5 August 2010
My first home, the place where I grew up and the spiritual hub of my family for the past few decades, is a house called Earlings.
Earlings is a seventeenth-century Flemish cottage and a grade-three listed building. It lies on the outskirts of the village of Dedham, in the north Essex countryside immortalised by John Constable, the second most famous British painter of all time.
The cottage was once two-up two-down. But in some bygone era, a prosperous farmer built an extension out of misshapen wooden beams pulled from a hulk washed up, during a long-forgotten storm, on the East Anglian coast. The house currently has three bedrooms, a rustic kitchen and bathroom, an open fireplace and no central heating.
It sits on one corner of an acre of land dotted with gnarled, centuries-old apple and pear trees. Beneath a blackberry bush there can be found a well dug before the era of running water. Back from the road there is an orchard, from the end of which one can look down upon the Dedham Vale.
Outbuildings include a ramshackle garage filled with every kind of garden implement, half-mended lawnmowers and various eccentric detritus, including: ship’s pulleys, a cobweb-strewn wetsuit and the helmet from a fantastical suit of armour. Hidden in a corner is a sturdy, dust-covered chest which opens to reveal an Aladdin-style collection of Christmas decorations, from a now-distant festive season. There’s also the one-room shed, decorated with carvings of goblins and comedy-tragedy masks, in which I lived for a year in order to focus and concentrate my mind.
The house was bought by my beloved aunt Lyn in 1967. Mum moved in (initially for caretaking purposes) around 1971, giving it its beating heart, then never left. Dad arrived in 1972, my sister the same year and me two years afterwards.
In London in the nineties/noughties, I made it a life project (back when I was hip enough to pull it off) to help create an über house share/commune in north London. It was a place at which, for year after year, England’s chattering, flowering people came together, during the springtime of their lives, to revel in shared social and cultural experiences, and the unabashed joys of youth. But 45 Hewitt Road, in north London, was only the child of Earlings.
In common with other homes where people have grown up/grown old/grown together, it’s difficult to articulate the breadth and depth of the human activity and incident which have taken place there. Uncounted gatherings. Moments of unity. Family dramas. Minor crises. Days in the garden, collecting apples in the orchards and blackberries from the bushes. Glorious summer parties. Games of kick the can. Grand dinners. Extended lunches. Long walks, in the light and dark: hundreds of them. Rambling late-night chats: thousands.
But Mum is gone. That world is fading away. And we’re taking the home apart.
I go down every weekend I can, to hang out with Dad and to do the grunt work. Ruth (my big sister) and her clan trek south from Yorkshire whenever it’s feasible. We’ve been going through the artefacts of our lives and family outbuilding by outbuilding, room by room and draw by draw. Ruth and I each pick through a pile of bits and pieces (with baby Martha googling away in the corner), occasionally holding out an item of particular memory or note.
There’s swimming badges from when we were kids (green for five metres, blue for ten), books about bridge, a mannequin Mum made with Ruth when she was at sixth form, pencil cases, letters, photos and figurines.
In the room above the kitchen, reachable only by a stepladder and trapdoor, is the flotsam I stuffed into drawers on returning to the UK in the summer of 2007, when I commenced my first desperate stirrings of the cauldron of creativity, long before it bubbled over. Back then it felt like desperate graft. With three years of hindsight, it looks like an Indian summer. Those bits of flotsam are the markers of a late golden age, in one corner of a cluttered room, chock-full of Mum’s now-dead creative genius. The colours of summer pour through an open window. The twilight of a dying era.