I've spent the past couple of years visiting building sites. I've worn a hard hat, operated a cement mixer, painted ceilings, laid bricks and hammered nails - and talked to property developers in country pubs (and on golf courses, too). I've been trying to get to the bottom of what is awry with housing in this country. We're obsessed with home decoration, DIY and property prices, and yet most of the houses built by the volume housebuilders are repetitive, unimaginative and patronising. British housing is rather like British cooking was around 1975. What's gone wrong? Why are we carpeting the landscape with the architectural equivalents of the prawn cocktail - when in other creative areas, such as fashion or music, Britain leads the world?
Then again, it's important to tread carefully when attacking the design of buildings. Few things are thought more impolite or aggressive than to disagree with someone's judgement in this area. While we commonly accept that there may be better or worse kinds of music or food or legal decisions, visual taste is an area where strong objections are speedily equated with snobbery and condescension. There is no difficulty in proposing that Bob Dylan has the upper hand over Barry Manilow, but in the case of architecture, the sensible arguments are all on the side of relativism.
Nevertheless, it does seem that the function of any building is to reflect its era and location, so there is something peculiar in the many new houses that ape the architectural styles of two centuries ago. They are the architectural equivalent of a person who insists on speaking in Shakespearean English or on going to the office wearing a cape and a wig.
To argue that we should keep up with our era isn't to advocate blindly following fashion or accepting all that the modern world contains. To extend the analogy, we can use a modern vocabulary but still try to capture some of the intelligence and wit of the great Elizabethan writers, or base our clothes on contemporary sartorial custom yet create something alive to the past.
Whenever I used to see pictures of writers talking together at parties, I'd imagine that if only I could be invited to such events, I'd find a bunch of elevated souls deep in discussion about the meaning of life and the purposes of literature. But at a launch party the other day, I thought how different reality is. There's a great scene in Robert Musil's book The Man Without Qualities where the hero is invited to a party attended by all the heavyweights of the Viennese literary world. He expects to find them discoursing on Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe, but instead discovers that they're obsessed with publishing contracts, taxes and accountants. Perhaps it's naive to expect that we should always have our heads in the ivory tower. It's only natural that writers, after a day spent mapping the vagaries of the human soul, should relax with a deep discussion about the self-employment tax system. There's currently no topic more popular among writers than the question of what precisely can be claimed against tax. Some accountants claim that office furniture is deductible, others that even holidays count as "inspiration". Talk of literature inevitably pales next to such rewarding topics.
However multicultural this country is supposed to have become, it remains the case that if your name isn't something solid and simple (like Johnson or Stephens), you'd better abandon any attachment to dignity or accuracy. I've ended up Booton, Botten, Alan, Alun, Allen, Ellen. My car insurance is made out to a Mr Bottom. My dentist calls me Elaine. Receptionists go, "What?" when I say who I am, as though I'd made it up to tease them. Even worse, given Anglo-French and class relations, my name evokes something French (it is
in fact Sephardic Jewish) and aristocratic
(my ancestors were impecunious rabbis). So I took heart a few years ago when an author with a name as weird and as foreign as mine was adopted by the British reading classes as one of their favourite writers: Louis de Bernières. The other day, however, I was chatting to a bookseller in Waterstone's, who told me that a number of customers had picked up books of mine and then commented to him that they were really radical (and rather disappointing) departures from my earlier title Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
Alain de Botton's new book is The Architecture of Happiness (Hamish Hamilton). An accompanying TV series starts on Channel 4 on 6 May, 7pm-9pm