Last week we travelled up to East Anglia to visit my wife's great-aunt for lunch. It was a ridiculously long drive in torrential rain, during which I battled to resist the soporific effect of the windscreen wipers and a Noel Coward play on the radio. At one point, everyone else in the car was asleep and I only had the 'satnav' lady to keep me company, with her annoying rising inflection: "At the next roundabout? Take the second exit? Then take the road to Lowestoft?"
I'd never visited the great-aunt's house before, but had wondered why such a nice, cultured woman lived in a place like Lowestoft. In addition to being the easternmost point of Great Britain, Lowestoft is one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. It has a terrible reputation.
However, as the satnav announced "You have reached your destination?", I entered a leafy road full of beautiful Victorian villas and realised how blinkered I had been. Lowestoft may be economically depressed due to problems in the fishing industry, but like Hastings and Margate, it is largely unspoiled and has retained its character. All it needs now is a high-speed rail link to north London and a modern art gallery.
From the outside, the great-aunt's house seemed untouched by the 20th century, let alone the 21st; I almost expected a maid to appear at the door. But I didn't think that the Victorian theme would continue once we were inside:
This photo doesn't do justice to the beauty of this house. The great-aunt's son - an antiques restorer and dealer - has filled the house with beautiful objects and said that he tries to lead a plastic-free existence.
He and his sister had prepared a lavish candlelit lunch, with fine bone china, silver cutlery and lead crystal glasses. With a grandfather clock ticking gently in the background, it felt as if we were still waiting for 1900 to arrive.
I complimented the son on a beautiful sideboard, which looked as if it should be in a museum. He replied that he had bought it when he was 16. What sort of teenager goes around buying antique furniture? Later, I learned that when he was in his teens, the son and his best friend used to dress up as Queen Victoria and drink tea from very expensive china.
I was also told that when the son was sent to Austria on a school skiing trip that he didn't want to go on, he used to sneak away from the ski slopes and spend the whole day in the local village, buying objets d'art and porcelain. When the son's deception was discovered, the master took him to one side and said "Do you know what a homosexual is?"
I left the house feeling inspired by what I'd seen, but depressed by the ordinariness of my own home. I used to seek out beautiful things, but as soon as I became a parent I stopped bothering. I could blame it on money, but several of the objects I saw in Lowestoft had come from car boot sales.
I think it was more to do with the belief that a self-indulgent period in my life was over and it was time to create a more child-centred home, full of clean, new utilitarian furniture. What nonsense. Have my son's lives been enhanced by a glut of plastic toys and flatpack self-assembly furniture?
I still have a few things that I value: a Swedish barometer with art noveau lettering, some chairs that used to belong to Jade Jagger, a Victorian clock with a plaque dedicated to 'Mr and Mrs Ashdown of the Plumtree Ragged School' and an old bakelite phone that was owned by the BBC.
But overall, I have allowed too much junk to creep into my life. I look longingly at blogs like Grey Area and marvel at the beauty of other people's homes.
Luckily, my house is so strange anyway, that no amount of flatpack furniture could completely destroy its character, but it deserves better than an Ikea table and an Argos chest of drawers. As I'm about to embark on my new career as the Lovejoy of books, perhaps I should add antiques to my portfolio.