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.

 

Contemplation

I have a nightmare in which a little girl runs towards me with arms outstretched crying “Daddy!  Daddy!”

“I’m sorry, sweet child.  Should I know you from somewhere?”

Where’s a lawyer when you need one?  There should be an app for that.

As ‘Father’s Day’ recedes into a past littered with ‘Card Days’ I find myself looking over a difficult fence – you know, the one with ‘Beware, Live Children’ written on it – and wondering at the whole business that has become ‘Parenting’.

You see, when I grew up we didn’t have ‘Parenting’.  The average family in the average street had a mother, a father and a couple of kids, and they all rubbed together in their different ways and an instinctive, unwritten thing called social structure held it in shape. 

If the husband at number forty-two had an uncertain temper it was accepted, or if the mother at number twelve had a ‘drink problem’ it was tolerated.  Both were known, both were ‘talked about’ and if anything went seriously wrong the street was first to know and first to act.  Acceptance and ostracism were controls.  If Mum was too drunk to let you in when you came back from school there was always ‘Auntie’ Beth next door to go to while Mum sobered up.  Only rarely did a major issue require intervention of the law, usually a fatherly visit from the local constable, who was a figure of fear and awe, at least where I was concerned.  Family counseling, parenting classes, child psychology, all these peripherals were just that, where they existed at all.  Peripheral.   Where you didn’t know how, or you didn’t do as you should, the street taught you with a subtlety only social structure can apply.

I paint a rosy picture, don’t I?  And yes, I admit it had its failings sometimes, but before you level the accusation of rose-tinted nostalgia, look around at what you have now.  Is it so much better?  Is it in any way better?

Where school authority once stopped at the school gate it now hangs over every parent’s life, from the vital choice of the ‘right’ school to the constant demands for extra participation.  Where ‘Social Services’ was once a rather dubious little lady who prowled about for six weeks after your child was born it now marches in armed battalions down the street.  The street where no-one talks, where there are no kangaroo courts at the corner co-op anymore, and the child of the drunk lady at number twelve has no idea who lives at number thirteen.  And the police won’t visit until that child is sixteen and getting into fights, unless Mum is also going strong on the cannabis, in which case they will come at six a.m. with guns to batter down the door.

Patch upon patch.  The industry of ‘care’ feeds upon itself, and can write out a new job description to rob us of a little more self-determination every day if it is permitted.  Our leaks are constantly being plugged by another patch, until it is becoming difficult to find any virgin skin to stick one onto.  Producing these patches has become a flourishing business with its own ethics, edicts and examples to draw from.  The media is its engine, and isolation provides the fuel.

 

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Producing a ‘finished child’ is a fairly thankless business – there are so many social ills and diseases to fall foul of.  We can teach them right from wrong, but the world about them has become such an insistent role model it is hard for them to do other than conform.  When I see my sons now, I see how the noble qualities I hoped for have become subsumed by wants and needs that are baseless, and how little part the future plays in their thoughts.  In fact, I wonder if they consider the future at all – how can you set store upon a world everyone tells them is plunging towards its doom?

But I have no right to hope.  They are people too.  In the end, they will be what they will be.  I can’t tell them now – I can’t say it loudly enough to be heard.   Only people can heal people.  Society’s troubles came from within, and no amount of patching will ever make it whole again.