For the last month, I’ve looked like this.
Earlier this year we bought our first home. Built in 1955, it had been a woman’s family home for the past forty years. She and her husband had raised three children in it, and no doubt had grown themselves in it too. The house had no central heating and ageing decor, but the first time I stepped foot in the door, it felt like a Home. The kitchen was a sunny yellow and looked out over the beautiful, flowering garden. It was the feeling of that kitchen that really won me over.
And as I was scraping wallpaper and woodchip (off every room in the house!) and sanding walls and coordinating workmen with skills far greater than my own, I got to thinking about this home I was (re)building. It was a true labour of love. And it was a labour that came not just from my husband and I, but from our whole family. Their work and savings helped us afford the house and rennovations. They watched our children while we worked. And they worked themselves transforming the garden and helping finish a thousand small jobs (that often turned into bigger jobs).
So since we moved in, I have found myself sinking my feet into my new carpet and admiring my smooth, coloured walls, and thinking of the people in our lives who loved us enough to help us build this home, and give this home to our children.
We stand, not alone, but at a crosspoint in a web. The web–our family, our friends, our community–hold us. And we hold them. And I am so lucky that my web is so great and so strong.
At night, when the house is quiet, I walk through the rooms and I think about the people I love who helped me and my husband buy this home. But I also think about the family that loved this house before me. The family that sank their love into its walls and gave it that feeling I perceived when I first walked in the door.
And on the doors…
Our house is an ex-Council House. Council Houses are a well-established institution in the UK, and although these days they can often be associated with all the negative stereotypes of the poor, in the beginning they were known as Homes for Heroes. After the First World War, when all building had stopped for years on end, working-class soldiers returning home to the UK found they could not afford the high rents of the private market, and so local government Councils were galvanised to build homes that could be rented at a lower cost. Through fits and starts, the tradition of Council Houses continued, with another peak after the Second World War. During the 1970s, a government scheme to help people buy their Council homes known as ‘Right to Buy’, meant that many Council Houses built in the 1930s-1950s (such as the one we just bought) became privately owned and then privately sold.
Caitlin Moran, in her awesome and completely unique voice has been outspoken on the importance of social welfare and Council Houses (where she herself grew up as one of eight children). In her weekly Saturday column for The Times, she writes things like, “I am a product of welfare UK. We were a large family raised on public handouts who were gentle and normal. My father raised eight children on welfare benefits, and didn’t kill any of us. I feel I should say that this week. I feel I need to firmly point to a large family raised on public handouts who were normal, and gentle, and never set fire to their house during a personal vendetta against a former lover.” And, “You never see the working classes turning inwards and having a rich inner life [on TV]. You saw what our council estate was like, and there aren’t mad, feral rat children parading around setting fire to cars, screaming and shouting and dealing drugs off tiny bicycles, and having sex with each other around the back of nightclubs. Although that stuff happens, that’s not how most working class people are.”
Although in many ways, it is a shame this house is now privately owned (by the family before us, and now us) because that means it is no longer able to serve as a home for those without the family support that we have. However, these last few years of trying to live on a single salary so that I could stay at home with our two little boys, all the while watching house prices skyrocketing and people who grew up in middle class households struggling to make ends meet themselves, have made me painfully aware of just how easy it can be to find yourself in a situation where you need Help, where you need to rely on others financially.
So in many ways, I feel grateful and proud to be part of this tradition of social compassion, the welfare state, which (when it is not being eroded by conservative governments) is able to stand in as a support system for people who need it. The family who sold us this house actually turned down a higher cash buyer (who they suspected of buying it as an investment) to pass the house to us, a young family and first-time buyers. It’s no longer a Council House, but this house will continue to be a home, not an investment. It will be a Home to us, with all the emotions that entails, just as it was for the families that lived here before. We will leave our own marks on the walls and sink love into it, and I will remember that it is not only ours through our own means, but was also a gift from those who love and support us.