Tribute to a band of minor modern poets

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The Independent Online
LIVING in a house that is on the market is a lowering experience. A week ago it was a home, but as soon as it appears on the list of the local estate agent it has become a commodity and your affection for it begins to ebb. I guess this is a defensive mechanism; a natural atrophying1 of domestic roots so that you can survive the wrench of repotting. But it isn't easy all the same.

The hair-line crack that had never troubled you reveals itself to your freshly critical eye as a yawning fissure; the distant rattle of trains which, on those rare occasions when you actually noticed it, seemed melancholy and excitingly urban, now reverberates as if the track ran through your living room; the comfortably lived-in kitchen is revealed as shabby, even - let's pretend to be the most brutally clear- sighted of buyers - decrepit. Such thoughts are difficult to unthink if no offer comes.

Reading the estate agent's particulars used to offer an antidote. In the cliched rapture of their prose you could see where you lived made-up, as it were, its frailties of age and ugliness disguised by cosmetic2 application. It glowed in the light of 'potential', that optimistic vision in which there are no problems that cannot be overcome.

As has been widely reported, this verbal analgesic is now illegal. Since the Property Misdescriptions Act came into force this month, estate agents can face large fines if found guilty of false or misleading statements. Most seem to have decided that this means the death of flattery, and have rewritten their lists to offer a sulky itemisation of the basics. I suspect they are being over-cautious, but it must be easy to become paranoid if you are an estate agent. Until they all relax, every inspired touch of wishful thinking, every subjective term, has been banished in favour of a sterile parade of measurements and leaden facts.

Fortunately, there are pockets of resistance. The signboard outside my own flat describes it as 'elegant', a word that I suspect is now an outlaw but which can still soothe my vendor's wounds. It isn't that I think this is an inaccurate description of the place - in the right light it can look quite distinguished - but it is probably closer to an accurate description of what I would like it to be.

Even so, it would be difficult to defend the word. The Oxford English Dictionary offers 'characterised by refined luxury' and 'refined grace of form' for elegant, neither of which immediately leaps to mind as I extricate a discarded banana from inside the video or contemplate the smears on the windows that record my small son's reach. You would need more fresh flowers than I could fit in my 'spacious reception room' to convince a jury that 'elegant' was a statement of fact. It is true that in pre-classical Latin elegans (the word derives from eligere, to select) had negative connotations, suggesting an effete fastidiousness, but to propose that as a defence would be clutching at straws.

All the same, a daring lawyer might argue that the puritanical literalism of the legislation has simply missed the point. Elegant isn't intended to describe the building, she could point out, but a far more intangible commodity, the aspirations we all harbour when we move house. What is for sale is not just an assemblage of bricks3 , plaster and wood but an element of fantasy, too, whether it is to do with 'secluded sites', 'spacious interiors' or 'desirable roads'. The estate agent is selling what occupies that unnerving gap between the surveyor's valuation and what you actually pay for the house.

Besides, she might continue, it is nave to think that the prose in an estate agent's particulars is aimed at the potential purchaser. These words are not meant to sell the house to the buyer but to sell the estate agent to the vendor. This man likes my house, you think. He sees its merits which, now I come to think of it, are obvious only to the truly discerning . . . What the hell, I'll give him two grand. In the end, making the mercantile poetry of estate agents illegal isn't just a step to a greyer world, it's a restraint of trade.

1 From the Greek trophe, nourishment, and the prefix a, implying absence.

2 From the Greek kosmein, to adorn.

3 From the Old French briche, probably derived from the Teutonic brek-an, to break, the original sense of 'a broken piece' evolving into 'a piece of baked clay'.