Property values

<strong>The English House</strong>

Clive Aslet <em>Bloomsbury, 320pp, £20</em>

Few topics are as likely to get an Englishman (or woman) as hot under the collar as houses. Whether one is buying, remortgaging, redecorating, weeping over the impossibility of purchasing or cursing the inability to sell, the house is a repository for the best (and worst) of our aspirations. Not for us the European apartment, the lifelong rents and casual lack of interest in property. From the moment a child can draw, the house is there, with its blocky stability, smoking chimney and family faces in the windows. One wonders if French or Italian children have the same impulse - I suspect not. The ideal of the house haunts our history and shapes our present, recession or no recession.

Clive Aslet, editor-at-large of Country Life, is very well placed to trace the history of this longing for "a kind of private Princedom", as Sir Henry Wotton put it in 1624 in The Elements of Architecture, quoted by Aslet at the start of the book. Aslet's method is ingenious: it's not the psychological need for bricks and mortar that needs studying, it's the houses themselves, in all their glorious oddness and variety. To this end, he selects 21 different kinds of English house, from manors to castles, from a millworker's home to a Cumbrian farmhouse, from his own "ordinary London terraced house" to an innovative eco-house in the shape of a butterfly.

Each residence is richly described, and Aslet is extremely adept at weaving architectural detail with social history, aesthetic trends with personal observation. Although each chapter is accompanied by a simple line drawing of the property in question, Aslet's talent for creating vivid images of the historical setting and the lives of the residents is more than sufficient. Despite the brevity of the chapters, no element is left out: sleeping arrangements, mealtimes and plumbing all feature, reminding us that the morality of domesticity has a history all of its own. By the late 19th century, crowded hovels without separate bedrooms, homes in which different generations and the sexes slept together, began to be regarded as morally abhorrent. Cottages began to feature separate rooms, so as to ensure individuals were properly segregated.

The greatest strength of Aslet's domestic portraits is the sympathy he extends to those who built such varied and often extremely complex structures. The "fundamentally brick city" of London was the work of the badly paid and over-worked brickmakers, who began work at 4.30 in the morning and didn't stop until eight at night. Aslet tells us their story, the one we forget as we gaze up at the genteel houses in Belgravia and marvel at Victorian churches.

The English house, as Aslet sees it, is the starting point for a broader social history and for shifts in taste, not only regarding materials (wood, stone, brick, stucco, glass, aluminium, concrete), but also aesthetic fashions. The picturesque, that curiously gentle fetish of the ruin, meant that for a time landscape architects attempted to emulate the artistic depictions of a dreamy kind of nature, such as can be found in the paintings of Claude Lorrain.

Fast-forward to the postwar world of commuter belts, prefabs and tower blocks, and Aslet might be expected to despair at the homogeneity of it all. And despair he does, but not as much as you might imagine, as he recognises that prefabs have their precursor in the wooden frame kits of some medieval houses, and that local authorities must take the blame for failing to pay for the upkeep of high-rises. He muses, however, in his Prince Charles-like critique of postwar planners and architects, that the supposedly much-loathed Trellick Tower and its ilk are now heavily in demand.

Although Aslet provides a stunning overview of the history of the English house, I wonder if the strangeness of such buildings is missing. The rush to the fields in the 1980s, in which "the country look become a national ideal" and Country Life overflowed with adverts for ravishing little houses in the shires, threatens to obscure the darker history of such isolated piles, with their ghosts, mysteries and the eerie quietness that surrounds centuries-old buildings set down in the middle of nowhere. The English may seek comfort and pride in their houses, and, as Aslet notes, "individuality keeps bubbling to the surface", but the buildings themselves often have a murky history of their own, one that threatens at any moment to undermine the "comfortablest part of his owne life", as Henry Wotton had it. One should always remember today, too, that an Englishman's castle is invariably owned by the bank, and the current inevitable rise in repossessions threatens to pull the rug (literally) from under his feet.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran