An Englishman’s Home 2

Great Britain

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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’. In the 1930s a set of volumes entitled the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedia ran an article on ‘How To Build A British House’, 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 Europe some 20 million people were homeless, while 17 million ‘displaced persons’, many of them former PoWs and slave labourers, were roaming the land. 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 Rachmanism (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’escalier was a concept borne of shared lives, meaning of thinking of a reply too late. It comes from French statesman Jacques Necker; ‘l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier’ (‘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’). The Yiddish trepverter  and the German Treppenwitz are similar, although the German expressions suggests events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context.

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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.

7 comments on “An Englishman’s Home 2”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    The ‘cupped hand’ cigarette is from the trenches in WW1, you cupped it so that the light from the lit end didn’t give you away (before the Great War most men smoked pipes). The habit continued in the blackouts of the Blitz. Officers didn’t do it because they were so far behind the lines that it didn’t matter. There’s also the ‘three on a match’ thing which supposes that by the time you’ve lit 3 cigarettes from the same match the snipers have spotted you.

    All that and no homes to come back to.

  2. Roger says:

    “Put that bloody cigarette out!”
    Last words of the author Saki/H.H. Munro before he was shot by a sniper in 1916.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I didn’t know that about HH Munro. We don’t seem to mind living in flats (not with prices as they are now) but we don’t want to hear what our neighbours are doing. This requires cement buildings with offset walls to prevent conductive sound.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    Added to the mass destruction were demolition of the slum areas, some really did need to be demolished but sadly too many good buildings and communities were smashed as well in over reaching plans.

    In some of the areas it meant you lived with your parents longer and grandparents lived with families, you moved in with gran to look after them and then the house became the families. I guess we are just going to go back to this, as well as having to re-address certain issues.

    Wayne.

  5. admin says:

    In my old neighbourhood, which was Irish, it was still common to find three generations living in the same street.

  6. Jan says:

    Quietly the multi generational housing solution has slipped into place. Kids can’t afford to leave so move back in with mum and dad after university, after relationship breakdown. – or just don’t move on in the first place. Asian communities have stuck with the multi generational model of family responsibility working under one roof.
    A way to work part time for newcomers to the UK to find work in the care industry I can remember one Eastern European guy lamenting the British need for carers for the isolated infirm elderly “In my country we have another name for carers sons and daughters”
    Maybe one good thing to come from this housing squeeze will be closer family relationships. I won’t be holding my breath on this one mind.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Multi-genrational streets are one thing, but multi-generational homes are quite another. I know of a partially East Indian household consisting of the widowed father, the son & his Caucasian wife, their sons and the wife of one of the sons. It’s complex but seems to work. It only works as long as people are willing to make it work, though. In that situation they have added two religions to the mix.

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