Tuesday 14 August 2007

A window on the soul

I met an angry woman in the village shop the other day. Nothing unusual about that: I meet angry women all the time, albeit less frequently than when I lived with one. This encounter was striking because the lady was incensed by something I thought only I cared about: windows. She’d turned her back for a minute, and yet another of her neighbours had had their old, wooden sash windows ripped out and replaced with hideous uPVC ones. Which stick out on a historic building like a huge comedy red nose on the face of a much-loved grandmama.

The only consolation I could offer was that there aren’t too many more people in the village who can pull this stunt, since the men in unmarked white vans have now conducted their campaign of vandalism and uglification pretty comprehensively.

When it started, I was concerned enough to ring up the council and complain. The village is supposed to be a conservation area, after all. Ah yes, they said, but that doesn’t stop permitted developments, like putting in new doors and windows. In fact I struggled to find out what it did prevent, apart from felling trees without permission, or erecting visible satellite dishes.

This surprised me, as I used to have a flat in a conservation area in London. The main benefit of this was that all the houses retained their original fenestration (as they call windows in Pimlico). The sight of any plastic-mongers in a white van would have brought officialdom down upon the perpetrators like a host of avenging angels.

Not so in Northumberland, I discovered. If you spot a beautiful old farmhouse having its original windows ripped out, just shrug your shoulders regretfully and avert your eyes, unless it happens to be on the register of listed buildings. Then no effort will be spared to ensure that the destruction is prevented or made good.

I cannot even begin to understand the thinking behind this “new windows” craze. If you choose to live in an 18th or 19th century house, it’s presumably because you like old buildings. Would you go and buy an antique chest of drawers, then remove all its original handles and replace them with plastic knobs from Poundstretcher? Would you invest in a classic car for the express purpose of replacing its leather seats with new vinyl ones? I venture to suggest that the only correct answer to these rhetorical questions is “no”. So why should houses be any different?

No doubt some happy customer or rich supplier will write in to point out that uPVC windows offer improved insulation and are therefore playing a valuable part in the “fight against global warming”. So does aluminium secondary double glazing. And both that and good, old-fashioned wood are free from the numerous deadly chemicals involved in the production and disposal of uPVC.

In fact, the angry lady in the shop conjured up a nightmare vision of her neighbours trapped behind their efficiently sealed windows in the event of fire, perishing from the noxious fumes released by the burning plastic. It sounded like Dante’s Inferno, only a lot nastier. If it ever happened, I got the strong feeling that she was looking forward to shouting “serves you right!”

Still, at least I can offer some consolation to those old stick-in-the muds who share my prejudice. Each generation seems to regard the previous one’s “home improvements” with total horror, and spends a fortune reversing them. Back in the 1960s, people had a fetish for ripping out Victorian fireplaces, and nailing sheets of plywood over panelled doors. (Acts of desecration which were at least invisible to passers-by.) Much effort has since been spent repairing this damage. One day, I predict, uPVC windows will be no more than a horrid memory, just like wind farms. It’s almost enough to make me wish for a Government-approved long life.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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