In the UK, every member of the middle classes is a budding interior-designer or an incipient property developer. Long gone are the days when someone’s Everest conservatory was the talk of the neighbourhood for at least a decade, and, aged 18, you left a home that looked exactly as it had done on the day you were born. No, today’s home improvements have smashed the long-coveted conservatory into insignificance, and increasingly elaborate modifications have become a constant requirement for all self-respecting homeowners.
We have some friends who, on a whim, demolished an interior wall over Christmas. Other friends have repainted their living room four times in seven years, necessitating the acquisition of new cushions, curtains, and once even a new sofa, to fit each new colour scheme. We ourselves once remodelled the back of the upstairs of our house solely in response to a water leak through the kitchen ceiling. I was heavily pregnant at the time, and the interval between the first drip dropping and the builders starting work was just four days. And, if you want to sell your house, well, where do you draw the line? I know a person who put their flat on the market thinking that they might give the kitchen a lick of paint. One thing led to another and, within a fortnight, new cabinets were being installed.
Why? House prices doubtless have something to do with it. If your prospects of earning enough money from your day job to buy you that modest family house in Forest Hill are vanishingly small, you may as well chance your arm at acquiring £50k by throwing Dulux and a few screwdrivers around.
Perhaps it is also a desire to distinguish ourselves from the herd that causes this frenzy of building and design. Any child of the middle classes who has done the obligatory ten years in London post-university will know what it feels like to aspire to a Victorian terraced property only to discover, upon arrival, that your particular home looks just like all the other Victorian properties up and down the country. In such a situation, if you want to stand out from the crowd you are going to have to develop and assert your “personal style” pretty quickly.
Entire industries have risen up in response to the ascendency of amateur interior design. Setting aside the builders (who, Brexiters tell us, are all Polish anyway) there are the likes of John Lewis, which boast home departments stuffed to the gills with salivating new home owners. Estate agencies have become savvy too. In some of the better areas, potential buyers would be hard pressed to believe that anyone actually lived in the properties that appear online, so perfectly plumped are the cushions, so marvellously light and sleek are the kitchens. Has some law been passed to prevent the sale of houses with ugly interiors?
Needless to say, this vogue has not yet hit France to anything like the same degree. This becomes immediately apparent when you visit houses that you are considering renting or buying. Not only has nobody purchased a few tasteful coordinating vases and lit some beautifully aromatic candles to entice you to sign on the dotted line, but it can appear that nobody has actually cleaned the property for several years, let alone thought about whether or not their bedding complemented their saucepans. And, whilst we may mock British estate agents for their poor photography, it is alarmingly common for French agents to attempt to sell a house by means of a picture of an upturned plastic chair on a windswept terrace in the middle of one of the worst storms of winter.
This is partly illustrative of lack of concern for the superficial (who, in all honesty, cares where your dining table is from, so long as you can eat off it?), partly due to a cultural frugality (bordering on stinginess), but also, I think, a pragmatism that is not to be found in other areas of French life.
Whilst the British home is insulated by carpets, curtains, cushions and throws, the French home is invariably tiled. This is self-evidently better when your child decides to enter the world ketchup-smearing championship, your dog wees on the floor, or your guest clumps in with muddy shoes. It also enables you to swill red wine with gay abandon, and qui, in their right mind, ne veut pas un verre de rouge with their steak frites of a quiet evening?
This culture goes much further than soft-furnishings, however. I am struck whenever I visit French homes by the total lack of clutter. Homes containing small children are almost entirely devoid of those horrifying downstairs rooms that are drowning in oceans of plastic. It seems that French children are able to entertain themselves without two walkers, three kitchens and twenty annoying beepy things, quite possibly because they are too busy wading through their mountains of devoirs, or becoming champion swimmers in their spare time.
But the adults, too, have less stuff. To give but a trivial example, when I move house I take with me tens of photo frames containing pictures capturing precious moments in the lives of my family and friends. The faces of my nearest and dearest soon proceed to gurn at me from every flat surface in my new abode: even the shoe rack is not exempt. French sideboards, by contrast, bear implements for eating and bowls of fruit, whilst photos are stashed away in albums. No doubt this simplicity is facilitated by the veritable Aladdin’s cave of the French cellar, but, however it is achieved, it does seem to engender a certain lightness of being. Perhaps it is easier to take a two-hour lunch break if you are unencumbered by all the tasteful paraphernalia that hems us Brits in?
Since moving house, we have been trying to emulate our French friends and live more simply, and with less stuff. The main drawback so far is the fact that we no longer have enough junk to hide the dirt. So far this has led to the acquisition of a robot hoover. It remains to be seen what the ratio of new cleaning items to discarded junk will be over time…