Packing up 15 years of memories is never easy, especially when it involves driving so much of the past to the local tip and emptying it into a big dumpster. But it’s made harder still by Britain’s archaic system of buying and selling houses. You’d have thought that in an age of instant, electronic gratification, it would no longer be necessary to wait for bits of paper to be retrieved from a filing cabinet at the Land Registry, stuffed into a buff envelope and popped in the post. But it’s an administrative backwater that the 20th century, let alone the 21st, has yet to wash away.
The last time we moved house, it took more than a year to find a buyer. In contrast, the current Behrens Towers was snapped up almost before the sale board had been nailed to the gate. But finding somewhere to downsize to in the current climate has been a much bigger challenge. It’s such a sellers’ market that purchases have been collapsing like playing cards because all the good places further along the chain have already gone.
As a result, Mrs B and I are having to take temporary refuge in a relative’s house far from Yorkshire until our own deal goes through.
Part of the problem in finding somewhere individual is that so many of the available properties look the same. It’s as if someone has photocopied an Ikea catalogue and pasted it on to Rightmove a thousand times over. Only the street names are changed so as not to confuse the post office.
Homes that have been “dressed for sale” can be picked out by the giant clock faces on walls where pictures should hang. And “mission statements” that were once the province of corporate boardrooms have now infested domestic hallways and kitchens – with random words like “love” and “sharing” painted beside doors in trendy typography that is supposed to make them look profound.
It was ever thus. Back in 1962, the folk singer Pete Seeger recorded a ditty called Little Boxes about houses like these. “There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same,” he sang.
But it’s the process of distilling the contents of our home into a smaller house that has been the most difficult part of the process – and our children’s sudden aversion to getting rid of anything hasn’t helped.
I had assumed that the bits of ephemera I’ve amassed over the years would mean nothing to them; the younger generation is after all renowned for papering over the past in their hurry to get to the future. But in our family the reverse seems to be true.
“You can’t get rid of that,” someone will cry, as boxes of junk are retrieved from attics and placed outside to await the next journey to the recycling centre. “Why would you want to keep this?” I asked, passing down the loft ladder a dusty Grundig tape recorder that was last used in 1972. I hadn’t realised that to my son and stepson, it was as fascinating as if Thomas Edison himself had wound the spools.
The process was repeated for almost every other item in the house – which made throwing anything away something of a committee decision. My stepson and his partner swooped like vultures on each newly-retrieved bit of tat, recognising in it something I didn’t. It’s now being recycled in their own home, to make it more individual than the other little boxes on their street.
This must be a new phenomenon. When I first set up home 40-odd years ago, no-one would have been seen dead in a place that looked as if their parents had picked out the furnishings.
Not that we had much choice. There was just one proper furniture shop in most towns and everything inside was coloured teak, including the hessian on the walls. The budget alternative was MFI, where you could pick up a chipboard bookcase that wobbled under the weight of the Swiss cheese plant you’d placed on top, in the hope of looking exotic.
Sadly, yesterday’s aspirational purchases are today’s junk, until seen through a younger pair of eyes. That much has been a revelation to me. All the same, the next time I move I’m going to bring in some professionals to do the packing.
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