Monday, 28 June 2010

Old house


This is an old house. The oldest parts of the roof are dated to about 1580. The party wall to next door - equally old, as are most of the houses in the street - are wattle and daub. At the front there is the usual apparent chaos of flint and brick, a large area of wall seemingly rebuilt where, we suppose, something once crashed into it. Flint is local material, both knapped (that's to say with a straight polished face) or, as in our house, just as it is. At the front it has been rendered over. The walls are roughly seventeenth century, but there is a nineteenth century addition at the back that forms the kitchen upstairs. That kitchen is a leftover of the days when the house was a series of restaurants with the business kitchen downstairs in what is now the main book room and the private, owner's kitchen upstairs. Where I sit is another extension from the mid-1980s, with a spare bedroom above and the bathroom next to it.

In the early part of the century the house was a butcher's shop and old photographs show the butcher and his assistant standing at the door with a row of carcasses next to them. At that time, the house that is now behind was the slaughterhouse, with a barn opposite it.

After the first restaurant moved on, the place was divided into two so the slaughterhouse and the barn became a separate property. Our neighbour now inhabits the much altered slaughterhouse and the barn is a store of various things.

The first two restaurants were successful, the third wasn't. The proprietor contracted MS, his wife left him, and the business folded. After that it was bought by Kate who had a deep throaty voice, sang now and then, and ran the house as a gift shop, 'Present Time', which was not a great success at the point we bought it.

The walls being thick the house retains more or less the same temperature throughout the year, and even on a hot day like this I wear a cardigan at my desk. You come in off the street into the cool.


I love old houses, especially those that feel benign, as this does. Because, over the centuries, good and bad things will have happened in it, people have been happy and unhappy, but the walls seem to bear no trace of resentment or froideur, they radiate instead this gentle humane coolness. The house has a wooden frame so it moulds itself to conditions. The roof dips, then rises in a curve. Like any house it is soon filled up - in our case with books and pictures, some musical instruments and accumulated sacred, semi-sacred, and negligible objects.


I have never cared for the fully designed, for the untroubled sheer spaces of the modernist dream. The most perfect place for me is the Pazzi Chapel. I like serenity in its limited place. Brunelleschi's version of it appeals to me more than Corbu's. Le Corbusier's modulor is a rational set of proportions that I can feel elsewhere but don't desire. Brunelleschi's spaces are a kind of background singing. Le Corbusier's a mixture of the voluptuous and the sternly grandiose. If I were very rich I might like to stay occasionally in the Villa Savoye, but something about it tastes ever so distantly of murder. I know that's unfair, for why should it? It's not even a sixth sense, more a seventh one. A horror, if you like, of the absolutely pristine that has no room for the careless and chaotic.


But then I have never desired wealth either. What I like best is the sense of being within life, in some vital cell of it. It is night now but the sky is not entirely dark. It retains a faint luminosity, a glassy indigo. The desk is a mess again. I must clear it. The book room is non-functional because of plastering work, the plaster still drying. A little less clutter would also be good. I drop another word into place.


Gwil W said...

It's a house of many options, and it comes with a chequered history. I like the colour of it. It's almost Schönbrunn Palace yellow. The windows must be dark green for the full royal effect. If you ever get the urge you could reopen as a Pusta style tavern: gulasch, bread and heuriger wine. Prosit, George.

George S said...

The colour isn't exactly what we wanted. It was the Puszta tavern we were aiming at, that precise tint of reddish ochre, but the Schönbrunn would do. It came out a little too yellow. Hard to envisage a whole wall from a sample of a few inches. Prosit.

Gwil W said...

Under the scorching East Anglia sun I see the tressel tables gaily decked with starched white cloths, bowls of fresh white eggs and steaming cauldrons of parsley potatoes alongside crystal vases of sunflowers, overflowing flagons of sparkling Puszta beer and woven baskets of warm and freshly baked Hungarian bread. But, I see you've other work to do. And it seems a lot. So go to it George. I'm currently reading 'Il Diablo' or 'The Possessed' (Dostoyevsky). It's the 1936 translation. There are better translations around. But it'll have to do for now.

Football's not coming home. Not here anyway. I've watched very little. I've got a life to live.

George S said...

Also known as The Devils - one of the great books of my impressionable youthful reading,

Gwil W said...

And maybe was better translated as "The Devils" but from what I gather even "The Devils" isn't exactly a 100% correct translation although they say it's much nearer than "The Possessed". Not that you can ever get that. It seems from attending Peter Stein's 12 hour marathon production and reading the programme notes that "The Possessors" would have to be the absolute correct translation.

James said...

I know it's to miss the point, but this - "the house was a butcher's shop and old photographs show the butcher and his assistant standing at the door with a row of carcasses next to them" - followed by this - "I might like to stay occasionally in the Villa Savoye, but something about it tastes ever so distantly of murder" just pages vegetarianism somehow..

Almost a shame that the ex-shop is in Norfolk, and not in Preston: it takes no imagination at all to picture the infant Tom Finney, in cardigan and oversized clogs, buying sausages through that window (cues Dvorak)

George S said...

Well spotted anomaly, James. Being Central European with a Transylvanian side I am partly desensitised to vegetarian issues (though I taught in a vegetarian school for some ten years). Nor am I that concerned with blood in a butcher's shop. I realise this is a little barbaric and know that an industrialised slaughterhouse is horrifying - but the family butcher's is an element of human history. It is simply there, as a fact, part of the fabric.

It is the absolute, somehow dehistoricised, pristine (and slightly prissy) air of the Villa Savoye that makes bloodshed grotesque. So messy, so grand-guignol, so counter-intuitive in a place like that!

James said...

We've a first edition Wodehouse somewhere in the flat - a 1920s one, bumped w/o dw, and when it first arrived I held it in my hands and imagined it just sitting quietly, this silly innocent little thing, on a shelf somewhere as Guernica and Nanking and Warsaw and Treblinka rolled on uninterrupted outside.

I grew up amongst vegetarians, so obviously eat absolutely everything so long as it isn't organic: I just liked the jump from the butcher's to Corbu's walk-in freezer. I once cooked for KFC, and remember the sign in THEIR walk-in: "Keep chicken cold! Keep chicken clean! Move chicken fast!".. well, rules for life if you ever want them! and until recently they served Capello well.

Gwil W said...

I have to say that I'm in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed in the first two sentences of your last paragraph in this post.
I'm going into the back garden to brave the evening mosquitoes and do some 'work' with my primitive tools. But before I do so, can I ask you to take a look at my "poems from beyond the grave" series (2 so far) and see what you think. The reason being I'd like to throw in a poem "form a poet still living" constructed using the same method. Are you game? I mean can I use you? After all, I have your magnum opus on my shelf!
ps . just now on a German TV channel a video of 'Three Lions' by Lightning Strikes. Talk of rubbing it in... Help, I can't stand it anymore! But no, joking aside, I always say in these situations: Bring on Ryan Giggs, bring on Roy Keane, bring on Colin Hendry, bring on Denis Law. It's a message. Until we learn to work together as one, instead of trying to get 4 entry tickets, footywise especially in La Copa de la Vida, we ain't going anywhere bruvver.

Ciao, prosit, salute´!

George S said...

Yes, of course, Gwilym.

It's the The Lightning Seeds, not the The Lightning Strikes (it might have been better if it had.)

I'm getting through the 600 page novel for The Times. It's very good as novels go, but heavens it's long!

Gwil W said...

George, You are really more than generous. Thank you and I've just done you.
About the 3 Lions video on TV, it was a Freudian slip with the wrong name of the group - I must have thought England had a striker.

Silly me.

dana said...

Old houses are wonderful, but I don't think I've ever been in one as old as yours. Old here in the suburbs is prewar. I wish our 1958 roof was holding up as well as your 1589!

Sounds as if your ghosts are happy ones. Maybe its the multi functions of the house over all those years. I don't know about Le Corbusier, I think I could live in it with that roof terrace and three plus kids riding tricycles on those ramps! I've seen much starker and less pleasant moderns.

James, I still have my grandparents' old Wodehouses, and their Night before Christmas (a goregous piece of printing), and I think the same things. Their war years were happier than most because my grandfather was 4F (medically unfit), but they always spoke of the friends they lost; the gentle musician in Bataan, an only child of a widowed mother, and others.

President Obama made his oath of office on President Lincoln's bible, which still seems remarkable.