Some months ago, my estate agent called to say they wanted to show my house to a Mr Philips, a property portfolio owner from London.
I hate speculators of any kind and don’t believe in people owning other people’s homes as a business. My house is really too small to make money from renting it. And I particularly dislike carpetbaggers exploiting the relative economic chasm between the capital and up-and-coming rural areas like this.
But there hadn’t been any interest for a while, so I put aside my principles and agreed to let him come. I said that I would go out and let the agency handle the viewing, in case I said something unpardonable to him.
Just as I was leaving at the appointed time, a smooth-looking bloke in grey slacks and a blazer arrived outside, with a gorilla in tow whom I gathered must have been his estate manager, the guy who extorts the rents. The blazer put on a dazzling smile, and in a condescending tone announced:
“Hello. We’ve come all the way from London to look at your house.”
I think he may have misread my socio-economic indicators.
As a student in London in the late 1960s, I shared a flat with some old school chums above William Hill’s bookmakers’ at Moravian Corner, on Chelsea’s famous King’s Road. Behind us were small streets, some with former stables used as storage premises for the many antique dealers with showrooms on the fashionable main drag.
Every summer, the ex-minor public school, ex-army ruffians and part-time offenders who worked behind the scenes repairing, stripping and faking-up the ‘antiques’ (a light charge of buckshot would give a chair an authentic-looking case of woodworm), would rent trucks and head out into the wilds of the British countryside, particularly Wales, for a fortnight ‘on the knock’.
There, they would set about conning old ladies in dilapidated cottages out of their rustic chairs, clothes chests and Welsh dressers — particularly prized as, the ‘old thing’ they picked up for forty desperately needed quid in Tally-wherever could be stripped, repaired, matched with a new top or drawer-base, have some artificially aged brass handles added and would sell, typically for anything between eight hundred and a couple of thou, to the upwardly mobile urban multitude eager to reconnect with their peasant ancestry; or be shipped-off by the container-load to the US, Germany or Japan.
I could see no difference between the ‘knockers’ and this Philips character. He could sell a two-bed upstairs flat conversion in some nondescript suburb of London and for the same money buy four little garden cottages like mine in the outskirts of a Welsh university town, where students and professionals alike are desperate for temporary accommodation, doubling his rent at a stroke.
Swallowing my tongue, I muttered something like, ‘Well don’t just look, buy it!’, and dragged Hunzi briskly away across the road for our morning walk in the exurban space beyond, a walk he knows in dog-language as ‘Round the Sewage Works’. Later on, I got a message from the agency to say that Mr Philips wanted to send his wife over to look too, and was my studio building insulated?
‘Of course it’s bloody insulated’, I snapped. ‘Does he think I’m so stupid as to keep seven grand’s worth of music equipment, including a four thousand pound guitar, in a fucking garden shed?’
We’re still on the market.
But here’s a curious thing. Way back in 1988, I wrote a comedy play called Subject to Contract, about a firm of small-town estate agents in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s never been performed. I came across it in a box a few days ago, and gave it an approving read-through.
In Act Two, a yuppie couple from London are taken to view an old lady’s country cottage, that they hope to get on the cheap, and Justin, the smooth-talking husband, says to her, condescendingly:
‘Hello, we’ve come all the way from London to look at your house.’
Synchronicity? Don’t knock it!