Sometimes books come into your life at just the right time. I’d had Margaret Forster’s sort of biography My Life in Houses on my ‘to read’ list for some time but had largely forgotten about it. Then I spotted it in the library a few short weeks ago. As the sad news of her death had broken only a little while before, I felt it was a very appropriate time to read some more of Forster’s measured, insightful prose and the topic couldn’t have been more fitting given events in my own life.
We’re moving you see, from the lush rolling hills of the Chilterns up to Worcestershire. As the crow flies (or the M40 corridor stretches, which is so much more prosaic), it’s only about 1 1/2 hours from here to there but the psychological and emotional leap that it represents is making into a very. big. thing. indeed.
Where we live now we have made friends and connections that run pretty deep. It’s hard to have a baby somewhere and not encounter comrades in arms who move swiftly from acquaintances to lifelines. We’ve reached that lovely stage where a jaunt into town is always rewarded by a familiar face and the occasional chat, which is a complete joy to someone who works from home.
Our little house, perched on the edge of the Chilterns AONB, walkable to the stately Thames, adjacent to a thriving market town and at the crossover point of not one but THREE national walking trails has been a very happy location for us indeed. I’m a lifelong member of the ‘location, location, location’ club and would happily sacrifice square footage for something inspiring and green outside my front door any day. My little home has been my idyll and my sanctuary and I’m so sad to be leaving it.
But sometimes there must be different priorities.
Our little girl, for one, who really needs her own bedroom. Our families, who we would like to be closer to and to see more of. Our work/life balance, which was being unduly affected by my husband’s job regularly taking him here and there across the country or keeping him tied to a screen late into the evening. So we made some big decisions. And sometime in the next few months, at the whim of solicitors, estate agents and the ominous “chain”, we will exchange here for there and start a new phase of life. It might look very different from this one but I’m hopeful it will have all the right things at it’s heart.
Forster’s words made a difference to me at a time when I was having quite an emotional wobble. I was getting a little caught up in what I was leaving behind and feeling overwhelmed by the strangeness of the soon-to-be new house – with its undiscovered quirks and unfamiliar sounds – and the idea that it just wasn’t home. But when you look at the place of a house in the context of a lifetime, it gives you quite an interesting perspective.
Here’s Forster writing about the same house, at a distance of 50 years:
“…did we really want this house? Does it speak to us, we asked each other mockingly. No. The answer was a resounding No. On the contrary, it yelled at us to run a mile. Its voice, if it had had one, couldn’t compete with that of Heath Villas … The agreement was signed on 18th February 1963. It felt terrifying. We picked up the keys and went into the house, our house. It still smelled bad, it was still unwelcoming, sulking, not at all pleased to see us. We wandered about all the rooms making lists of what needed to be done. There was no feeling of elation whatsoever.”
“Yet somehow the house itself, its very fabric, is of importance. An intimate knowledge of its layout, of how all the rooms are arranged and used, stimulates a weird pleasure. I know this house. It has been changed by us not only in the real, practical sense of altering its appearance and internal geography, but by our living within it. Instinct guides me everywhere … I share Leonard Woolf’s conviction that … a house lived in for a long time by the same people reflects something of them and gives them something back.”
Forster’s book encouraged me to remember that our new house is, for the moment, just that. It’s a house. When trawling through Zoopla and attending viewings, a house is all we could hope to find. Only by living in it – as we have lived here – by imprinting ourselves on the rooms, by discovering the creaks and the quirks, putting them right or learning to live with them, experiencing happiness, sadness and all the emotions in between, can we hope to turn it into a home.
So I’m adjusting my expectations for our new house, while looking forward to the life we will live in order to transform it.
And I’d thoroughly recommend Forster’s book for anyone who is interested in the process by which bricks and mortar become the beating hearts of the complex lives that we live.