(This is the seventh in a series of articles in which we attempt to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.)
An Englishman's home is his castle, it is often said, and the same holds true for the Englishwoman. To the English, the home is our territory, and we sniff the air worriedly for any interlopers. We are perhaps among the most reluctant people in the world when it comes to getting total strangers in to fix anything, which partly explains the DIY craze; many of us would rather do it ourselves, in stubborn defiance of the possibly disastrous outcome, than allow total strangers into our private domain. While this may express a certain fundamental distrust of other humans-exacerbated, perhaps, by the rates charged by some carpenters—it also derives from this territoriality.
Why is the home, and its privacy, so important? There are a number of possible social and cultural reasons. The home provides a sphere in which to fully express ourselves without worrying about what other people think, which we seem less likely to do in our day-to-day working lives than, perhaps, many other nations. We can -and usually do-- fill our homes with whatever we like, in the way of furnishings and books, music and films, with complete disregard for the censure of others. The cult of the home also has something to do with the pressures of living in a crowded society, one which, moreover, requires comparatively high levels of politeness from its members (Lynn Truss's outrage at various instances of bad manners, and the popularity of her jeremiad against them, serves mainly —and paradoxically—to underline the fact that courtesy is still a very important norm in English society). Life in such a society, in which publicly losing one's temper is still taboo, makes the mental prospect of relaxing at home after a trying day at work that much more rosy. The unpredictability of English weather also contributes to the focus on the home, helping to ensure that the sort of evening street life that flourishes on the Continent cannot really become a regular feature of English leisure time activities. As a result, homes, as well as other interior spaces, such as the upstairs of pubs, are of necessity centres for most leisure activity.
The question of why we want to be homeowners, rather than renters, also requires some thought. Why does owning a house, rather than simply living in a decent home, matter so much? Naturally, most Western nations contain people who really want to own their own homes, but as a group, we do seem to share a fundamental dissatisfaction with renting that is not exhibited, by and large, by many other nations. The emphasis that the government places on rates of homeownership, and on policies designed to help people get their foot on the housing ladder, highlights this national preoccupation. (The fact that we even have the concept of a housing ladder -a progression ever upwards towards the ultimate goal, owning a reasonable home—is interesting in and of itself). When given a choice between renting a flat -which, in some societies, has been made decidedly chic—or owning a home, however small, most people, it would seem, plump for the latter.
This probably has to do with the historical equation of property (historically, land) with enfranchisement, and therefore the English concept of freedom. In such a context, the inherent insecurity of renting probably threw into sharp relief the greater control over their own lives that property-owners enjoyed; not only did they not face the threat of eviction, they had a say in government. Despite the various Reform Acts, the connection between householder status and the vote remained unshakeable until 1918. No doubt this factor -a franchise that remained restricted based on property for longer than in most other European nations—did much to make the working-class realise the importance of homeownership. There are, historically, additional class differences in attitudes to the home. For the aristocracy, the home -which was usually splendid—was a central symbol of status and power, and indispensable to maintaining them, though it was often almost as cold and draughty as the castles from which it was descended. The fashion for multiple residences must certainly have made some upper-class families feel decidedly unsettled. Middle-class establishments were likewise a symbol of status, and their owners often tried to imitate upper-class tastes as much as possible. During the Victorian age, the notion of "Home Sweet Home" introduced the fairly novel idea that home life, and family pastimes, could provide a retreat from the pressures of work; this is no doubt the genesis of the sharp work/home split in English culture. These attitudes were also taken on by members of the lower middle-class.
However, the majority of the population could not aspire to domestic grandeur or even, in many cases, domestic contentment. The democratisation of domesticity is a fairly recent phenomenon in England, and the sad truth is that, up until the middle of the last century, many English people lived in homes so vile and overcrowded that nothing much could be done to make them welcoming. In Dominic Sandbrook's popular history Never Had it So Good, he describes the dirt, dust and damp of terraced houses, especially in industrial and mining districts, and whole neighbourhoods with only one shared outhouse between them, a state of affairs which persisted even into the fifties. Such areas were a public health nightmare. During the Victorian and Edwardian ages, the situation for the poor had been even worse than this: there are numerous horror stories about large families inhabiting a single damp dirt cellar.
In this context, it is easy to see why the frequently losing battle to create a clean home became the overriding concern for many working-class housewives, a never-ending cycle of drudgery poignantly described in Robert Roberts' The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. (Some of this arduous housework can still be observed in certain new wave films from the late fifties.) In the midst of industrial grime, maintaining a decent home was not just a battle against vermin and disease, but, conjoined to class-consciousness, it also became a vital —and complex— assertion of individual, family, and class pride, and an expression of aspiration to something better. Awareness of the contrast between their own circumstances and those of the elites helps to explain why working-class people so eagerly bought homes during those periods, such as the thirties, when interest rates were sufficiently low to allow those fortunate enough to still be in work to get a mortgage.
This increase in home-ownership during the thirties had important cultural spin-offs, as many historians have noted; indeed, the inter-war period was formative for English culture. There was a diversification of home-centred leisure activities, and a growth in hobbyism: it was the golden age of the cross-word puzzle and the jigsaw, football pools, the wireless set, Boots lending libraries and the allotment. This was the period during which the BBC established itself as a major force, particularly through its light entertainment programmes. Domestic life was not the exclusive preserve of women, either; during the early twentieth century, men had become increasingly domesticated, particularly with the introduction of early closing hours, and changes in social attitudes which encouraged them to spend significant time with their families instead of workmates.
This elevation of hearth and home to the level of a national religion before the Second World War meant that the destruction of homes caused by the Blitz would make reconstruction and re-housing, on a massive scale, one of the highest postwar priorities. However, these projects often uprooted people from their original communities and family networks, and did much to eradicate the traditional social and family networks, and, with them, the sociability, of working-class communities (see Family and Kinship in East London, by Young and Willmott). The planners had not intended this, however; although many now shudder at the phrase "council estate," it is important to remember that the initial model, with semis arranged around a central green area, was designed by well-meaning architects to be a miniature residential Arcadia. Indeed, until the Thatcher era, council houses were seen by many people as an acceptable form of accommodation. Likewise, the much-reviled New Towns which frequently contained many of these estates, such as Milton Keynes, Crawley and Harlow, were intended to provide environments which combined nature with modern domestic comfort (and, most importantly, allowed people to get people away from the overcrowding and smog in London). This suburbanisation of the rural idyll has frequently been mocked -particularly the ersatz Tudorbethan architecture that often typified it—but the New Towns, at the time, represented real attempts to improve the quality of life of the poorer members of the population.
What does the future hold for the English home? With the present appalling real estate prices, and the recent rises in interest rates, home ownership is beginning to once again seem elusive for many people. In cases where it is not elusive, it is at least very difficult to achieve; the higher number of singletons adds to the pressure on housing stocks, so that there is now a large group of working young people who, although they often draw good salaries, have difficulty establishing a home. Meanwhile, families and couples often find that they can only make payments on their mortgages if both partners are in full-time, well-paid work, which makes the threat of illness or job loss even more worrying than before. What is more, England still has high rates of homelessness -government statistics show that 93,090 English households, most with children, were in temporary accommodation as of 30 September 2006. (Those numbers represent only those people who were given shelter.) Although the problem of providing temporary accommodation is no longer as excruciating as it was during the Major years —not as many people are being housed in B & Bs, for example—these figures represent a serious problem. (They also come, as a recent BBC documentary pointed out, forty years after Cathy Come Home, a made-for-TV film about the plight of a homeless family, shocked the nation and sparked impassioned debates about homelessness in the Lords).
When so many people have difficulty finding any kind of permanent home at all, and many others struggle with mortgage repayments, the home-as-castle ideal is becoming increasingly unattainable. Will it survive at all? In twenty years' time, will we still expect to eventually be able to call our homes our own? -Isabel Taylor