On developing a thick skin

by Barendina Smedley

The thing about taste is that it is necessarily subjective — which is a fancy way of saying that, unfortunately, most people get it completely wrong most of the time. So when it comes to selecting, renovating and dressing a house, it’s important to develop, as soon as possible, skin as thick as that of a particularly tough, hard-living rhinoceros of mature years. Otherwise, the wrongness of other people will soon become a source of anxiety, perhaps even alarm.

If you’re in the market for an old house, friends and relatives may chip in with helpful advice. Part of this, admittedly, is because fantasy house hunting is, to a certain sort of London-dwelling property enthusiast, what actual hunting is to country people. Which is to say, it’s a pleasure to be embraced as an end in itself, where the chase counts for more than the kill. And like most such pleasures, it is infinitely better shared, particularly with someone who, for whatever reason, is tuned precisely to one’s own accustomed wavelength. My friend Dominique and I still occasionally email each other links to pretty old houses in East Anglia — this, despite the fact that we now each own a pretty old house in East Anglia. Very diverting they are, too.

But for every friend with good taste — which is to say, taste resembling one’s own — there are half a dozen other well-intentioned souls who will point you in the direction of dodgy barn-conversions, inconveniently-located sheds ‘modernised’ and extended into architectural behemoths crouched on lots the size of a post-it note, new-builds of truly formidable charmlessness. And what’s more, they will not only expect thanks and praise for their intervention, but will ask anxiously after its progress for some time to come.

As the intentions behind such gestures are so kind, the response is naturally one of gratitude — but at the same time, there is also a little shiver of horror. ‘Does X really think I’d want to live in a place like that?’ The reason that the shiver is only little, by the way, is that not until you’ve actually found the house you truly love, gone through the agonising roller-coaster ride of the purchase and finally clutched those precious keys in your own outstretched hand, will something even worse occur to you. If X really thought those other houses were plausible candidates — if those were the sort of houses X admires — then what on earth will she make of your place?

And then there are the friends — all of them lovely, kind, well-meaning people — who have taken as their role-models Cassandra, Laocon and Jeremiah. ‘It’s far too big for you — have you looked at cottages at all?’ ‘You can’t possibly pay that much — especially as you’re going to have to pay to do it up. Why not consider a new-build?’ ‘Those tiny old windows make it look awfully dark — say, did you ever follow up that link to that lovely converted grain-elevator with the amazing three-story glazed tile-and-steel extension I sent you?’

Once your friends realise you have actually bought your new house and that there is no going back, the congratulations can so easily start to sound like something else. ‘Well, at least property is cheap as chips in that part of the world.’ ‘I guess you could develop that extra land and sell it off, couldn’t you?’ Or best of all, ‘Hey, I know — you could build a three-story glass extension onto the south front, across the lawn! Wouldn’t that be great? Hey, shall I put you in touch with my architect?’

Our house, admittedly, is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a late medieval hall with lots of bits and pieces appended over the intervening centuries, virtually none of which would fit the adjectives ‘spacious’, ‘light’ or ‘airy’. If the quintessential English rectory is a marvel of high ceilings, huge sash windows and streaming sunshine, then our house is a complete inversion of the ideal.

No less an authority than the great Brian Sewell, in fact, has seen fit to denounce our house in print. Sewell, I think, had a point of view on lesser Tudor houses quite similar to, say, that of James Lees-Milne. Lees-Milne associated the low ceilings, sagging blackened beams and leaded windows with the middlebrow taste of his own father’s generation, and hence with a bundle of other unwelcome if sometimes self-contradictory qualities including an obsession with field-sports, a love of annual bedding plants, uncritically sentimental enthusiasm for Lawrence of Arabia, political conservatism, jingoistic patriotism, heterosexuality, Prayer Book Anglicanism and ethical earnestness. Well, if all of that is somehow latent in our house, one can see why Mr Sewell might recoil from it slightly. Or perhaps he just doesn’t like the way it looks. Either way, though, I still think he is wrong.

Renovation, for its part, is nothing if not an exercise in sticking to one’s guns in the face of untiring, unanimous, infinitely self-confident aesthetic and practical condemnation. For instance, I have long since lost track of the number of times my site supervisor has told me that everyone, absolutely everyone, thinks I am completely barmy to keep all the old William Morris paper on the walls of our house, when stripping it and replacing it with nice white paint would make everything look so much lighter. As for my builder, when I first broke the news to him that the turquoise sanitary ware in Freda’s bathroom, installed circa 1950 and not in the best shape now, was destined for a good clean rather than precipitation into the nearest skip, even his remarkable good manners seemed to waver just for a moment.

Even now, years on, being a admirably patient and persistent man, my builder tries to coax me into realising the error of my ways. ‘I could find you a really nice butler’s sink,’ he’ll say to me as we stand in the kitchen after a site meeting, contemplating the chipped, stained incumbent which I personally cherish as a monument to generations of women who have done the washing up in that precise spot before me, but which my builder sees as an unsanitary, embarrassing eyesore. In such tones it was, no doubt, that the Serpent whispered to Eve. But I remain resolute, at least for the moment. Builder, get thee hence!

And indeed, once one gets used to it, there is something strangely empowering in the experience of standing up to other people, of asserting one’s independence from the gravitational pull of collective opinion. Although one doesn’t want to go all psychotic or anything, let alone turn into a character from an Ayn Rand novel, it is rather lovely, sometimes, not to care.

In practice, however, counter-balancing all this go-it-alone arrogance is both the humility that comes from being surrounded by people of real experience and skill — I am thinking here particularly of my builder and his team, plus the various experts who have blessed our project with their technical brilliance — and also, perhaps most fun of all, the high standard of trust and collegiate thinking that sometimes exists on site, so that one looks back at certain decisions and genuinely can’t remember which idea originated with which person, or who had to convince the rest of us that we were all about to make a ridiculous mistake.

Then there are the moments, precious and memorable, when it suddenly transpires that someone out there actually agrees with some particularly unlikely premise. I am thinking here of one of our loveliest neighbours, Pam, who encountered our carefully-preserved William Morris wallpapers and looked suddenly as if she were about to weep — not, as I first thought, out of aesthetic consternation, but rather, because she had visited the house when the developers still owned it, had recognised the quality of the paper but had assumed that it would never be able to survive.

I am thinking, too, of our consistently sympathetic and encouraging wallpaper conservator. When I attempted to excuse that turquoise bathroom suite with a silly offhand remark – ‘I’m keeping it, because if people keep chucking them out, what will happen when someone wants to see an absolutely museum-quality example of a hideous turquoise 1950s bathroom suite?’ — Allyson responded, not with the derision I was expecting, but with literal applause.

Finally, it’s worth remembering my builder here. For all his imperfectly-camouflaged bemusement in the face of his clients’ weirder whims, I still treasure the moment when, as we stood on top of the four-storey-tall scaffolding that covered our newly-rebuilt room, I made some mildly apologetic remark about having given everyone such a hard time in my zeal to prevent the rebuilding, to which he replied — in quite a fatherly way, which is odd, as our ages are nearly the same — ‘Oh, I’d have done exactly the same thing myself’. True or not, it was nothing if not kind.

Still, thick skin has its uses. ‘It’s very dark, isn’t it — are you going to have the lighting redone?’ asked a visitor who apparently didn’t realise we’d just had the entire house rewired. ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter too much that the rooms are so small, as you’ve such a lot of them’ opined another. For everyone who assumes that some of the furniture must have come with the house (it didn’t), there are always a few who assume, as it is so scruffy, it must be only temporary, for use until the good stuff arrives. Best of all was a neighbour, a woman of considerable elegance and wit, who commented on some hand-chairs in our hall, ‘Oh, I wish I had known you like that sort of thing — I threw two of them into the skip the other day’.

To which I could only reply ‘Are they still in the skip? We’d adore them, you know.’ And what’s more, we probably would have, too.