No Abiding City

Bess of Hardwick, the relict and beneficiary of four wealthy husbands, had an ample fortune with which to indulge her insatiable appetite for building. Both old Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall are hers. She believed, it was said, that when she ceased to build she would die. And so it proved.

But Bess was no run-of-the-mill builder. She saw to it that her houses were at the cutting edge both of design and technology. Her architect was Robert Smythson, who gave her, like the concrete and steel practitioners of a later age, ‘more glass than wall’.

What a subject Bess would have made for one of those many property shows which now flood our television screens with cheap programming! There she could take her rightful place beside the wrinklies building an off-the-peg German dream home, the ‘bachelor boys’ in search of a cottage on the Dalmatian coast, and the Vicar and his wife hoping to let a converted Victorian house near Scunthorpe (sic) to fund their retirement.

There seems to be no end to the British public’s appetite for bricks and mortar. But what does all this mean?

To the television companies, of course, it means £sd. No one is going to make costume dramas involving big name actors when the nation is quite content to settle down to an evening of relocation in Croatia followed by house hunting in the Wye valley, followed by a loft conversion in Surbiton (this whole sequence preceded by the landscaping of a minuscule garden on the Isle of Dogs). And why should they?

On a wider front it means something quite different. An Englishman’s home was his castle. It is now his investment. The relentless rise in property prices has made us all very self-conscious about the property we own. I have a small but thriving counselling service here in Lewisham warning black parishioners that the houses they bought for a song in the 1960s will now make them liable for inheritance tax if they do not organize some skilful avoidance.

And yet fiscal expertise has not triumphed over the nesting instinct. Hardly ever is that the theme of these docusoaps. Time after time the tale is of budgets wildly exceeded and of owners who intended to convert, rent and move on becoming hopelessly attached to the properties they ought to be viewing as dispassionately as they view a share certificate or a nest egg in the building society.

What the programmes reveal is that the instincts which made England, at the end of the nineteenth century, the land of garden suburbs, and which strung out By-pass Tudor across wide swathes of the home counties are alive and well. Europeans have, to a large extent, been content to live in rented apartments in major cities. The same is not true here. Kelmscott House, on the title page of News from Nowhere, still epitomizes the English dream. Everyone wants a copy of Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Houses (hence the phenomenal sales); and everyone wants to think that he lives in one of them.

The property-owning democracy has become the property-developing democracy. But we are still nesting. Greater population mobility has generated, rather perversely, a desire to settle down – often in exotic locations – but always to set our personal mark on a tiny snippet of geography.

I suggest that four factors go to make up this quite remarkable phenomenon.

The first is the relative anonymity of the modern corporate life. ‘Lifestyle’ is the antidote to corporatism. The sharp tie, the suit from Next and the gel in the hair proclaim the modern corporatist, be he a city slicker or an under-manager at Tesco. But the custom designed kitchen, the Thai artefacts, the down-lighting in the alcoves lined with silver foil, the extravagant water feature in the garden the size of two pocket handkerchiefs all proclaim freedom and individuality.

The second is the decline of the family. Fifty years ago the house was a place where the young were reared by their biological parents. There was relatively little disposable income for ‘décor’ (even among the middle classes). Single people lived, for the most part, in furnished accommodation.

The explosion of ‘alternative households’, the power of the pink pound, the increase in YEWCs (Young Executives without Children), the prevalence of divorce, remarriage and the two- or three-tier ‘family’ has altered all that. The ‘home’, its furnishing and its public statement of ‘togetherness (however transitory) are a self-conscious attempt at replacing things which were.

The third is the amount of disposable income now available to almost everybody. The British have possibly the worst diet of any civilized nation and spend a pitiable amount per capita on food – hence their decline into pasty-faced obesity, especially in Scotland and the North. So there is money to be spent somewhere. DIY and ‘home improvements’ can be thought of as ‘investment’. The lesson that one woman’s dream kitchen is another woman’s nightmare is expensively learned.

The fourth and final factor (you may call me fanciful, if you like) is the decline of religion. ‘Here is no abiding city’ says the man of faith. ‘Well, in that case give me a face-lift and another en-suite bathroom,’ says the convinced materialist. The home as cosmetic accessory is part of the never-ending flight from mortality.

Which, of course, brings us neatly back to poor Bess of Hardwick.

Her tragic marital life gave her not only the means but also the impetus to build, build, build; spend, spend spend. Did it ease her pain? We will never know. But to her particular kind of restlessness – and ours – there is but one antidote. In the words of St Augustine: ‘My soul was restless, until it found its rest in you.’ ‘No place was home to me, until you were.’

 

Geoffrey Kirk enjoys the tenure of a tied cottage.

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