An Englishman's home is his prison

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The Independent Culture
House prices are on the move again, my lease is up in five weeks' time, nowhere to go to, and here I am with my head in the sand. Buy? Rent? What? Where? Don't care. Shan't. Won't.

I tried the householder business, once, but it didn't make sense. You moved your stuff in, tramped round and round three times like a dog, and that was that. The only thing left was to stop paying the mortgage and hope the buggers wouldn't notice. It was a lifestyle that perhaps wouldn't suit everybody - curtains drawn, phone off the hook, blanching sweats every time someone rang the doorbell - but it seemed to have the edge on house-proud security, which needed endless maintenance.

Look at all those people at weekends, going in the car to terrible sheds run by swine on the outskirts, to buy things for the house and bring them back in the car. The result is that the roads are choked, the air polluted, their houses stuffed with furniture and they themselves look like nightmares in their chainstore clothes; all they can afford after the house has had its bite.

If you suggested that they might improve the visual environment by slipping along to James & James for a natty hound's-tooth tweed, or maybe a Douglas Hayward smoking jacket in rich green velvet, they would squeal in outrage. If you added that they might complement the process by shrouding their unsatisfied gloomy wife in Givenchy, and adding something from Manolo Blahnik for her pretty little feet, they'd ... well, they'd rather be strung up by the nipples.

Yet they'll quite happily shell out thousands on grim leather sofas, foolish wallpaper, nasty lighting effects and furniture with names ("I think I'll sit on Torvald for a while, dear"). Why? What for? Life is short and its pleasures infinite, and given the choice between a blonde called Biggi and a table called Bjorn ... well, it's no choice at all; no contest.

But my incomprehension goes deeper. It's not simply a matter of class or taste; I don't understand the Fulham Road lot either, out on the plunder for tasteful antiquities, or the Clerkenwell-loft set sniffing out Bauhaus, or the deodorised neo-Yuppies negotiating for in- dustrial flooring and six-burner catering ranges.

There must be some deficiency in me, some central lack of pride, probably obvious to people who pass me in the street. "Look at that poor sod," they probably say, taking in my form- fitting Australian riding trousers, my exquisitely cut tweed coat, my Charvet shirt, my hand-made eyeglasses; "I bet he hasn't even got round to throwing out the manky chipboard desk that was abandoned in his flat when he moved in. I bet the springs have gone on his easy-chair and instead of going down to World of Leather he's just shoved a box of books under the thing to support the cushion. I bet the handle has fallen off his frying pan, bet his spatulas don't match, bet his dining table's wonky, bet he just bought the first lavatory-paper holder he came across, rather than go through back numbers of World of Lavatory-Paper Holders until he found the very thing, a trawlerman's sea- going pasta-roller, lovingly restored and scumbled in a genuine 18th- century Scandinavian cobalt blue as featured in Jocasta Spamm-Flattereigh's elegant fifth home, a restored potto-hunter's bothy on the outskirts of Mahebourg's Zoroastrian quarter ... "

And they would be right. Right on all counts. What it means, of course, is that I am an outsider, a man not to be trusted, one of them, like a 19th- century homosexual.

But I saw the other side of it recently, and for a moment I felt a little tug at the hearth-strings. My friend the 6'1" Californian bombshell genius, destined to be the next Tama Janowitz or Rachel Cusk, wrote to say that, at the age of 22, she had had enough of all this novel-writing lark - the striving, the rejections, the awful re-writing - and proposed to go over to the bourgeoisie. Her plan was to join the Peace Corps and then marry her high-school sweetheart. Further interrogation produced an enchanting picture. Sweetheart was an embryo lawyer; they would settle in southern California in a series of increasingly large and exquisite houses. He would earn pots. She would be his slightly oblique wife ("She's a very talented writer, you know") and do her Monroe wiggle at their dinner parties before devastating the table with a witty apercu over the Tiffany table-lamps. There would be children. Things would be organised and the bills paid on time.

I basked in vicarious security for a bit, then burst with rage and started yelling. Told her it wouldn't do, she was a traitor to her art, how could she marry a lawyer, the dinner parties would be bilious and ghastly with fear and ambition. Yes, she said, I know all that. I told her he would want to change the way she dressed. Yes, she said, I know that too. But (I said) do you realise that you will end up going out at weekends to buy things for the house?

A silence descended. I haven't heard anything since, but I suspect it's all off, and she's up in her room, writing.

But it gets them all in the end. My bad yellow-eyed woman sent me a message on my pager the other day. She had ... bought something for the house. Only a plastic gnome, it's true, but even a plastic gnome can be the thin end of the wedge, the first step that leads ineluctably to the Tory heartlands where I am exiled to write, everything clean and careful as a chapel-of- rest.

What we need is chambers; houses-of- passage where the residents have no stake. A few clothes, your writing materials, everything else there already. Never mind if the communal sitting- room is shabby; as for the kitchen, who knows what is there? No scope to impress, thus no reason to try. Peace and tranquillity, and think of the money to be saved.

But it won't catch on; not here; not in Brit- ain. Napoleon was wrong. Nation of shopkeepers? No; a nation of housekeepers, fretting and vacuum-cleaning and titivating our way to oblivion.

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