Old Houses

I’ve always loved big old houses.  Houses with high ceilings, a multitude of rooms with varying purposes, a chandelier dangling from a ceiling rose.  Where the furniture is mahogany or dark oak, a clock ticks loudly and no matter what the noise levels outside, the moment you close the door there is absolute silence due to thick old solidly built walls.  Just like that, whatever is happening in the outside world is gone.  I really get the concept of an Englishman and his Castle.

For this, I lay squarely the blame upon my grandmother, who herself lived alone in a large one at Monkseaton that always seemed to me to be an old 1800s farmhouse with some Arts and Crafts Edwardian remodelling done, then ran her own business in another – a huge, imposing Victorian double-fronted nursing home in the centre of Newcastle.   My sister and I loved visiting that one, what could be more fun than sitting in the pantry with the staff, while one of us popped off into one of the other rooms to press the old servants bell, so the other could watch it ring on a board and know instantly which room we were in?  Very Downton Abbey.  I assume it all went in a skip, since my Dad told us the buyer stripped it all out and converted it into cheap bedsits.  Sad.

Therein lies my predilection for old houses over new.  I am aware that there are two camps when it comes to buying and living in a house – for some, modernity prevails and the newer the better both house and contents.  New does not always equal better quality though, not for me.  From the very beginning of my own house buying adventures, back in Brighton in 1994, I would even say to estate agents “nothing after 1939”, knowing this would exclude the era when bricks turned to breezeblocks, air-dried timber constructions became kiln-dried or worse, chipboard and ceilings shrank from 10 feet to 8 (or less).  I did quite well with that house, buying a 3 bedroom 1926 end of terrace.  Some asked at the time why I was bothering with such a big house on my own even then, but to me the extra rooms and space is a necessity.  Both psychologically and for the items I tend to accumulate.

After that, came an 1895 3-storey Victorian classic in Sittingbourne, Kent.  This one was definitely more in the mould of my dreams, even if it was done out in the style influences of 1980s TV.  Dallas ranch-style staircase instead of Victorian and weird arches linking rooms that should really have remained separate.  That separateness was restored, as were period fireplaces and mahogany floorboards.  I remember the first time I viewed this place and already there was a difference of opinion – I really liked it, my partner was not convinced at all.  It took a second viewing a month later, after seeing the other lesser offerings around to agree this was the best choice.  Sadly, I was never truly happy there – I lost my job in the city, so the planned commute never occurred and in the back of my mind the promise to leave the UK was ever large.  Still, living in a Victorian house with the Victorian park next door had a certain positive lifestyle element to it.  Two of my happiest memories of my oldest children (who despite being Danish passport holders were born in the UK) are here.  My eldest daughter with her independent “Do it self” attitude to the park climbing frame and my son, skidding around the corners on his scooter.  I still have that scooter in the loft, it’s one of the things I shall retain until the inevitable final house clearout.

Then onto Montana.  Actually, there isn’t much I can say here that hasn’t been said on the website about the house itself.  So why not just read it there?

If a house shows a soul or spirit, then Montana shows me.  For a start, every single one of those rooms was decorated by me.  It took a long time, but I think my Dad would be proud, even if I do not have the diverse range of DIY skills he had.  There’s also the things I had lost, but then rediscovered – family heirlooms of low financial value but of incalculable value, shunted into dark corners of the house, not to be seen again.  My sisters told me that when they visited, it was noticeable how my things inside the house were gradually less with each visit, but now it’s all me.  The phrase in with the old and out with the new has returned.  I eat my dinner from old English tableware, the same as I did back in Brighton in 1995 (I wish I’d kept my grandmothers old ones though).  I drink tea from old English teacups, brewed in an old English teapot.  The coffee machine is almost purely ornamental.  Oh and those awful continental square pillows have gone.  I sleep much better for it.

Interestingly, I have moved 3 times in my life and each time, bought a house twice the size of the previous one for less than I sold the previous one for.  I doubt I’ll achieve the same again and besides, the statistic is misleading (not everything that can be counted counts, remember?).  Montana has been the most expensive house.  Now everything is done and all the accounting takes place. It really has.

Square Peg in a Round Hole

If you have read my previous posts, you will have realised by now that I am a great believer in personal freedom and it started even before my school days – I just didn’t realise then.  I am grateful to my mother for supporting me in this – not only did I get to enjoy a free life outside the system until the inevitability of school came, I even avoided school dinners until I was 10.  Ah such a happy time it was hearing that bell ring and knowing I was one of 2 children in my class of 30 who could escape for an hour and have dinner (maybe you’d call it “lunch”, we never did) with my Mam and Dad at home before he left for work on the evening shift.

This belief in personal freedom extends into family life.  After all, who knows better what a child really needs more than their own parents?  Their allergies, their likes and dislikes, the secret ways of coaxing them into trying new foods or learning new activities – a parent who has been with them since they were born, or a health visitor, social worker or teacher, armed with a clipboard, a pen and a piece of paper with boxes needed to be ticked, criteria to be rated on a scale of 1-5, as if your child was nothing more than a lab rat?

On this basis, I was very pleased to have met someone who also believed that children thrived best with a parent present, rather than within the machinations of the state childcare offerings.  Personal choice should always win – if you want to work and utilise childcare, fine, up to you.  If you don’t, then also fine.

Governments however, have slanted the playing field, so to speak.  Nowadays, wages are eroded in real terms and living costs inflated, so that often both parents must work.  On top of that, childcare costs are taxpayer-subsided, meaning that it can be very cheap to decide to work.  To me, it may seem cheap, but then Not everything that counts, can be counted. Actually, Denmark has gone even further and decided that if you are a child carer, your own child cannot be one of the children you care for.  It’s interesting as to why they would introduce a law like that, but outside the remit of this post.

We managed quite well in the UK on one salary with this method.  I had a nice 3-bedroom house in Brighton and even successfully managed to pay off the mortgage by age 29 – not bad for a coal mining son who’d moved down south just 5 years before with nothing!  However, coming to Denmark was a real test.  I had understood from the beginning that I would have to be self-sufficient, but had also been promised that it was a fair and egalitarian country that would look after it’s own.

This also was a trap.  Perhaps unintentional naivety, but still a trap.  Not only were the same systems that had been jointly resisted in the UK suddenly good places for our children to attend, but any conversations I tried to raise about us both finding a job to pay for it and the other huge expenses were met with replies like “I can’t get a job because I don’t have qualifications” and “I can’t claim unemployment benefit because I own a house / have savings”.  The last one really upset me, as with better planning it could have been avoided – the house in Brighton and savings had originally been mine anyway, so the new house and savings could easily have been put in my name.  In effect I was now subsidising the state welfare system, while simultaneously having no income of my own.  Life was very uncertain.

Finally in May 2005, my IT skills found a match.  The  agent who found it for me though deserves his own page and hey guess what – he got it!  It soon became clear though that even a half-decent wage in Denmark is not enough for the family unit I had thought we both wanted.  Taxes were huge and on top of that, I could see a regular chunk was disappearing on childcare I could not see we even needed.  We still ran at a loss every single month, just on the standard household expenses.

In 2008, I was forced to leave and take a job in the UK, Bristol, just to replenish the lost savings.  It was while i was staying in a B&B at the beginning of this episode that a most strange meeting occurred, one that I did not think of much at the time, but now, 11 years later, feels very relevant.  The owners were emigrating to New Zealand and their parents came to look after the place for a while.  Both were in their 60s and retired.  Being from Yorkshire, we once had a long conversation where I told them about my situation.  I don’t remember the exact words, but the father related how they had lived in the Netherlands for 20 years and the children had been born and grew up there.  “Ah,” he said “you don’t realise it at the time, but they grow up to be foreigners – quite distant from us, seeing us as outsiders somehow”.  At the time I picked up the sadness of it in his voice and eyes, but I realise now he was saying something quite major – a warning even.  And it’s true, I have become a foreigner to my children.  They have been brought up in another system, speaking another language and have another passport.  Within that, those systems seem to instill a certain superiority of that group over others.  I have felt it myself many times.  They do not see me, my parents, my sisters, their own cousins as being quite on a par as members of the human race.

The worst part of it all is that for many years, it was not the welfare state or their fellow countrymen who supported them, gave them their lifestyle or helped them along.  It was me.  It still is.

If I Had a Hammer

Imagine this : You have to leave your home and you cannot take everything with you.  What would be the first things you’d think of and reach for?

I have some tools that travelled with me ever since my first house in Brighton, in 1995.  Some I bought myself, but the ones I enjoy using most are the ones my Dad gave me.   “Here,” he said, rummaging amongst his extensive tool collection in the well-stocked garage, ” are some tools to help you get started”, as I planned the journey from Consett back to Brighton in my Lada Samara, straight after buying my first house.  Amongst those were 2 hammers : One is a claw hammer with rubber handle, that I distinctly remember my Dad using a lot in the 70s while he single-handedly rebuilt our house.  That gets used constantly.  There’s even something reassuring about remembering him using it in the kitchen when I was really small and he accidentally whacked his thumb.  It has history etched into every mark on it.  The other is a metal mallet, which I’ve used a lot less – it’s great for whacking out big chunks of plaster and cement though.

It used to be 3.  The third one was a small panel pin hammer, with a dark wood handle that was obviously of considerable age.  Knowing my Dad it might even have coal mining history behind it.  I loved using this one, but it was sadly taken from me in December 2016.

Yes, I realise I sound terribly sentimental, but I think those hammers would be on the list.  If you saw my house, you’d know I am into old things, but what you cannot see is that many of those old things have a family history.  A quick walk in my mind through the house reminds me of the dark oak 1930s mantle clock sitting in my study, that used to tick loudly on the sideboard at my grandparents house.  The dark wood bookcase from my grandmothers, that has followed me from childhood or the silver tablespoons in the kitchen that my Nanna used to bake with.  She was a great baker, the egg and ham pies will always remain fresh in my mind.

Actually, you can see my house – it just went up for sale.  I can’t even read that About Me to the end without feeling a few tears.

For some though, sentimentality is obviously not part of the mentality.  When I split with my ex-partner, lists were made.  It’s to be expected.  When her crack removals team had been, I noticed I was left with everything old and everything new was gone.  Including the very huge, new and expensive sofa.  Not that I minded, that was the agreement and I even said just leave the stuff you don’t want and I will dispose of it for you.

What surprised me was (a) that my panel pin hammer was gone.  That wasn’t agreed.  I asked for it back but was rebuffed and (b) How much other stuff was left.

The clear out I had to undertake took ages, years even to be complete.  Psychologically my mind was not able to cope with finding what the children had left.  Christmas presents selected by me, unopened and hidden in the basement and loft – science kits, English books, board games…all just left to sadly rot.   Then finding what else had been left – Expensive boots from places like Clarks, clothes, dresses from Desigual – all seemingly underappreciated.  I was reminded once more of the slow drip..drip.drip..of my life savings and energy being expended, trying to fit like a square peg into the round hole of life here.

More surprising was how my attempt to return some of these items went.  I was so sure they were accidentally missed – who can afford to dump brand new Clarks boots, for example?  Or at least try to sell them to earn money back for their children?   I drove them up to the new address and nothing good came of it.  Even a book on Australia she had been given by a close friend of hers was not welcome.  It was strange how it had been dumped in the basement, resulting in some water damage.  I was mistakenly sure it was still wanted though.  How wrong I was.

Well, since that time I have acceded to the clear statement that “I don’t want any more rubbish” and I’ve realised I cannot be sentimental on behalf of the unsentimental, those who wish to live life in minimalist homes where everything is Scandi-white and everything – including family photo albums – is a commodity to be dumped in the basement or thrown away, no matter how much stored value it represents.

So, continuing the theme of asking the universe for things I don’t have, that I wish I had, or things that I did have but lost, I say hello universe, can I have my hammer back?  Sure, I bought a new one and yes, it only cost about £5, and yes, it probably performs it’s key function just as well.  It’s not my Dad’s hammer though, is it?





I always hated school and little in the progression into adulthood has convinced me of the value of children being herded into large classes, set to specific timetables from the age of 4 and then told to shut up, sit down and listen.  I’ll never forget my first school day at the age of 4.  I had forever been sure I never wanted to go to nursery, home was more than enough for me.  That first day my mother had to pretend we were just going up to drop my older sister off.  When the awful truth dawned, I screamed and screamed and ran away, but what can a four-year old do?  He must be dragged back in and brought to heel.  Apparently I calmed down and sat in the class quietly but my first question upon escape (hometime?), was – Do I have to go again tomorrow?  Yes you do son, for another fourteen years.  Best not mention college and university yet either, poor lad.

For sure, along the way there were good teachers and good kids as well as the bad, but even now I am convinced I learnt more from my time with Meccano, Riviton and Airfix than I ever did from school.  Actually, I must backtrack slightly.  I learnt that some proverbs are true – A bad apple really can spoil the whole barrel, that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and that empty vessels make the most noise.  I suppose the squeaky wheel gets the oil is also true and believe me, there were a lot of squeaky wheels at my school.  Thankfully nothing squeaks in those corridors any more, not even rats, as the awful place got demolished a few years ago.

Why am I bringing this up?  Well, because that’s the second part of the trap.  Knowing that I was so opposed to my own children starting school aged 4, I was easily swayed by the promise of them not starting until age 6.  The deadline was approaching for my eldest daughter in 2004, that soon she’d be starting in the UK and I really didn’t want that for her, the same pain I’d experienced.  I knew she was of a similar mentality.  One of my favourite phrases of hers was “Do it self”, whenever I tried to help her on the Park climbing frames and such self-reliance reminded me of myself.  In this way, Denmark was very appealing.

I shouldn’t have believed it.  Within 2 months of arriving in Denmark, still without any income for either parent, hemorrhaging money on expensive house improvements and having an empty unsold house in the UK, my daughter was signed up for Danish børnehave, despite my protests to the contrary.  I was told I was anti-social and that children needed someone to play with.  Not only was I suspicious of the system, but the cost even then was about £150 a month.  Despite being promised it was all about play and flexible, it was identical to English nursery or infant school – the same timetables, brainwashing and exposure to unpleasant children I remember too well myself.  She didn’t need it and I was the lone voice saying we couldn’t afford it and that I didn’t agree with it.  Too late.

I tidied up my paper folders the other day, some 14 years later, and found some of those bank statements.  They make horrific reading, even now they made me feel incredibly sad, knowing the story behind every minus transaction on my account.  Everything I had worked and saved for, disappearing drip..drip..drip, as if my wrists had been lacerated and I was lying on a bed, bleeding out slowly every month.  It seems like an appropriate metaphor that by 2010, all the blood really had drained out of me and I needed a blood transfusion, but that’s another story for another day.

If I Had a Photograph of You

I found a photograph the other day, while clearing out the basement.  It’d somehow got left and stuck between a load of other less important old photos.  With careful soaking and drying, then framing, I’ve ended up with this.

A father and son, pictured outside the son’s house – Park Road, Sittingbourne in Kent.  Complete with my Citroen Xantia in the background.  If pictures tell someone a thousand words, then this one tells me at least double.

Firstly any picture with me in it is a major rarity.  I’ve just never liked getting my photo taken.  Secondly, I see the fear in my eyes and the sadness in my Dad’s.  He’s just found out that his son is moving abroad and that those rare times he sees him are going to become even rarer.  So why am I feeling that fear?

Well, I’ve just heard that a house has come up for sale in Denmark.  A house that’s going to fulfill a promise I made way back in 1998-99.  As a result of this promise, I’m probably moving to a foreign country where I won’t have a job, won’t be able to speak the language and will somehow have to support a partner and two young children.  The stress is already building up.  How does that story progress and how does it end?  Well, I don’t yet know how it ends, but I do know now that it’s going to mean me going from owning a £250,000 house outright to reaching December 2016 living in Denmark, with no money in the bank and having a debt of the equivalent of £150,000.  Oh, and by the way, I’ll also have lost my 4 children too and be living alone.

To top it all off, my Dad died that same month, December 2016.  I went over at the beginning of December to spend that last week with him as he passed away, then again to stay over Christmas, attending the funeral and giving a eulogy on what he’d taught me.  Those values of hard work, self-reliance and thriftiness he taught me were clearly lost to my own children – mere velfærd seems more likely to be their mantra for future years, with the familial company they now keep.  I was told by their mother that they weren’t bothered by the death of their one true grandfather, that the eulogy I’d written meant nothing to them and that I was a bad dad for travelling back on Christmas day.  Apparently I should’ve sat and rotted away in the house in Denmark alone that day, waiting for the one hour visit of my son.  Actually, Christmas Day was a great day, even if I slept through a lot of it.  Remembering my Dad with close family back in my true home town.

So when I look at that photo again, I really can’t imagine what I had to be fearful of.

Thanks Dad, for appearing just when I needed you there to help me know I’m making the right decision.