Sunday 18 November 2007

Settling down in Britain

From a life of whim and indolence (as my boyfriend would have it) I am now suddenly and dramatically interested in all things fence-picketed. My carefree single life has devolved into slightly ill-fitting domesticity. I remember in the over-baked days of my youth in Tamworth wondering whether I was headed one day for domestic bliss or slavery; pessimistically I believed it would be the latter and so spent many pleasant single years doing just as I pleased, wandering through Asia, contracting intestinal bugs and divesting myself of bulky possessions as I moved from one relationship to anther, one job to another, one country to another.

Now I am definitely ‘partnered’ I am as happy as can be, but the realities that others have faced for years, such as mortgages and parenthood have given me a rude slap in the face and made me thoroughly ashamed of my tardiness in the school of real life. I have been thrust into frantic catch-up study of adulthood and this blog of late has become a record of all my crammed homework. I beg your indulgence as I will now produce a short series on the terrors of home renovation that will be familiar to many but which has come to a shock to my sensitivities.

The importance of buying, renting and renovating homes in the UK can’t be underestimated. In Australia there were lots of home improvement TV shows and magazines, but the emphasis over here is much more on hardcore property development – i.e. not so much the Australian ‘my home is my castle’ philosophy, but more along the line of ‘chuck in your day job and strike it rich through property development’.

Even the home improvement shows here seem to have an emphasis on money making schemes. If a flat won’t sell – what do you have to do to impress the buyers? Can you make big bucks if you gamble and buy a dump from auction sight unseen? Even when the focus is on personal lifestyle choice, the programmes here more often follow the pattern of how to buy overseas than how to renovate what you’ve got.

Whether they are empty-nesters downsizing or people choosing between the countryside or moving to Spain, the emphasis seems to be about moving on, whereas in Australia it seemed to be much more about improving what you’ve got through extensive decking.

Recently, on UK ground level (not TV-land), prices of flats and houses have topped out, the listings at the real estate agents have stagnated, interest rates have skyrocketed and everyone has a skip parked outside rather than plans to sell up and move on. It is not reflected as much on TV, but it is endemic on my street and elsewhere in the neighbouring suburbs.

Lately, I have to admit that I have not been reading modern literature in translation or seeking out the latest work by of a worthy playwright or modern artist. Instead I have been checking out bedroom and bathroom showrooms and leafing through magazines and brochures I would normally only glance at in a waiting room. I am no different than so many others; I have officially joined the brigade of the house proud. This is because we are in the throes of a house renovation, with side and back double story extensions and a loft conversion. We are trying to turn a four-bedroom Edwardian semi-detached suburban home into… a four-bedroom semi-detached suburban home.

It is true! After doing everything possible to extend the available living space, we have ended up with exactly the same number of bedrooms as we started with! But they are all large bedrooms now, instead of two large, and two tiny rooms. And we have three bathrooms instead of one, and most importantly of all we have made a small kitchen into a very large kitchen/dining room with double doors leading out to the garden. So, it is not all in vain, but it is difficult, trying and expensive. And so I am now going to share my experiences with you. Read on.

The Edwardians

The Edwardian period in Britain marked an incredible period of house-building that laid the foundations for how life is lived here today in many ways. The Edwardians, with better transportation and communications made the move out into the suburbs, leaving Victorian terrace houses in favour of semi-detached and detached homes on leafy streets in neighbourhoods, rather than villages or city squares, reflecting a shift towards the privacy of the single family unit that still exists today. This is despite divorce, childless couples and the influence of immigration with extended family models; enduringly, the Edwardian model of the family house overlays our own.

The Edwardians laid out the pattern of rooms that we still use today. What was important then were more than one reception room, decent sized bedrooms, a large kitchen and scullery, a pantry and wine cellar, a bathroom with separate WC, a coal cellar, and the ‘mod-cons’ of hot and cold water, perhaps newly installed electric lighting and even a telephone connection. The Edwardians also wanted a hedged or fenced off front yard which was decorative and not used, and a private back garden which was.

What is important today for the average family is fairly similar, with the scullery transformed into the laundry/utility room marking the rise of the appliance, and the coal cellar giving way to the garage, and the additional bathrooms will more likely have showers than bathtubs. The mod-cons today are similarly focused on energy and communications – our modern homes aspire to having cable or satellite TV, wireless broadband internet and the green credentials of double glazing, insulation, and possibly solar heating.

The Victorian fascination with moral and spiritual health, gave way to an Edwardian obsession with physical health and cleanliness, which has given way to a modern desire for global interconnection and carbon neutrality. The design of houses reflects social priorities; then as now we live our obsessions on our sleeves. Today we want wall-mounted TVs, a place to put our recycle bins and off-street parking.

It is interesting to know that 90% of Edwardians rented and that most houses were built ‘speculatively’, that is, they were built for landlords to rent out and the occupiers had little say in the design or the fitting of the houses. Today two-up, two-down cottages that would have been built for workers are being snapped up by upwardly mobile young professionals; it is a purchase on that rung of the property ladder located between the single person’s first flat and the family home in the best suburb we can afford.

Even if most people will change properties several times in their lives, usually at the most significant moments of their life, the purchase of a property is a always a heavy undertaking. As Alain de Botton noted in The Architecture of Happiness for most people a house is the most important and expensive thing they will buy in their life, so it is natural that we will tend to be conservative when making this important decision. Even new houses therefore tend to be built to look a lot like older ones. De Botton bemoans this tendency and declares that we must buck the trend and opt for more dramatic modern architecturally designed homes that suit our modern lifestyles.

The rest of us can be excused for ignoring his advice. It is fine for the wealthy and arty to go for the modern, but the rest of us could be working our whole lives to pay off a single building and so we don’t want it to be experimental; we want it to keep its value. So the housing market will always, to some extent look backwards, even as we want it to adapt to our changing modern lives.

The Edwardians looked backwards, not only to the Victorians but to the Georgians and even Tudor for design inspiration. They were magpies for taking nibbles of all sorts of design elements from neo-classical columns to Jacobean plaster ceilings, but they still developed a new direction for design.

Edwardian houses differed markedly from the Victorian in their emphasis on simpler design lines, with a much greater delight in natural light and a penchant for decoration. With the rise in disposable income, and a taste for journals which the newly literate and leisured middle-classes perused eagerly, the Edwardians went to town on fancy fireplaces, wallpaper, tiles, and furniture. It is the more permanent fixtures like stained glass, fireplaces, light fixtures and tiles that we are so desperate to preserve or replicate today. These ‘period features’ are renovator’s gold as we look backwards while we look forwards when trying do decorate our homes today.

A house is a home is a puzzle

My long history of house tourisiting has not been an idle endeavour – I consider my trysts in other people’s houses not as pure voyeurism, but as essential research for my own much more humble house decorating endeavours. I have never been a lifestyle magazine reader (OK, except at the checkout); I much prefer to wander around a three dimensional space and really see what I think works and what doesn’t in other people’s houses in the flesh.

After toying with buying in an overblown housing market we decided like everyone else down the street to take what we’ve got, make it bigger and park a skip out front. The first step was planning permission which was a saga in itself culminating in tearful pleas to grumpy counsellors at the town hall, with eventual victory after much chagrin and delay.

Then the builders swarmed over the poor little house ripping it apart and putting it back together again and now we are nearing the time when maybe, just maybe we can think about moving in, in the not so distant future. But first we have to have something to sit on, wash in, sleep on and cook with. In other words the whole place has to be refurbished and populated with furnishings and fixtures and so far we have an empty and battered shell. And I have to take a crash course in home decoration to fix it. This would be heaven to some women, but it is simply frightening to me.

(I have to warn my loyal readers that this topic has been consuming my life of late, and if you can’t stand it, I can sympathise, and suggest you look away now. One day I will go back to talking about something else.)

I am not the homeliest of people; my decorating agenda to date has consisted of trying to accumulate as little furniture and knick-knacks as possible so that I didn’t have to cart them on to the next place. I look back with some regret at some of the fantastic places I have been around the world where I spent far too much time looking at architectural wonders and sampling exotic cuisine when I really should have been focused on shopping for home décor. I suddenly realise why brides had a trousseau, and I realise that in this department I am not a good catch. I blame my father for not providing the appropriate yams, chickens and cows for my dowry. I have to blame someone.

I have casually judged others by how they dress their house and I am now in paralysis on how to dress my own. Part of the problem is that I haven’t enough money, time or talent to do the job. I am bumbling along in the dark making decisions driven by the electrician, the plumber and the builder. Suddenly the oddest pieces of the jigsaw have already been laid – stud walls, TV points and positions for lights and switches are dictating the layout in the rooms before I have any actual pieces of furniture or any idea of even what look I am supposed to be achieving. Basically, I have no idea of how it is supposed to be done.

Vaguely, through the dust on the building site, I am trying to imagine myself living in this newly expurgated house (now that it has acquired walls again). And I am trying to get my head around this home decorating palaver. Because we have already decided on some aspects and not others, there is a revisionism which has to be inherent in the décor scheme. The kitchen has (very nearly) been decided and it is contemporary and light with all the mod-cons (we can’t afford). The rest of the house must fit around it, and everything else must be economical as we’ve spent most of the budget already.

The house, by the way, is Edwardian, or for the rest of us it is dated between the turn-of-the-20th-century and the start of WW1. I have since found out that in design terms the era was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which looks to me like toned-down Art Nouveau. The house is not grand by any stretch of the imagination, and sadly many of the features of the house have long been stripped out of it and we have gutted the other half of it anyway. What we’ve ended up with is a house that is more or less, straight down the middle, one half modern and one half traditional.

I hope we can pull it off successfully, as the ultimate goal will be to marry the two so that it looks deliberate, even, dare I say it, stylish. That is, if I can figure out just where to start. I will never denigrate anyone who declares they are an interior designer. I wish I had the natural flair that comes to some women and some gay men. Time to pull my finger out and do some serious research.

Aga Do or Aga Don’t

What is the English obsession with Agas all about? I had never heard of an Aga before I came here and now, thanks in no small part to being deeply involved with planning a kitchen (which we have resolutely decided will be modern and not have one of these damn Aga things in it anyway), but even before this induction into the world of kitchen design I was already blown away by the sheer cultural weight in England of the mighty Aga.

The Aga, to some English at least, represents an ideal of home. Not any kind of home, but a home that is solid, enduring, classic and beautiful. But for many, it is a benchmark of unattainable wealth because it would involve acquiring a) the expensive Aga itself and b) a kitchen big enough to put it in. Personally I think they are big, curious, blocky objects that dominate a kitchen but which owners seem to think are the bee’s knees.

What, I was desperate to know, is this fabled thing – the Aga? It is, to put no finer point on it, a cooker (or to use the term I am more familiar with, it’s a stove). Physically, it is an oven, usually with two or four doors and two enormous hotplates on top with chrome lids that swivel upright. It has a ceramic coating in traditional colours of racing green, deep burgundy, cream or black. But there are new models in any number of colours with new configuration options. They take oil or solid fuel (i.e. wood) and they take the best part of 24 hours to heat up so they are generally left on all the time.

It can safely be said that Aga lovers are evangelical about their darlings. In cold wintry England they are a dream: it can heat the hot water for the whole house and radiate warmth in the kitchen making it a clothes dryer, radiator, boiler and oven in one. The oven part is also fabled. It is built for Sunday roasts and Christmas dinner. It is a monolith. If you have one or want one in your kitchen it’s the thing which you must organize everything else around. It’s the beating heart of the traditional kitchen and, oh yes, it’s expensive.

After a little internet research I discovered that despite its cultural weight, the first Aga only dates from 1929 when a Swedish physicist named Aga blew himself up. (No I lie, his name was actually Dalén – Aga stands for Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator, if you really must know.) Dr Dalén, blinded, was recuperating at home and observing his harried wife when he decided to invent a new type of cooker.

It’s truly amazing that the Aga has survived so long and become so beloved despite all the advances in cooking technology. Lately, I have become very well acquainted with the latest in kitchen cooking appliances. You can have gas or electric or the latest steam oven or a combination microwave that can do it all. And you can go in for a hob that uses the latest induction technology, or you can opt for a wok-burner, a BBQ grill, or a flat teppanyaki hotplate (which costs a fortune, by the way).

But your Aga doesn’t have these options. Nope. The Aga doesn’t even have a temperature gauge! In fact, it is not a good idea to use the two massive hotplates at all. When the lids are hinged back off the hotplates the oven looses too much heat, so they are not used much at all, especially because you can only regulate the heat on them by balancing pots or pans half off the plates. So Aga cooking tends to be all about the oven.

The owners of Agas love how well the ovens cook saying the food doesn’t dry out like it does in gas or electric ovens. However if you forget you have something in it you might pop the door open two days later to find burnt offerings because there is no way to smell when something is burning. But Aga lovers say that this is really an advantage because any old food is automatically burnt away so it is dead easy to clean them just by brushing it out.

All this leads me to believe that to own an Aga is a lifestyle choice, like vegetarianism or Scientology – you are choosing to leave the mainstream and while others will call you bananas, there is a small band of dedicated followers who are believers just like you. And they had to buy new Aga-proof pots as well.

Indeed there are Aga websites out there with Aga recipies and woeful stories about what a pain it is to service them every four months which requires turning the precious Aga off and not having heating or cooking facilities for a minimum of 48 hours (24 hours to cool down, 24 hours to heat up again.) These Aga lovers fear a warm summer, because it makes their kitchens unbearable. (So far as I’ve been in England I think they have not much to fear on this point).

But Agas are sufficiently popular to have entered into folklore. The Aga Saga is a genre of ‘chick lit’ fiction where middle class women leading comfortable middle class lives in medium to large country-styled houses have some sort of temporary problem which leads to much mahem, a little raunchy sex and a happy ending where the heroine is finally appreciated for her true worth and her Sunday roasts.

All this has not convinced me one iota – so the first problem on my list was easily solved – my kitchen is going to be contemporary and electric. When it comes to cooking I am not a romantic – I believe in reading the instructions on the back of the packet for weekday meals and calling catering for a party. If I get creative on the weekend and actually look at a cookbook it will be one of those 15-minute wonder types of recipes which assume you have never considered anything other than electric, thanks very much.

The focal point to it all

The kitchen is just the start of it. The contemporary versus traditional debate has reared its head in other rooms as well. My boyfriend has become a dedicated fire-place spotter. This is his latest in a long line of instant obsessions thanks to our recent forays into the world of home décor. The lifestyle section of the Sunday newspaper magazine he used to whip over smartly, but now he lingers and admires a mantle here, a fireback there… It is a change from interest rates and sporting highlights for him and perhaps he’s secretly wondering if he has turned into a metrosexual. I assure him he is not because I can’t face all this decorating on my own; I have to keep his interest in it above the bottom line.

In the decorating books I have recently borrowed from the library there is a concept I have had to embrace whole heartedly and that is ‘the focal point’. A focal point is the most important feature in the room – the one that immediately attracts the eye when you walk in. Traditionally it is the fireplace, but in reality it is more often the TV. This has set up a bit of a battle in the décor world. Which one should reign supreme?

The purists would get rid of the TV or somehow disguise it. The tech heads say embrace modernity and build a temple to entertainment because that is what you want to do (you know you do!) The writers of design books say hey – do both, put the TV above the fireplace! Bingo! The paranoids say, but what about the fire danger? Will the TV overheat? It is a real battle ground.
The weirdest part of it is that no one here needs a fire these days because everyone has central heating. So we are left with these redundant fireplaces which we have to build our lounge room lives around because it is the ‘focal point’. This is a romantic view but it has an economic imperative – fireplaces add value. After all this work, some day one day, if you live long enough, you will have to sell and move on.

So, the fireplace dilemma (even before we think about the competing TV dilemma) is to decide what to do with your redundant fireplace – are you lucky enough to have the original fireplace and think that it is beautiful and in perfect nick? Or do you have a 1950s fireplace that looks in the words of a friend who saw it ‘funereal’? It really does look scary – tombstone grey with a design of inlaid vine, it is only missing the words ‘here lies a monument to past décor’.

The front room by contrast has a beautiful Edwardian understated fireplace that looks just fine (similar to the picture above). But upstairs the original fireplaces in there are very ordinary looking. We are keen to keep any original features, but these ones upstairs are nothing special to look at, but like the funereal one in the lounge, the dilemma becomes what do you put in their place?

The choice is threefold – you can eliminate it all together and make something else the ‘focal point’; you can transplant an original or reproduction period fireplace; or you can go contemporary and make a statement. (And I apologise if this is not riveting stuff, it is nevertheless what keeps me awake at night.)

The elimination option is very tempting: if it’s gone, it’s gone, no need to wonder whether to put in real or fake flames with realistic crackling sounds, or to put in glass chips or dried flowers or candles – it’s just gone. Whilst if you go for replacing it with a new fireplace (whether period or not) you are in for major expenditure because this focal point business is very expensive icing on cakes.

Fireplace stores wax lyrical about the importance of the Fireplace Focal Point (or FFP). They use phrases like ‘a passion for warmth’; ‘the perfect atmosphere’; ‘added value and desirability’; and how they ‘hearken back to a time when a crackling fire was the heart of the home’ – back to when they had no alternative fuel options. One fireplace store says people just love staring at flames – so don’t fight it.

But people love staring at TVs too. So, what to do? The tyranny of the ‘focal point’ is weighing on my mind! I can’t think putting a TV in a cabinet is a good idea in order to ‘downplay it’ so it doesn’t compete with the fireplace. I also think the TV under a two-way mirror over the fireplace is not a practical solution. For one thing it would be too high. For another, a two-way mirror? Where do you get one of them? Ask Austen Powers?

But I have to say I am a bit worried about the TV situation. My boyfriend has put TV sockets in every room and he was tempted to put them in the bathrooms too. This is one of those ‘boys toys’ urges that it does no good to resist. But I am worried about the 42” TV in the kitchen and the lounge room and the front room let alone the bedrooms because (whisper it quietly) I am a TV addict and I will never get anything done when the daemon box is so all-seeing in every room.

After saying all that, if I am honest with myself, I know I will in all certainty be spending time in the kitchen watching TV while I cook or at the table, and when I am in the lounge room I will be gazing at the TV more often than the fireplace. Impressions for visitors are one thing, and sure, I do want them to say, ‘wow, nice fireplace’, but in the end it will be our home and we have to enjoy inhabiting that space.

So, there will be a TV in the kitchen and it will no doubt be at least 42” and in the lounge there won’t be anything to obstruct the view of the TV from the sofa. I know we will have to deal with the fireplace focal point some how. The tyranny of the focal point cannot be denied.