Monday, August 29, 2011

A Day Out

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.


luis said...

You forgot to mention what was on the menu...


Your next long drive for dinner should be to my house. Then you'll appreciate the beauty of your home, I promise.
I just hate buying 'stuff' no matter where it's from.

I have my next-door neighbour's old dining table, my Ex's old bureau, coffee tables from a skip, donated crockery, and second-hand utensils. Nothing coordinates, nothing is interesting - all of it unwanted.

Your children will remember the atmosphere they grew up in, and the laughter. Who cares if you laughed sat around an Argos table or one you bought from by some suave, charming antique dealer (who ripped you off).

It's still dead trees and profit margins.

p.s I'd love to have dinner at that house though!

Kid said...

Another great ittle piece.

Martin said...

I agree with LUCEWOMAN. In the same way that clothes don't make the man, I'm not convinced that furnishings make the home, although they may, indeed, make the house.

Sarah said...

I agree with Lucewoman, it's what goes on in a home that makes it memorable, not what it looks like.

I have two boys and they are pretty hard on furniture. I wouldn't dream of sending my stress levels soaring by worrying whether they are ruining a lovely piece of antique furniture.

MikeP said...

Well, you're jolly well placed if you want stuff...we rarely return from Lewes without a few irresistible objets in the car from those places in Cliffe High St. Can't imagine what my house would be like if I lived there.

Grey Area said...

Oh dear.../ you will be horrified to know that I have a crappy BT plastic phone, I've learned the hard way that it's a must. I regularly smash them in frustration after conversations with the Inland Revenue, BT, power supply companies, my bank... and clients. This one is held together with sellotape.

Of course, in the good old days - you could kill a man with a swipe of a bakelite phone... today you would barely part their hair.

Lovely Post.

Little Nell said...

It certainly looks lovely, but I agree with Lucewoman and others; it’s the people not the furnishings that are important. I’ve been to houses like that and they’re not very relaxing to be honest. You always feel that as soon as you stand up they’ll be plumping the cushions up. The bathrooms are always filled with pretty glasss bottles of smelly stuff, and you’re terrified to wash your hands as the soap is nestling in a crystal soap dish, and looks as though it has just come out of the wrapper.

Steerforth said...

Well, there seems to be a general consensus here. I take your point about the difference between a house and a home. I think I just want to restore the balance between the beautiful and the useful.

The great-aunt's home was very welcoming and I never felt under pressure to make sure that my sons didn't break anything. It certainly wasn't one of those miserable, sterile houses where you feel afraid to sit down.

As for the food, it would take too long to list. My trousers felt tighter afterwards.

Shelley said...

Wow. You live in a place that has a Noel Coward play on the radio? To a writer, that might sound like paradise....


I know exactly what you meant in this post, here is an extract from one of my very early posts :

"I'd like a giant skip out the back yard to fill with the entire contents of my house, and to start again with only stuff that I "know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful" as per William Morris' advice. There are very few things I believe to be beautiful, but maybe they'd stand out more if I disposed of the 'ugly' stuff. The sheer amount of plastic in my home is unsettling, but in my defence I have purchased very few plastic items. I try not to buy new toys for the children, there's no need. If all the toy manufacturers in the world stopped production today, it's be about a million years before the world was bereft of toys. I don't buy storage items either, just seem to acquire them. My reputation as a bit of a scrounger means that every Tom, Dick and Harry uses me as their first port of call for dumping unwanted items. Even my eldest son's dad gives us stuff, even his neighbour does. They must think we live in a shack made out of Ikea cast-offs, broken chairs and wonky cupboards (oh, I actually DO)".

One day, everything will come together beautifully. Home brimming with objects d'art and vintage treasures.
Fulfilling self-employed work life, children settled and content. Dinner parties with fascinating guests. We'll be eating well, exercising regularly and taking up new hobbies.

And we'll wake in the middle of the night bathed in sweat, panicking, and asking;

"What is left to worry about?"

Steerforth said...

Shelley - It's the BBC. The US needs its own BBC(and I don't mean the cash-starved PBS), where anyone who thinks that there's more to life than Howard Stern, Achy Breaky Heart and plays about alcoholics discovering God can find what they want. I say this as someone who has driven thousands of miles around the USA in a car that didn't have a CD player or cassette deck. I listened to a lot of radio.

Lucewoman - You summed it up perfectly:

"One day, everything will come together beautifully. Home brimming with objects d'art and vintage treasures.
Fulfilling self-employed work life, children settled and content. Dinner parties with fascinating guests. We'll be eating well, exercising regularly and taking up new hobbies.

And we'll wake in the middle of the night bathed in sweat, panicking, and asking: "What is left to worry about?"

In some ways I like being skint (within reason) because I thrive on the struggle. As you imply, having it all would force us to confront the emptiness of our own existences, whereas at the moment I live for small victories, like saving £12 on the weekly shop by checking out the special deals.

Like you, my house is full of things that other people have 'kindly' donated. I'm particularly grateful to my mum who always knows how to find a 'bargain' at the local market, like a toy car that plays Chinese pop music and only drives backwards.

The problem is, our whole economy has recently been based on people buying things they don't need. Perhaps the recession is an opportunity for us to get our lives back in balance.

Genius Loci said...

Couldn't agree more with your comment about the recession giving us a chance to rebalance, Steerforth. Whether 'we' will collectively take that chance, I don't know. I hope we do!

Wasn't it our old friend Karl Marx who said that the meaning of life is 'struggle'? It's an interesting comment, and I take it that he doesn't mean life should literally be a physical struggle, but one of mental and emotional striving for enlightenment. That's what we bloggers do ain't it?

I also agree about small victories being good for the soul. I avoided a 12 Euro (or thereabouts) toll road whilst in France recently and was deliriously pleased with myself!

By the way I've recently been reading John Cheever's short stories and he seems obsessed with commenting on the spiritual poverty of the well-off. He's an absorbing read if not the chirpiest of writers. Have you read any of his work?

RAMAN said...

I m really fascinated to see so beautifully and naturally put forward views of two native English writers, Steerforth n Lufewonan over the balance between the useful n beautiful.I just chanced to read Steerforth's blog and got opportunity to come across so many other good writers here.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Raman, I hope you visit again.

Genius Loci - I've only read 'The Swimmer', after I became obsessed with the wonderful film adaption. I'll have to try and find my copy of Cheever's short stores.

Yes, life should be about struggle and growth (and by struggle, I don't mean the soul-destroying drudgery of working 12 hours a day just to exist). During the 90s, I was sickened by the consumer boom and the number of television programmes about 'lifestyle' (followed, inevitably, by other programmes about freeing yourself from clutter). The more we had, the less we valued it.

I wouldn't want to go back to the world of my mum's childhood - children without shoes, boxes use as chairs, families who couldn't afford to eat breakfast - but a more cash-starved society will hopefully stop us chasing the consumerist dream.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Wow, she could sell 'the genuine afternoon tea experience' to American tourists for a fortune!

Anonymous said...

William Morris:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

zmkc said...

EEEk. The whole beauty of East Anglia is the lack of a high speed rail link to London. It feels like you fell off the edge.

zmkc said...

I think you should add antiques to your activities - but, as my house is full of nothing but old stuff, I should point out that, if you fill your house with old stuff, you will end up going sometimes to some immaculate modern place, all sleek Scandinavian smooth surfaces, and coming home and thinking your place looks a bit bashed and dusty and cluttered. Possibly the problem - at least for me - is not the furniture, but my personality. I am never absolutely convinced my choices are the right ones, always open to the idea that someone else has made a better decision and I've bished again (probably a consequence of not being the oldest or something).