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THE ROMANCE OF THE HOUSE


I love the story of the French poet who, having long yearned for a house in the country with a small garden, decided at the age of seventy that he would simply acquire it without cost.

First came the house, complete with attic and wine cellar. Before long there were flower-beds, a kitchen garden and the ‘little wood’. He lingered over their various beauties in his poems, and took enormous pleasure in every aspect of his estate. So thorough was his imagining that a heavy, unseasonable frost would bring on an attack of anxiety for his vines. When his poetry was published, he received an earnest letter from a reader, offering to work there for him as an overseer.

Recently, I have been spending time in a house grand enough to boast an ‘east wing’. Its kitchen garden has miles of weathered walls lined with carefully espaliered fruit trees, and there is a dove cote high up in a corner. Perhaps the house’s greatest charm is a series of hidden corridors, a warren of narrow spaces behind the wainscot where servants once went about their chores unseen. Like the French poet’s country seat, this wide grey house – two floors above basement rooms – is entirely built of words.

Daydreaming houses may be the least troublesome way of owning property. Whole sections of a staircase can fall without me having to reach for the white pages, and when the chimney smokes, or rats nest in the needlepoint chairs, I can shut the door and take my cup of tea elsewhere. Not only that, but when I move out, the house will not haunt me.

The French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, has said that houses are in us as much as we are in them, and I am endlessly absorbed by the relationship we have to our houses, and by the way memory can return us to previous dwellings in a flash.

There has been at least one house that I cried over when we left it. I was unusually happy there and, looking back, perhaps I sensed that in the world beyond its front gate, happiness would never again be quite as uncomplicated or intense. Parting with it, although voluntary, was painful, as was the knowledge that it began to alter from the moment we crossed the threshold. Fortunately, I have never been back to look at it, so in my mind its charm remains intact.

There was another house we lived in and then left, and although it was not the most beautiful abode, it was the setting for momentous events. For a long time it returned to me in dreams, and wandering through its rooms I was disturbed to find them filled with oversized wardrobes and bulky chests of drawers. I did revisit this place later, coerced into it by a friend, and found it just as in my dreams – crammed with unsuitable furniture and unrecognisable as the place that had once belonged to us.

Even rooms in which I have been unhappy still hold a profound fascination. Perhaps it is a slightly voyeuristic urge: I want to understand the person I was at that particular moment, and it is as if the walls and floors and ceilings might offer clues to where I went astray.

For years, any time I happened to be in Sydney, I would revisit the place where I was living when I last saw my father; it was a conscious decision driven by an unconscious, irrational urge. Each time, I found myself standing in the street feeling lost and baffled. The place did not know me, and I no longer knew it. What had happened there had nothing to do with space and everything to do with time, the terrifying brevity of our lives. As soon as I was able to grasp the fact that the bricks and mortar had nothing to tell me, I put an end to the pilgrimages.

The house where I now live is, I think, indifferent to me. It has no notion that I admire its architraves, or that I can sit for an hour and watch the light move across one of its creamy walls. On a quiet day it has an aura of stillness that is quite mesmerising. I often wonder, though not in a morbid way, whether this will be the last house.

Bachelard also says it is desirable for us to keep a few dream houses up our sleeves, places that we will inhabit later, so much later that, in all probability, the move will never come to pass. As a writer, I’m in and out of dream houses all the time, but lately I have begun to set aside a few special ones for the future.

For once these houses are not made of words but of bricks and stone and plaster, albeit in various stages of decay. I found them when I was driving through Ireland, beautiful ruins with the reek of history and the allure of irrecoverable stories in their ivy-clad facades and fallen floors.

One that aches for restoration yet is probably beyond it stands in Rathnure, County Wexford. Built in 1770 by the Carew family, Castleboro House is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lady Carew, who died after rushing into the burning building to retrieve her needlework.

As well as Castleboro, there are many semi-derelict yet beautiful cottages, gatehouses, even castles, all in urgent need of repair. On quiet mornings at home, even when I should be writing, I find myself musing on the possibility of their future rescue. As dream houses, they are perfect, as building projects, impossible, but that seems to be what both Bachelard and the poet had in mind.

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