Saturday, March 26, 2005


A Place To Hang Your Tea Towel

In today's Times of London, Alain de Botton reviews Geraldine Bedell's The Handmade House: A Love Story Set in Concrete, about an attempt to build a new home in North London:

This might at first sight appear like a slender and unoriginal premise for a 250-page book, were it not for the shocking state of Britain’s planning laws and its building industry.... it’s almost impossible to build oneself something from scratch. Land is the greatest problem, especially in London. Though the capital is filled with shoddy, ecologically unfriendly Victorian terraces thrown up in a few weeks in the late 19th century, for a host of illogical reasons, planning departments in most boroughs refuse to let their residents tear them down and replace them with something better....

It would be easy to mock this book on the grounds of privilege: the travails it recounts are, after all, those of privileged people (the house costs £540,000 and the land on which it sits cost a similar amount). Although Bedell is at pains to stress that she and her husband are “ordinary people”, they obviously aren’t. However, it would be a typically cynical (and uniquely British) response to blame them for being fortunate. The problem isn’t that Bedell has the chance to live in a beautiful modern house, but that most people don’t.

Given the madness for all things real-estate related in the last few years, it would be easy to imagine an entire genre of homebuilding and homebuying narratives to spring up, both in fact and fancy. There are some humorous classics -- Eric Hodgin's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, say, and Roy Brooks's listings compilation Brothel in Pimlico. And, of course, there is the hugely popular escapist quaint-foreign-home stuff. But not much else immediately comes to mind, particularly in the way of ordinary domestic houseseeking. As Botton's review implies, there is a deterrent to other writers dealing with the topic: real estate somehow feels flippant to write about, whether seriously or otherwise. Yet it is indeed a key decision in people's lives. And if there's fiction about tea towels...

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