Sunday 13 April 2008

Country bling

I’m sick of moaning about myself so, for a change, I’ll have a moan about other people. You know what’s really getting my goat at the moment? Conspicuous consumption. Greed. Bling. Oh, the hell with it, sheer vulgarity. It started off with this house not that far off. Lovely Georgian job, small pile set in the nearest thing to parkland round here. Not too big, not too pretentious, just a drop-dead gorgeous peach of a country house. Two lodges guarded the approach, one to the north, one to the south. Nothing swanky, just honest pretty little cottages, presumably for the gamekeeper/gardener/whatever. The main entrance was low-key too – stone worn soft by the years and the weather.
A few years back it was bought by people from the South-East. Now I can’t talk – I’m a Surrey girl myself – but you just know what’s coming, don’t you? Over the years, it’s been Surreyfied. Gone is the bushy, scrubby, bit of everything native hedge and in comes neat uniform conifers and plastic thingummybobs with reflective strips on them so we don’t (heaven forfend) squeeze up on the verge if a tractor or bus comes by. Down came many trees – maybe necessary, who knows? Up came the wild patches of bramble – and is it just my imagination or is there less birdsong along that lane now? Just before Christmas there was a flurry of activity and huge monumental plinths were installed with the house name carved self-importantly either side. Smaller plinths to either side of those.
‘You watch,’ I said, as we drove (slowly, mouths open) past. ‘There will be huge wrought-iron gates with gold bits up there next.’
‘Noo,’ said Adrian. ‘Nobody could be that vulgar. Not round here.’
Really? He ate his hat a few weeks later as, verily, up went the gates, worthy of Buckingham Palace.
‘YUK,’ we chorused.
Maybe the owners thought, ‘yuk’ too because the next day they had vanished and a few weeks later were replaced by something marginally less bling. But still so pompous, so self-important, so loud. It reminds me of those suburban houses with vast eagles or overbearing pineapples tottering either side of the garage gates. Out of place. Plain wrong.

Poor house. I could imagine it wincing, all its years of quiet well-mannered breeding torn asunder in a flurry of monumental egotism. I lament that old entrance, I really do. It hinted at the gorgeousness beyond, rather than bragging loud and clear: ‘We’re stinking rich and look we live in a girt big house.’ They’ll have a tradesman’s entrance next. In fact, to my total horror, one of the gatehouses has now been demolished. If I’m kind, I’ll conjecture that it was unsound – though it looked right as rain to me. Now we wait, with all the horrified slack-jawed wide-eyed fascination of a car-crash to see what will rise in its place. ‘A folly,’ opined Adrian. ‘A Grecian temple maybe.’
Or maybe they just didn’t want neighbours and plan to leave it open-plan. A couple of Leylandii maybe?

Talking about vulgar and conspicuous consumption, I have bitten my lip over Liz Jones, I really have. I haven’t said a word about how she goes on about living in the middle of Exmoor when really she lives outside the park. Not a peep about how she would need a tower like the Chrysler building in order to be able to see the sea. Not a whisper about how it would be impossible to ride out ‘onto the moor’ from her house. But it does really hurt to hear her bang on about her ‘dilapidated’ farmhouse. I know that house – I’ve collapsed in front of the gorgeous old fireplace and chatted in the cavernous country kitchen. It is stunning, another fabulous old country house that is comfortable in its skin, doing what it has done for centuries, keeping farm folk dry and warm(ish). I just can’t help wincing at the idea of it being turned into a kind of London lookalike, having its heart ripped out for the latest fashion. But that’s it. I won’t say anymore. Not another word.

I suppose, at heart, this is a lament for Somerset as it was when I was a child. A bit down-at-heel, a bit dilapidated, a bit the worse for wear but all the better for it. As a child I loved the wild places, the falling-down barns, the empty houses with boarded-up windows that were surely the homes of mad witches or warlocks. The wildlife loved them too. The countryside was a working place, a ‘real’ place with integrity and purpose. Now it seems to be becoming a playground for the rich. The old barns are all brand-new gleaming homes now. The barn owls have been chucked out. The woodland is torn down for a new development, a new suburbia.
Having grown up in suburbia it hurts.
Am I being selfish? Am I wanting the countryside held in aspic, a romantic ruin for my own delectation? I don’t think so. I love a working countryside. I don’t mind smells and mud and cows meandering across the road or sheep holding me up for half an hour. I can cope with the ugliness of modern farm buildings (while lamenting the old ones that had to be sold off for housing). I totally see the need for new housing (affordable housing) so that as the local teenagers grow up they aren’t forced away. But the housing isn’t affordable, and instead of filling in the gaps, using the brownfield sites (of which they are plenty) it’s always swathes of farmland that are eaten up for the new projects.
It makes me laugh (bitterly). There is a new housing development in the small town not far from the Bling House, not that far from Liz Jones. We couldn’t believe how many houses they squashed into the site. I couldn’t help thinking of the song, ‘Little boxes on the hillside….and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky…and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.
They were all snapped up in a second – not by first-time buyers or locals, but by the people who love neat, perky conservatories and plastic gothic arches. I’m sure a fair few are South-Eastern refugees, running away from the suburban sprawl. How ironic.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Benighted blog

Have you ever had the feeling that life really isn’t playing the game? Here I sit, looking out the window and what do I see? A large rusty radiator propped against the wall; a magnolia blighted by frost after a mere two days of glory; a camellia ditto and a large plump rat jauntily munching on the bird nuts. My feet are freezing cold, my fingers can barely type and the electric fan heater is giving off a strong smell of cat pee. As if that weren’t bad enough, I did the most stupid thing ever this morning. Glutton for punishment, I got on the scales. For months I’ve been comforted by the fact that I had absolutely no idea how much I weighed, as the only scales we have measure in kilos and I have never been arsed to get my head around metric. Then things started getting tight, very tight. The jeans that had always been a bit baggy around the thigh suddenly started hugging in far too intimate a manner. My bra – for Pete’s sake – started pinching and if I’m oozing out of an H cup, what hope is there? So, feeling extremely brave, I borrowed a pair of real scales, in stones and pounds and lumbered on. I mean, how much weight can one put on in a mere four months? Oh. My. God. How did that happen? I knew I was getting porky but I had no idea I had put on a stone since I last looked. I am nearly as large as I was when I was pregnant – only now the rampaging wrinkles will stop anyone making of asking ‘When’s it due’.

Nothing else for it. Went to the kitchen and baked up a batch of triple choc chip cookies and ate about six in one sitting. Although the prospect of summer seems unlikely, if it ever does come I shall be the sad woman in the vast kaftan. Or, better still, a burqa. I think I have just given up. I can’t even be bothered to paint my nails. My toenails are so long they’re starting to snag on my socks (Tights? Stockings? Don’t be daft – wearing skirts takes FAR too much effort). There isn’t a sharp razorblade in the house (maybe Adrian has taken to hiding them out of concern for my mood) so I have a thick shagpile of hair in all the places women are supposed to keep smooth and nude. In fact, if I ever do get around to doing something about it, I reckon I’ll have to go to a dog groomer and get myself stripped.

If my body is no longer a temple, my house is a tip. When the dust gets to a full inch thick, there really is nothing much you can do, other than stick your finger in and prod gloomy pictures of hollow-eyed people in it. I am deeply embarrassed to say my house is, let’s not mince words, a pit of filth. Yes, I KNOW we have builders in and missing floorboards and dangling electrics and free-standing plumbing (including half the radiators in the garden providing a gym for the rats – who, I notice bitterly, are in much better shape than I am). But really there is no excuse. I have become a slattern and a slob.

So slatternly, in fact, that I haven’t ever got around to doing my 7 weird facts. So, better late than never, here they are. Who knows, this burst of activity might spur me into doing something else. Like bake up a rhubarb polenta cake maybe.

7 things you might not know about me.

1. I used to make jewellery – beaded bracelets and wild earrings.
2. I was once arrested in Richmond Park on three counts of reckless riding (but got off!).
3. I have taken courses in past life regression and SHEN therapy, but have never practiced.
4. I’ve done the Ouija Board and scared myself witless when somebody WAS there!
5. I have always wanted a pet mongoose.
6. My favourite scents are amber, neroli and jasmine.
7. I have never been a bridesmaid (and, to be honest, never thought I’d be a bride).

I’m a lousy tagger and tagee so shall leave this to float in the ether….think everyone has done it anyhow…. Now, after this little burst of activity, think I’ll go and stare out the window a bit. Or think up a cunning plan to avoid the mother who’s coming to pick up James actually seeing how bad the house is. Perhaps we’ll sit, nonchalantly on the steps, pretending to be cloud-spotting or, hell, anything really that doesn’t require too much effort.

Thursday 3 April 2008


my new kitchen - lovely, isn't it?

I’m beginning really to irritate myself. For those endless two years when we were trying to sell the house I had this mantra that everything would be hunky-dory, ‘when the house sells….’ Everything would be wonderful if we could only get our dream house and move into town, back to civilisation. Well, the house sold, we’re here, where we always wanted to be and am I happy? Am I heck. Admittedly 2008 has been possibly the nastiest year on record since 1970 – and we’re still only four months into the damn thing.
Part of the frustration is not being able to write about it all in lurid detail. Writing has always been my means of working things out of my system and blogging has been the most powerful form of therapy I’ve ever encountered. I think a lot of my black dog blues have been created by the effective gagging order on my writing – that and a deep grinding sadness that my motives were so misunderstood. I’m also flipping furious with myself for being so naïve. Heaven only knows, I’ve had enough warning shots that a Blog is for the World to Read. I guess I have never really really thought that anyone much would be bothered to read my ramblings. But people Google themselves (seemingly with monotonous egocentric regularity) and bingo up pops my darn blog. You know, it had never really occurred to me before to Google myself. Yet bung me into the search box and what do you find? Yup, there I am, splattered all over the Internet, like diarrhoea.

Anyhow, enough already. Let’s talk about something else. Like the Bonkers House. Lately I’ve taken to singing a tuneless little ditty that goes like this…..

Ten green acroprops holding up my wall…..
Ten green acroprops holding up my wall…
And if one green acroprop should accidentally fall…..

We laugh nervously at this little joke but I fear there could be a nasty ring of truth to it (just like Ring a Ring O’Roses viz the Plague). Work continues slowly, so slowly. After the first flurry of excitement, the heady joy of Something Being Done, we seem to have hit one of those endless bogs you encounter in dreams – no matter how hard you trudge, you never seem to arrive anywhere. The firemen are working solidly, doggedly, but the poor house is even more decrepit than we or they imagined – timbers are rotten and need replacing so the whole house looks like one of those stilt huts, held up by slender rods and our collective willpower.
We’re more or less living in one room – tripping over dust sheets, getting on one another’s nerves. The phone is out in the (freezing cold) hallway and yesterday my teeth were literally chattering so hard the person on the other end of the phone had to ask me to repeat myself. Given family issues over the last few months I have barely been able to work so money, inevitably, drags heavy on my soul. I have visions of the cash/credit running out and the whole place gently teetering onto its side and collapsing with a sigh.

We now have scaffolding all along the road side of the house, effectively creating a bottle-neck on the way out of town. Which means, of course, that we’re now living in a doll’s house – open to the world, or at least to the firemen.
‘Five minutes to ETA,’ bellows Adrian at 8.10am and an undignified scramble for the loo ensues. Our loo window is so high up that there have never been curtains or blinds in it – only the pigeons could see in. Not any more. You could easily find yourself, happily ensconced flipping through Homes & Gardens and find a cheery face waving at you. So now I tend to cross my legs or plunge down into the subterranean depths of the Loo of Doom. The seat is sub-zero and the walls ooze damp but at least it’s private.

However today the sun is shining fit to burst. There’s a magnolia (stellata, not my favourite but never mind) flowering its heart out and, even shrouded in dust, the house is putting on a tentative smile. It would be churlish not to smile back, wouldn’t it?