Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The House Of The Past

Just what is it that makes yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing? Over 30 million people visit stately homes annually in the UK. The National Trust has grown to 3.5 million members in recent years, making it by far the biggest conservation group in Europe. Countless period dramas further sate our seemingly endless appetite for gazing at the sumptuous interiors of historic homes. Clive Aslet’s book The English House is very much a part of this nostalgia industry.

The English House is a pretty loaded title for a start. It suggests something innately distinctive and valuable in both England and its houses. Immediately it puts us in the realm of a highly mythologised Englishness where country estates and the families that own them are seen as an organic part of our heritage.

Aslet is the former editor of Country Life a magazine so this should be no surprise. Country Life occupies a very particular place in British culture as the in-house journal for the land-owning classes. It’s the place to look if you are planning to purchase a few acres outside Cheltenham, or want to announce the forthcoming marriage of your daughter, accompanied by a picture of her fondling a horse. Only the former editor of Country Life for example could describe Milton Keynes as “occupying 22,000 acres of formerly good hunting country". As a sentence it’s hard to top for sheer beside-the-point snobbism.

From this lofty vantage point the author uses a gently novelistic style to tell the stories of a number of individual houses in the manner of an invigorating country ramble. He begins in the 12th Century with a Norman Manor and strides on, flat cap on and walking stick in hand, past a Tudor mansion, a castle by Vanbrugh, a Georgian townhouse, a worker's terrace in an industrial mill town, Edwin Lutyen's Marshcourt, an early 20th century semi and a post war pre-fab.

It sounds on the face of it a plausibly eclectic selection. But there are just two entries from the 20th Century: the suburban semi is from 1905 and the pre-fab is a curiosity within the wider scheme of things. There is a gaping hole in this book and it is modernism. Its high points are mentioned only in passing, almost as an aberrant phase when England became temporarily influenced by obscure continental notions. Aslet dismisses a vast swathe of the history of houses, as they don't fit into his quaint geneology of "Englishness". It's a shame because I would like to see one of the book's delightful pencil sketches depicting a nice bit of Brutalism.

"Little about the English House was colourful in the 1950's, ‘60's and ‘70's" Aslet declares, sweepingly. It is Thatcherism that, according to him, brings the colour back to England's cheeks. The percentage of home ownership in the UK went from 54% to 65% during the 1980's as a direct result of Margaret Thatcher's Right to Buy policy. Aslet suggests that this policy together with our obsession with home ownership is the logical end point of the English love of houses.

The English House is more an example of this obsession than an analysis of it. The final chapter is entitled Whatever Next?, a phrase epitomising a very English penchant for mocking innovation. Nothing in this book is allowed to be in the least bit disagreeable. Instead, the author remains in thrall to a self-perpetuating myth of loveable English eccentrics and their charming houses. This amiable conservatism hides an ideologically driven fear of change though. In that sense, the books startling lack of interest in the architecture of the last century is entirely consistent. It is a lament for a lost England.


Marc said...

You get the same cop-out in 'A Lust for Windowsills' by Harry Mount (pic here:, where 'architecture' ends with Art Deco. I know there are precedents for that sort of Tory 'popularising' book on architecture - Osbert Lancaster, Betjeman - but whereas they at least had an opinion on Modernism (and an ambivalent rather than wholly hostile one, it seems) this new lot are almost pretending it never happened.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, the aversion to any form of modernism is almost pathological. I would have thought that, at the very least, the author might have included a piece of early moderne such as High and Over or Maxwell Fry's Frognal Lane, houses which have gained the sort of period used-as-a-location-in-an-episode-of-Poirot charm that people like Aslet are obsessed by.

I havn't read Harry Mount's book but I shall definitely have a look. None of this would matter of course were it not for the extraordinary influence that conservation and heritage have in this country such that the default setting for viewing any new development or building is that it will be worse than what was there before. Although this might indeed be true in many instances it is a debilitating luddite conservatism that even a decadent post modernist like myself is bored by. Plus, the not unconnected Countryside Allicance really gets on my tits!