Tuesday 14 July 2009

Not the toughest of choices

The most famous pronouncement of the celebrated modern architect Le Corbusier is that “a house is a machine for living in.” Although the man is actually celebrated only by other modern architects, I do sometimes wish that I could achieve a similar sense of detachment.

I admit that I am prone to falling in love at first sight. Nevertheless, one of the most memorable and intense instances of this phenomenon occurred shortly before Christmas 1987, when I first pulled up outside the then semi-derelict cottages which have been my home ever since. The first thing I took in were the views – of Simonside to the south and the Cheviots to the north – which I found breathtakingly lovely. I knew at once that I wanted to live there, and the property was very much a secondary consideration. Frankly I would have bought a corrugated iron shed in that location.

As it was, there were two listed stone cottages which I had knocked into a single house and subtly extended without, I hoped, detracting from their essential character. Because the prudent Victorians had filled the south-facing walls with windows and placed none at all looking north, I added a conservatory where I could sit and admire the green hills rolling towards Cheviot; still, to my mind, one of the very finest views in the country.

Since early February an estate agent has been industriously trying to sell this treasure on my behalf, attracting about as much interest as the Facebook page proclaiming Gordon Brown to be the greatest Prime Minister of all time.

On the rare occasions I have shown potential purchasers around myself, I have been struck by their total indifference to what I consider the best features of the place, and their eagerness to rip out listed fixtures and fittings. This reached its apogee on Saturday when I was proudly showing my conservatory to a man whose wife had previously toured the place, and he said “Oh, this. We thought we’d knock it down and just build a porch.”

I felt like a father asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage by a notorious wife-beater.

This followed some pretty rude remarks from my visitor about the half century’s worth of accumulated possessions that do, I admit, clutter the place up a bit. Perhaps, like cricket, house buying has become infected by the practice of “sledging”, intended to soften the vendor up for a ridiculously low offer. Clearly I must work on my witty repartee so that I have answers to it more readily to hand.

In my day the accepted form was always to find something polite to say about another person’s home, however hideous it might be. I remember that I even managed to praise something with a straight face when looking around a particularly ill-favoured Lincolnshire farmhouse, which its owners had remodelled in the style of the particularly ill-favoured Spanish hacienda that was clearly their dream home, and in which every room reeked powerfully of damp Rottweiler.

The idea of selling up was rooted in Mrs Hann’s desire to live rather closer to what she deems to be civilisation, either on Tyneside or in Cheshire, where she has a well-paid job awaiting her at the end of her maternity leave. Ironically, the only well-paid employment I have been offered for many years is in precisely the same place.

So there we have the choice. Prosperity in the North West, albeit saddled with a mortgage that will not be paid off until I am 80 or, more likely, long dead. Or relative poverty in the North East, in a blessedly paid-for place I love, with fresh spring water on tap and probably the best view in England from my conservatory. As choices go, I am beginning to feel that it is not the toughest I have ever faced.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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