Upon Meeting a New Neighbour – Reflections

Summertime in the country:  a soft gauze of morning mist on dew, the chirp of crickets in the grass, a summer melody of bees amongst white seas of clover, a carking parliament of rooks around the beech stand on the hill.  Long, hot days spent behind the bailer, helping load a wain of rich-smelling hay and riding with it on its journey to the barn.Image

Or in winter, waking to a window with as much ice upon the inside of it as out; the sparkling frost, the rushing dance of snowflakes, the savagery of the gale; or with friends, stomping a deep white carpet on frozen feet waiting for a school bus that might just not make it today, and the cheerful snowball fight when it didn’t.    Friends I grew up with; names forgotten now.

In all the travelling and city living I’ve done I remain a countryman at heart.  Country lore is something I understand, and at the same time something not easily understood.  Which is why I regard city dwellers that migrate from town to country with bemusement.

Why?  Why move from an environment you understand to one you do not?  If you have succeeded financially to an extent where you can afford the move, you must have intelligence enough to realize the idyll you chase is a fiction.  Surely?  No?   Then at least beware of the more obvious mistakes.

First mistake:   bringing the town with you.   Sometimes it seems most city ex-pats would be happiest if they could put their existing house on a low-loader and drop it off in a field somewhere.  They want a cottage, of course, plenty of oak beams, a ‘feature fireplace’ and a wood burning stove; but those requirements must also include a kitchen ‘large enough for entertaining’, several bathrooms and a studio.  Land-wise, their intention to raise alpaca will require at least seven acres, in addition to a garden with extensive lawns – enough to ride around on a mower.

Second mistake:  ‘the kids will love it’.  Oh no they won’t!  That Thomasina will love her horse is a dangerous assumption, and little Thomas’s cultured tones will endear him to the local children.  Then expect teenage tantrums centered around the general theme of there being nothing to do, nowhere to go, etc.  (An argument not without substance – there is nowhere to go, unless you drive them).

Third mistake:  assuming the rules that governed your urban existence still apply.

In rural England, anyway, the farmer is law.  Most farmers, indeed, have a very broad appreciation of the law, and obey it when it does not inconvenience them too much.  They flout it outrageously the rest of the time, generally with the tacit understanding of the local constabulary.  In town, the four-wheel drive takes precedence on the basis that might is right; but on a country lane a Range Rover is no match for a pick-up driven by a farmer’s lad who sees his future in Formula One, a tractor and trailer, or a combine harvester. 

Seeing two foxhound puppies snuggled up together in your flowerbed is charming.  Seeing two cows grazing in your flowerbed may stir other emotions.   A couple of free-roaming sheepdogs engaged in a lengthy mating ritual outside your gate might be thought quaint, a liberally-minded sheepdog welded to the rump of your pedigree Weimaraner less so.  

The timeless peace of country living is illusory.  Bear in mind that land where no buildings exist is liable to be built upon.  When planning permission is walked through the intensive rearing sheds proposed by your immediate neighbor can be erected in six weeks, tenanted by bawling cattle in eight.  The quality of your country air may also bring things with it that are as unwelcome as they were unexpected.  Muck spreading is a fast-evolving science these days:  the constituents of the newer, more potent mixes will be amply explained by their odor.   

Certain things do take longer.  An internet connection weakened by nature’s thoughtless positioning of a hill, the bus which only runs four times a day, and the ambulance which comes to rescue you from the heart attack brought on by chopping wood for that log-burning stove.

My countryside no longer exists:  how much of its demise is due to the communications invasion, and how much to burgeoning population and the new religion of the plc and ‘growth’ I do not know.  I only know the reader of ‘Cider with Rosie’ would not recognize the environment Laurie Lee’s book describes.  Farming now is as much an industry as any other, and health and safety decrees exclude children from much of the good stuff the country has to offer.  Do I regret this?   As a life it was always hard, and I do not miss the poverty, although being ‘poor’ had less significance then.  But there was a fast, rapacious undercurrent beneath the superficial gloss of paradise, and the sun on the surf did not always conceal the dangers beneath.  I remember Billy, whose arm was torn from him by a grain elevator.  He was just sixteen.  And old Jack, whose tractor somersaulted and crushed him to death.  

So maybe no, I don’t regret change.  However I do wonder, when the idyll collapses and the current generation of new countrymen’s children filter back to the city what will be left; how much precious heritage will have been squandered and how many gilded cages will remain as ‘investment properties’ – empty shells slowly returning to dust. 



When a House is not a Home

It is no secret that property in UK is hard to come by, so when a Development Company announces a new private estate on our little corner of the sinking ship we feel compelled to take a look.   

One way to fill in that empty space on a Saturday?  Well, maybe. 

In moderate rain we queue obediently for our view of the ‘Show Home’.  The line is so long we do wonder if we have mistakenly joined the queue for the Tutankhamen exhibition, or maybe a football match no-one told us about.  And as it turns out Tutankhamen was not a bad analogy really:  if a sarcophagus can be maneuvered through a twenty-seven inch door the poor kid would have felt quite at home here.Image

 For the Show Home, something the construction company reluctantly admit you need if you haven’t built any actual houses yet, is a masterpiece of marketing science which is designed in every detail to give the prospective house owner an illusion of the opulence, of the modernity, even a little grandeur he will enjoy if only he can really buy furniture this small. 

We are inside, out of the rain.  We follow the soggy rift valley created by the tramping of a hundred feet through quality carpet.  To the left of the hallway (“excuse me – no, it’s OK – you go round that side and I’ll just put my arm under there…) is the Dining Room.  It is no accident it contains just a narrow table, six chairs, and no sideboard – there is no room for one.  Nevertheless it is perfectly accessible to dinner guests of waist size below 34 inches; and the table is the perfect size for a coffin.

To the right (“Sorry! Look I’ll just go back in and you come through?  You first.  Mind the table?”) is a sitting room or lounge:  a lounge looking spacious only because the suite with which it is furnished is minute.  A settee that looks in need of a square meal, two easy chairs modeled for that same 34 inch model guest.  Those with tape measures and keen eyes may descry the narrowness of the doors, the most observant may notice that this room (like all the rooms), is painted in very light colors with mirrors strategically placed to reflect light from tiny windows.   There are other touches of cunning; a Lilliputian standard lamp, a bookshelf for eight books (two more would intrude upon the headroom above the settee), a small flat-screen TV on the wall.

This a tale which repeats itself throughout our tour.  Two bedrooms each with four-foot double beds also contain full sets of fitted wardrobes, and though there is barely crawling room on either side of the beds these might be thought quite habitable if the designers had not started the roof early.  As it is, the further wall finishes (and the sloping roof starts) four feet from the floor.  The bed head is wedged into this reduced space so the only way to climb in would be to start at the foot of the bed and slide up.  Any couple wanting a little recreation in this bed would first be advised to buy helmets and be sure to remind themselves that whatever they did in the morning, they should sit up slowly.  When I comment upon the size of the beds a fellow viewer taps his nose knowingly.

“Could you get anything bigger up those stairs?”

We view the third bedroom, reassured in this case that such issues do not arise because this bedroom is too small for furniture.   Even the bunk bed the ‘house dressers’ have managed to fit in spreads across part of the doorway.  Does the door shut?  We decide not to try.

Bathrooms?  Yes, there were three.  An en-suite to the ‘master bedroom’ which we missed, frankly – it was presumably behind one of the doors we imagined to be wardrobes – a family bathroom, functional and all right for small families, and a downstairs bathroom.  Persons with larger waist dimensions might be advised to use the upstairs facilities, though, to avoid the humiliation of being stuck in an under-stairs cupboard.

We are directed to exit through a galley kitchen beneath the accusing stainless stare of an extremely dominant oven and its underling, a rather apologetic fridge.  Emerging into open air with that elation one feels when leaving Ryanair after a traumatic flight we find ourselves following a roped walkway to the Sales Area.

An indifferent sales girl puts down her mobile ‘phone for long enough to advise us of our choice’s high standards of insulation, superior build, and economical use of energy (hardly surprising when in so small a space the temperature would be significantly raised by lighting a match).   We are buying no mere house, she says mechanically:  no, we are moving up to our Dream Home.

How much is our Dream Home?   

Apparently we must look at options.  Do we want to consider Economy Pack One, Popular Pack Two, or Luxury Pack Three?

No, I won’t bore you.  Suffice it to say that to gain a fuel-efficient heating system, a fitted kitchen (including that formidable dominatrix of a cooker) and a security alarm we need Pack Three.  Economy Pack One, as far as we can ascertain, comprises a lorry and three pallet-loads of bricks.

Pack Three, then – is how much?

Apparently we have to consider options.  Do we want their specially-tailored Home Buyer Finance Scheme?  The Bank Endorsed Easy-Plan  fixed term…..

No; just the price.

One Hundred and Sixty Thousand.

When we have regained our feet we do go so far as to ask where our particular property would be.

A disinterested nod towards the wall, whereon a large white map is pinned.  “There.”

This map is very white – so white that barely a mark or a line exists.  There are outlines for plots, but they are neither  numbered nor identified.  There is a space where a street will run, and nothing else.  Already disillusioned we have not far to travel to reach this point.  

We are there to buy a house – a house which does not yet exist.  Not a brick has been laid.   Until we have been stitched up / exchanged contracts we are not entitled to know upon which plot our house will stand, or even when it will be completed.  We are being invited to pay one hundred and sixty thousand pounds for an unspecified patch of mud before the developers will even consider building a house upon it.  Would we like to see the end of the site where our house will be?  We thank the salesgirl, but the Livingstone spirit has been exhausted for today. 

Back at our home of twenty years now, the final decision over a glass of whiskey is easy.

We have a daytime television show in Britain called ‘Escape to the Country’ in which a hirsute presenter takes well-heeled couples on a tour of their chosen county in search of a home.

The demands and stipulations of these house-hunters follow a pattern:  a house with ‘features’, sanitation (what is the collective noun for bathrooms?) and a couple of acres upon which to raise alpaca, ostriches, horses, or goats.   They might also express a need to be near the coast, to have a mooring for their narrowboat, maybe some rocks to indulge their past-time of base jumping.  Almost invariably one of the partners will declare their intention to ‘work from home’ – usually in the area of holistic medicine or counselling.

Mostly their price range follows a pattern, too.  Upwards of half a million quid.  The show rarely patronizes buyers on a tighter budget, relying upon the glamor of those upmarket homes it chooses to parade before our bedazzled eyes:  how long will it be, we wonder, before we, too, can afford to live like this?

No, I’m not jealous.  Well, okay, maybe a little; enough to be forgiven the quiet snigger of a country boy born and raised who knows how deep are the cracks in the country idyll.  Tractors at dawn, that refreshing odor of silage, the respectful language of a neighbor who lets his cows graze among the ‘townie’s’ carefully nurtured hollyhocks; sins all of which pale into insignificance the first time they encounter a combine harvester head-on in a narrow country lane.     

But theirs is a different reality – as far apart from the rest of us as a colony on Mars.  Searching for our new home we travel in a world where TV cameras durst not go, even were they able to fit.  For most of us, purchasing a ‘Dream Home’ will mean a lifetime of debt and placing ourselves at the tender mercies of the great house-building corporations. Desperate as we are we will accept almost anything.  An advantage which has not escaped the big constructors, who predate upon our situation at every turn.

Some stats:

British average living space per family is the smallest in the western world.   The average new home, at 76 square metres and 4.8 rooms, is 80% smaller than its Danish equivalent.  In Holland the difference is 53%.  Comparisons with USA and Australia do not bear thinking about – 214 and 203 square metres respectively.     Crowding impacts on health, on relationships and on social activity at every level – the cost to the National Health Service of overcrowding is estimated at £1.8 billion.  And despite loud protestation to the contrary, the issue is not price or availability of land – estimates for the cost of increasing minimum house dimensions to a more reasonable model are really quite low – negligible in terms of profit.

Yet for mainly political reasons we allow very profitable property companies to dominate the market and exploit the use of land to extremes.  Driven by dire warnings of housing shortage we seem willing to accept wildly inflated prices for dolls houses – the slums of tomorrow – in spite of evidence which warns us to avoid.   The Great British Housing Crisis is not today:   it is of a day yet to come.


Monday Morning Rant – From a Conversation with Joe

Why is Joe important to me?  Maybe because he’s one of the legions of people who live alone, who are not easily employable, and who, for one reason or another, rely upon the State to support them.

Joe is not ‘lazy’.  With his history of mental illness, I doubt he has a real concept of what the word means; nor is he a ‘scrounger’ in any comfortable sense.  Like almost all those the middle class try to cram into the freeloader mold, Joe doesn’t quite fit.   For a large part of his life he was institutionalized until the State in its wisdom decided he should be cared for ‘in the community’.  At some stage the same State decided he was well.  So the care bit stopped.  ‘Support’ took its place.

There are a small number of jobs for people like Joe.  Unfortunately, there are a very large number of Joes.

Joe is a council tenant.  He has a two-bedroomed house which the State now says is too large.  In the latter half of this year his housing allowance will be cut by fifty percent.  He has few other allowances – no child allowance, for example – so when the cut comes he will not have enough to live on.

The State has two answers:  either take on a paying tenant for the room to make up the difference, or move to smaller accommodation.    

Health and Safety now pieces itself into the argument:  before he accepts a tenant, Joe must satisfy fire regulations and install fire doors to his council let.  No, the council won’t do it; they’ll only prosecute if it is not done.  Joe does not have the four-figure sum this installation will cost; and everyone else involved is happy to ignore the speculative nature of such an investment.  After all, who can guarantee a tenancy?   Even then, incidentally, the council must approve his tenant – a process that, to go by most council procedures, could take months:  Joe’s budget just about gets Imagehim from week to week.

So, Joe must move into a single-bedroom unit.  Problem?  The councils and housing associations have no single bedroom units.  There is a massive waiting list for those that are already in place.

For years both legislative bodies and private house builders have concentrated upon the more versatile two- and three-bed units.  There are hundreds and thousands of those.  Even landlords in the private sector have predominantly larger units:  they attract more rent – they make economic sense.

Economic sense is the quality it seems our rulers conspicuously lack.  In a move that is intended to save money and drive those who for generations have lived off the State into work they are in danger of causing a housing crisis of epic proportions – a situation likely to cost five times as much as they save.   Not that this is unusual for British Government – they have enviable expertise in the area of profligacy and waste.  I just hope Joe does not have to count himself among the victims of this latest splurge.

Increasingly, the vox populi can be heard referring to ‘New Victorian Britain’.  If only it were so.  Yes, deprivation was extant in layers of Victorian society, and no, there was no welfare state; but in that dog-eat-dog world at least there was precious little regulation either.  You might install a tenant in your attic and another in your coal-house, and no-one would know or care.  Today we are regulated up to our eyeballs, pressured by commerce to the point where we no longer have control of our own minds and watched relentlessly by cameras on stalks, statistical monitoring and – shall we say – ‘zealous’ policing?   Poverty has a different complexion in the 21st Century, but it is no less real.

No, I am not a Socialist or a Communist or any other ‘ist’.  I hold no high expectations, whatever their political colour, of the loathsome gnomes who rule us but I wish – oh, yes, I wish.   I wish we might forfeit our pretensions on ‘The World Stage’ and accept we have no place in Middle-Eastern wars.  I wish we might cease supplying ‘foreign aid’ to plutocrats in the hope they will let us drill their oil, and I wish we might, just for once, begin to treat our own people with respect.