I’ve always had trouble thinking about more than one thing at a time. Hence the fact that it’s been so long since I put up a blog. For longer than I care to admit I’ve been concentrating on trying to write a new novel. Recently I finally finished it and I sent it off to my agent (or at least the agent I had for Turf, who may or may not be my agent again, depending on what they think of the ms!).
The scary thing about finishing a project like that (or should I say scariest - there are plenty of scary things) is I literally have no idea how it’s going to be received. I think it’s good. In fact, I think it’s great. In places and in certain ways I think it’s Goddamn superb. But will anyone else think the same? I’ve shared scenes and chapters with my writing group and I’ve worked with a writing coach to try and keep the project on track, but no one knows for sure. Maybe some writers do. Maybe Daphne Du Maurier handed in the final draft of Rebecca convinced that she’d written a masterpiece. Perhaps Tolstoy finished the last line of Anna Karenina, sat back and said, Yep, nailed it.
I imagine it helps if you’re an established writer of unarguable talent. But the lack of perspective that comes from producing a long piece of fiction must to an extent always be a pitfall. To my mind you have to fall in love with your characters and with their story, otherwise it’s impossible to spend all that time with them. It’s Stockholm Syndrome in reverse. (Lima Syndrome, apparently, named after a terrorist incident at the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1996, during which the hostage-takers developed sympathy for their captives.) And falling in love is dangerous – especially with your own book. You can be blind to its faults, you can overstate its virtues. In short you are not in the best position to judge.
A book’s success is down to other people’s opinions of it. If they like it, they’ll buy it. But opinions are not always reliable, and are sometimes influenced by more than the quality of the book itself. For example, when we were trying to find a publisher for Turf we had very little interest for the first couple of months. Enough time for me to start questioning the whole enterprise. I convinced myself that it was a dud. It was something for me to put down to experience, little more. With this is mind, whenever I looked over it all I saw were its faults. However, eventually one publisher asked for a meeting, and then as if by magic, it was two publishers, then three, and then four. It was as though each publisher had been waiting for another to make the first move, and then once the ball was rolling it really rolled.
Suddenly Turf was a good book after all. Several publishers wanted to buy it. People sung its praises. It came out to great reviews. Yet this was the same book that I’d given up on a little over a year before. The same book that I’d decided wasn’t up to scratch. Nothing (apart from a few minor tweaks in the editing process) had changed.
I went with it, of course. I didn’t tap anyone on the shoulder and ask, Are you sure about this? I was all ready to write something else. I loved that Turf was so well-received, and I became proud of it because of that. But writing a book is a painstaking, forensic process. The fact that it’s subsequent success is so impossible to determine is terrifying. After all that grind it would nice to have a guarantee of some kind.
For now I’ve just got to wait. I feel like I’ve pulled out all the stops with this new book. It’s not perfect, I know that. But I’m hopeful that it’s got enough about it to strike a chord with people and generate some excitement. I’ve certainly tried to make it exciting – and I felt excited reading it back. But then, I wrote the thing. So what do I know?
In my last blog I talked about the need to make compromises when you’re buying a place to live. Even though the housing market has slowed recently, unless you really are rolling in it, making compromises is going to be a given.
So what compromises are you willing to make? Only a couple of years ago I swore I’d never move out of London. I grew up in Hackney, east London, and ended up spending most of my adult life living there or within easy walking distance. The part of Hackney I grew up in was so multicultural it felt like it had an identity all of its own. It gave me a sense that I had the whole world on my doorstep and I loved that.
In a way I’d always felt more Londoner than British. It was a part of me, my identity, my worldview. I was so London-centric in my thinking I found it hard to believe that people didn’t live in the city. I thought the population of the country was made up of people who lived in London and people who wanted to but for some unfortunate reason were not able to do so. This wasn’t rational. I have friends and relatives who live perfectly full, rich and happy lives in other parts of the country and have no desire to live in London; people who baulk at the idea of the crowds and the pollution and the crime. I could appreciate that - even if I found it difficult to fully get my head around. For me, city life always meant real life.
That all started to change when we began looking to buy a family home. The options in London were limited. A good-sized terraced house where we were living in Balham (yes, I’d moved south of the river - a huge deal at the time!) was easily over a million pounds. Around my old manor in Hackney, prices were closer to two million and often over. There are still parts of London which haven’t been so influenced by gentrification and where prices are more affordable, but as places to bring up kids most of these didn’t appeal.
So we began to look further and further afield, until we ended up in Hertfordshire - the town of Ware to be exact (pop. 20,000 approx).
When it came down to it, it was all about quality of life - and what that means changes as your life changes. In my twenties I could live anywhere - big, dirty, noisy house shares weren’t a problem and were often a lot of fun. In my thirties I lived by myself for the first time and swore I’d never go back. Now in my forties, married and with a family, I wanted a good-sized house and garden, peace, quiet and green spaces.
If we could have afforded all that in London we would have stayed, but in order to tick those boxes we needed to look beyond the city. A scary prospect! I’d honestly felt a kind of umbilical attachment to London, like I was a part of it and it was a part of me. I remember once going on holiday to the Cotswolds - I swear the moment I got off the train my nose started to bleed. I took that as a sign - I needed the city air. I needed the carbon monoxide; I needed the speed and the stress. Without it I began to malfunction.
But we took the plunge. Was it the right thing to do? Yes, certainly. As an example, we’ve just had a glorious Easter weekend. We spent most of it enjoying the garden - having picnics and barbecues, our daughter splashing around in the paddling pool. In our last place, with only a narrow strip of concrete out the back, that wasn’t something we could do. In our Balham flat we had neighbours upstairs and on either side, and there were flats upstairs from them. We had issues with all five of them at one time or another, be it over noise, mess or building work. Where we are now, all the neighbours we’ve met have been extremely friendly and welcoming, but even if they weren’t, we’ve got the space for it not to be an issue.
It might sound like a cliché but people genuinely are friendlier out here. They take the time to smile and make conversation. I’ve been surprised by how good the restaurants are and there are a bunch of good pubs. Yes, there isn’t the same kind of culture, the same diversity, but it’s not like that’s impossible to find if you want it. You just have to look a bit harder and travel a bit further.
As big a compromise as the move felt at the time, it’s actually broadened my horizons and given me a richer experience of life. It’s so easy to be insular when you live in the city and to think that this is where it’s at, that this is all that matters. But there’s so much more out there to explore.
If you are being priced out of the city, my advice would be: don’t feel like you’ve got to stay at all costs. Take the plunge and move out. These days with so much work done remotely you might not need to be in the office all week. Do you need to be within easy commuting distance? Like I did, you might feel like your identity is wrapped up in urban life, but I honestly think that’s unlikely to be true. The person you are and the things that are important to you go deeper than that. They aren’t going to change just because you no longer live on the Tube network or beyond Zone 6.
It’s been said to the point of cliché that buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can go through in life - right up there with bereavement and divorce. I’ve just experienced it for the first time and can vouch for how gruelling the process is. But in the end, if you manage to get the home you want, it’s most definitely worth it! I learned a lot over the course of the journey, which will hopefully help if I have to go through it again (I just hope that’s not for a while!).
Be wary of estate agents
This might sound obvious. Estate agents don’t have the best of reputations. Often with good reason. It’s important to keep your wits about you and be clear about what it is you want. They’re just doing their job at the end of the day, and their job is to sell, sell, sell! So the clearer you are about what you want to buy, the less you’ll be given the run around. A lot of the time estate agents need to be seen by their vendors to be getting in the viewings, so chances are they’ll want to show you a whole bunch of places - and a fair number of those may not fit your remit. If you’ve got the inclination, then they may well broaden your horizons and show you properties you might not have considered otherwise, but if you’re busy and you know what you want, then be firm and don’t let them waste your valuable time. Once you’ve had an offer accepted the agent will want you to complete as soon as you can. Don’t be pushed around. Moving house is a huge undertaking, so do it in a way that works for you. My wife and I completed pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things, but the agent still hassled us about how slow the process was going, even though our paperwork was up to date with our solicitor. This brings me to point two:
Leave it to the experts
As much as you can anyway. I’d never seen so much paperwork or been hit with such a huge amount of jargon and legalese. It was exhausting - not only trying to understand it, but trying to care about understanding it too. And you have to care because it’s important. You’ll have a solicitor whose job it is to make sure all the necessary forms are completed correctly (ours was suggested by our estate agent and was great). If you’re unsure of anything run it past them and get their opinion - this is their job after all. Be honest about it being your first time - usually people are glad to help. When we had the survey done on the place we wanted to buy, there were plenty of things I didn’t understand in the final document. The surveyor was more than happy to go through it all with me over the phone and make suggestions about our next course of action. When your head’s swimming in certificates and clauses, contracts and covenants, it’s extremely reassuring to get a human being to explain it all.
Property money is not real money
A friend of mine told me that when my wife and I were considering how big an offer to make on the house we wanted. It really helped take a lot of the stress out of it. No other time in life will you spend so much money in one go. And in no other transaction (unless you’re buying a premier league footballer) do the sums involved seem so arbitrary. Five minutes’ walk closer to a tube station and properties can go up by 25K. Identical places next door to each other might have a 50K difference in their final selling price. One of the houses we viewed sold for nearly 400K less than it had originally been put on the market for! So many different factors come into play - and they’re not always relevant to the property itself. It could be the current political climate; it could be just the luck of the draw. Find a property being sold by a divorcing couple for example and you might pick yourself up a bargain (although this perhaps isn’t the most morally-scrupulous method of house-hunting). The great thing about sites like Rightmove and Zoopla is you can get a grip on the market yourself. Transport links, quality of the local schools, square-footage, outside space, general upkeep - they all add up to a ball-park figure which you can quite quickly develop a nose for. If you like a property but its price seems over the odds, don’t be afraid to come up with your own offer. Neither the vendors nor the agents know exactly what a place is worth. As big as the sums involved are, it’s still pretty much guesswork. As I heard one agent say: a property is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
Be ready to compromise
I’m a Londoner through and through and would have stayed if I could. We just didn’t want to pay too much for the privilege, especially not with a baby and another one on the way. When it came down to it, a good-sized house and garden was more important. It was a tough decision to make - I always felt more suited to the urban life than the suburban one (I can still be in central London in half an hour on the train, it just takes a bit more planning than it used to). House prices the way they are, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to get your dream home in your dream area. Something’s going to have to give. One thing my wife and I found helpful was to play a kind of property top trumps. We had a list of the factors that were most important to us and each time we viewed a house we marked it out of ten on the list and totalled up the scores. It can be less tangible than that. It could be a gut-feeling; how you feel when you walk through the door. At the end of the day, can you call the place home? And are you excited at the prospect? From deciding we wanted to move to being in our new house has taken nine months. There have been many ups and downs - the sale nearly fell through several times - but we made it, and in the end we got the house we wanted. So hang in there. We’ve been in our new place a week and it already feels like home. And that makes all the work and the stress beforehand feel worthwhile.