homes in my own homes, never imagining I could live any other way – although I did periodically have a sort of fit and live in another country for a while. London can be claustrophobic when you know it too well.
When I met my partner, who is from New Zealand, he pointed this out, he made it sound as if I had a debilitating disease. ‘Your parents live nearby. You still bump into old school friends in the street. You talk about ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ all the time. You treat cinemas, libraries and tube stations as virtual extensions of your home. You have a level of comfort you don’t even notice.’
I started wondering about how much I took for granted. By this time I was living in Kentish Town, North London, in an almost exact copy of my childhood house, but with many more books. I’d started sounding like my parents. My writing was becoming almost comfortable. I justified my behaviour by pointing out that I had a full-time job and was writing evenings and weekends, so I needed an easeful home life. How would you cope, he wanted to know, if everything suddenly changed? It was, I realised, a proposal.
I said goodbye to my little terraced house, and moved from a Victorian terrace into a bare glass box. It was the only way to discover how I would handle being outside of my comfort zone. In ‘inner city’ King’s Cross junkies and hookers were still leaving needles and condoms lying in the gutters. But I had fallen for a flat. When I was small, I had loved a film called ‘Hoppity Goes To Town’, in which some bugs living in a junkyard move to a glass apartment on top of a skyscraper. The flat we found was just like that. It had been owned by clothing designer John Crummay and was so minimalist that it looked as if he had been burgled.
Learning to live without much stuff was paradoxically the easiest part. Roughly four fifths of everything I owned was given away to people in public service who had no furniture. Books were the deal-breaker, though, and had to stay even in a pared-down library, but they needed to be protected from sunlight because they yellowed within weeks. Technology allowed some printed matter to become Cloud storage. The flat got barer still.
My parents visited and their reaction amazed me. ‘This,’ said my mother, almost in tears, ‘is how I always dreamed of living.’ My father stared at her as if he had suddenly realised he was married to an alien.
Taking Le Corbusier’s quote to heart, that ‘a house is a machine for living’, we found that the machine took an awful lot of looking after. We stopped watching TV because we couldn’t see the screen unless it was very dark. But instead of being shut in by familiar streets I now felt joined to a constantly changing skyscape and becoming aware of everything that was happening around me. I started going ‘outside’ more than being ‘inside’.
The environment initiated a fundamental change. I kept my laptop in my backpack and wrote on the move. I got rid of my car. We began travelling with hardly any luggage to challenging places, and I wrote about India, the Middle East or the Arctic as I went. Life became less settled, more peripatetic. My writing style changed. It became more expansive, less parochial and – except for the Bryant & May books – less ‘English’.
I found myself drifting away from old contacts, going to events for new experimental writers, making unlikely friends in unusual places. This untethering was a direct consequence of shedding the old life like a snakeskin, but it had a downside; you feel separated from the mainstream when you realise you have less in common with others. And you place your writing at risk without the common factors that unite reader to author. In fact, the words ‘risk’ and ‘brave’ – neither of them warranted in my opinion – kept cropping up in friends’ conversations, as if they approved but could never imagine doing anything similar.
The biggest change was no longer being able to take anything for granted, or wanting to. Every day of looking outwards instead of inwards brought surprises. As I researched the lives of other writers for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I found I had done precisely what many of them had done; burned my bridges in order to grow.
The concluding part will run tomorrow.