Beyond blood, sweat, tears and tantrums

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SHAREHOLDERS of the building in one of whose flats I live have just held their first full AGM. We inhabit a large, stucco-fronted Victorian house at the end of a terrace in what I call Earl's Court or South Kensington, depending on the age of the person I'm talking to (the former is for the young).

A hundred years ago our six-storey building would almost certainly have been occupied by a single family, perhaps headed by a comfortably rotund banker; or a rising young barrister with a covetous eye on a house in the much smarter Boltons near by; or someone from one of the new museums - the Natural History, Science, or Victoria and Albert - a few hundred yards along Cromwell Road.

Downstairs in the building's basement would have been the servants' quarters, including kitchen, pantry, coal hole and sitting-room. Upstairs would have begun directly you entered the encaustic-tiled hall. Off that may have been a small reception room, and beyond it a vast dining- or drawing-room, with french windows leading through the back of the building into the large and leafy communal gardens. The front, overlooking the road, may have been a butler's pantry, and a library or study: Papa's domain.

The first floor, with its high, ornately plastered ceilings, would have comprised the spacious drawing-room, a billiard room perhaps, and probably Mama's boudoir. The second floor would have been occupied by the main bedrooms and dressing rooms and, if the family was very modern, a separate bathroom; the third floor (my flat) by the children's bedrooms, schoolroom and nursery, not quite at tree-top level (the great London plane trees that brush my windows would have been at least a dozen metres shorter then); and the servants would have been crowded under the roof in small, low-ceilinged rooms.

Let us imagine that a senior curator from the Natural History Museum lived here; let us call him Dr Theodore Gardner. His special interest is dinosaurs.

He and Mrs Gardner (Millicent) have seven children and an eighth on the

way. They rather hope this baby will be their last, although as Mrs Gardner is only 37 they are resigned to another one or two, unless Dr Gardner's research trips keep him away from home a great deal.

In addition to the nine members of the Gardner family, there are seven living-in servants (butler, housekeeper, cook, nanny, nursery-maid and two housemaids). In 1893, therefore, some 16 people occupy the six-storey house.

Today, by a most satisfying coincidence, exactly 16 residents are distributed around the eight flats into which the building has been divided. Seven of us met around my dining table last Wednesday evening to discuss the administration of the building which, after two years' complicated legal negotiations, finally belongs to us.

Anyone contemplating buying their freehold should be warned that the process is lengthy and complex. Although we have an assiduous honorary secretary, a keen-eyed honorary treasurer and a remarkably efficient local solicitor, the transfer of the head lease from the property company that acquired it when it bought 200 other London properties - and that has since gone bankrupt - has been time-consuming and fraught with difficulties.

In the process, however, we have learnt a great deal about one another. We have gone through blood, sweat, tears and tantrums. People have stormed in and out of meetings. Phones have been slammed down. Angry faxes have been exchanged and lawyers have been consulted.

People become heated and irrational over such details as the width of a stairway or installation of a trap-door, let alone the colour of the communal stair- carpet. In any random community of 16 people, some will be good citizens - dependable, considerate and friendly - others, to be diplomatically non-specific about it, will not. Some will invite one another cheerfully to supper; others can barely exchange a civil greeting as they pass on the stairs.

Has it all been worth it? Yes, it has. A houseful of strangers has been welded into a united and autonomous group. We have set up a limited company, which owns the freehold and has granted us all generous 999-year leases. We have, with some glee, dismissed our rascally and incompetent managing agents. And in our first full operating year we shall save pounds 20,000.