Victoria Summerley: City Life

'When I visited as a child, I wasn't very impressed with Kirsty MacColl's house. Now I can see just how fantastic it is'
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The Independent Online

I saw a house for sale the other day that made my heart beat a little faster. It had huge windows looking out over a large, meadow-like garden, with, in the distance, woodland stretching to the horizon. The house nestled against the side of a hill, so as you approached, from above, all you really noticed were the butterfly roof and the cedar cladding. Inside, the bedrooms were on the ground floor, while the living rooms were upstairs, to take full advantage of the astonishing view.

Apart from these features, there were three noteworthy things about this house. The first was that it was in Selsdon, just south of Croydon, so one could live in this bosky paradise and yet commute quite easily to central London. The second was that this was where the late singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl grew up. And the third was that I had been there many times as a child.

Kirsty's mother, the choreographer Jean Newlove, and my mother were – still are – very good friends. My twin sister and I were a year or so older than Kirsty, so when we were little, we were taken round "to play", as often happens in these cases. When I first met Kirsty, she and Jean lived quite near us, in a Victorian or Edwardian house much like the one we lived in at the time. Then they moved to Selsdon where, in 1965, Jean had commissioned the architect Eric Mayne to design her a house on a plot overlooking Kings Wood.

At that time, I wasn't very impressed with the new house. With childish conservatism, I regarded it as yet another example of the fashion for glass and concrete that was enveloping most of south-east London. I can't remember going outside into the garden. Kirsty had terrible asthma, so the huge windows were never open.

In those days, Kirsty seemed to me like a little elfin girl, with a tiny pale face and a cloud of dark red hair. She always seemed to be ill, but I don't remember ever hearing her whinge or complain. I didn't understand about the asthma and thought she must have had an accident, like the girl in What Katy Did.

Something about the set of her chin and the tilt of her nose hinted at quite a strong personality, but I was absolutely useless as a sickroom comforter, and would usually, according to my mother, disappear with a book. My sister was far more sympathetic.

As Kirsty grew up, we lost touch and I didn't meet her again until we were both in our twenties. I was astonished by the transformation from small, fragile invalid to single-minded, successful musician, and I admired her uncompromising refusal to be packaged or fitted into some sort of stereotype by the music industry. I finally realised what Kirsty was all about.

In the same sort of way, it was only when I saw her old home featured on a property website the other day that I finally realised what a fantastic house it really is.

The big open-plan upstairs was exactly the sort of space that I now love. The garden was exactly the sort of size that would provide an extremely satisfying challenge. There was now access from the living area into the garden via a raised deck. (In the old days, you had to go downstairs and out through the utility room.) And the size (three bedrooms) and the price were exactly right for my family and budget.

They say there are some art forms you only grow to appreciate once you're older. Opera and string quartets are often cited, but I think architecture can fall into this category, too. So often, as children, our tastes are constrained by the familiar and the domestic.

Sadly, my new-found appreciation of Kirsty's house has come too late: it is already under offer. I wish I'd taken more notice of it when I had the chance. And I wish I'd spent more time with Kirsty, too. Beech Way, Selsdon, Surrey, was sold through The Modern House, which specialises in 20th- and 21st-century properties of architectural distinction.

For more information, go to www.themodernhouse.net

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Call me naive, but I'm astonished by the number of property developers in my area who seem to be able to rustle up £1m to buy a house, spend a further £50,000-£100,000 doing it up, and then rent it out.

Even at top-whack rent (up to £5,000 a month in the nicer parts of Wandsworth), this doesn't exactly represent a good return on the money. Surely they'd be better off leaving the cash in the bank?

I suppose one could argue that the rental covers the mortgage, or provides a steady (taxable) income, while the capital, represented by the house, is still making gains (assuming that the property market recovers from its current crash-and-burn phase, and regains its normal stratospheric ascent).

However, while I may not understand the arithmetic, I'm all in favour of renting out. Why? Tenants, in my experience, do not do home improvements. No skip appears outside the front gate within seconds of the ink drying on the completion document. No kitchens and bathrooms are ripped out, no lofts and basements are put in.

Yeah, yeah, I love the idea of a more permanent community, where people get to know each other over the years. In theory. But if transient neighbours are the price I have to pay for not having fleets of skip lorries and huge Travis Perkins trucks manoeuvring noisily in my street all the time, then give me impermanence any day.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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