A Home Of Your Own Part 1
I don’t believe that writers have to live in lighthouses or stone cottages overlooking the sea in order to work. Being an inner-city lad I’m used to sirens, loud music, the man with Tourette’s next door bellowing his head off, all sorts of interruptions, road drills, barge hooters and general random yelling. But it’s important to feel comfortable and relaxed at home, knowing there’s a space to dream.
When I read about young people being unable to get on any kind of property ladder I feel bad for them because it was easy for us, not because I or my family had any money but because the times were conducive to easy living. It seems impossible to imagine now that in the 1970s parts of Notting Hill, Chelsea and Knightsbridge were still scruffy and cheap. I bought a tiny flat in Belsize Park for next to nothing, so that even with my low wages it was affordable.
I suppose everyone grows up thinking that their family home is completely normal. I was raised in the kind of small South London terraced house you 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 the local pub. My parents both worked, my father as a scientist, my mother as a legal secretary, and the house was a sanctuary, albeit a chaotic one.
I had certainly never intended to duplicate it when I left home, but it now appears 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. As a nation we are snails, carrying our houses on our backs because of very specifically developed notions of ‘home’.
When I met my partner, who is from New Zealand, this ‘Englishman’s Home’ thing was pointed out to me, making 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 comfortable sense of privilege you don’t even notice.’
I started wondering about how much I took for granted. By this time I was living in Kentish Town in a virtually 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.
There was only one way to discover how I would handle being outside of my comfort zone. I sold up and moved to a flat in King’s Cross at a time when junkies and hookers were still leaving needles and condoms lying in the gutters outside crack houses.
I remembered something my mother had told me. Being very genteel and having grown up in Brighton (then the home of maiden aunts and retired colonels) she had moved to London and enrolled in a secretarial college, which in those days arranged digs for their girls, strict dormitories supervised by a matron. My mother cried every night, wishing she could go home.
London was only ever my home, to the point where the countryside seemed weird and discomfiting. When I was small, I loved a delightful non-Disney animated film called ‘Hoppity Goes To Town’, in which some insects living in a junkyard move to a glass apartment on top of a skyscraper. The flat we eventually found was like the one in the film. It had been on the market for three years because it was in a bad area. But (big but) if London got the Olympics we knew the area had to change fast; it was the main rail link to the proposed site of the Olympic Park.
We loved this unsaleable property for reasons we could not explain, and took a gamble. The day the successful Olympics bid was announced, we opened a bottle of champagne.
So I moved from a poky Victorian terrace into a bare glass box. The streets around us were restored, especially when it was discovered that the Olympic torch out would run past our front door (cynically every road, and only those roads, which were on the route were prettified).
Once inside, I began discovering the downside. Learning to live without possessions was the easiest part. Roughly four fifths of everything I owned was given away to charities. Books were the deal-breaker, though, and had to stay even in a pared-down library, but they needed to be protected from sunlight (yes, even in London) because they yellowed within weeks. Everything that was chromatically sensitive changed colour. I put as much printed matter as possible into Cloud storage, and the flat got barer still. It didn’t seem very comfortable at all. Perhaps it had all been a huge mistake.
But 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 finally been presented with irrefutable proof that he had married an alien.
Part 2 tomorrow