A Sociological Autobiography: 30 – Owner-Occupiers

Sandown Lodge had provided a very pleasant home, but circumstances changed during our time there. When we moved into number 45 in the early 1970s many of the flats were rented via companies to young families in transit. Into Thatcher’s 1980s Freshwater’s policy shifted. While those of us who rented had a degree of protection, courtesy of Labour’s Rent Act, as soon as tenants vacated them flats were sold off. The result was a refashioned community of affluent, middle-class ‘third-agers’. Moreover our and their contracts were in contradiction: no children playing in the grounds insisted theirs’, no pets our retaliated. They were bothered by our daughters, we were not by their pets. Underlying the petty conflicts and contusions was a gulf in status between ‘owners’ and ‘tenants’ that we resented then and resent now.

We only moved a few hundred metres: walk from Sandown Lodge in Avenue Road part way through Epsom’s Rosebery Park and bear left. Neither set of parents, however loving and supportive, were in a position to advance us a deposit, so we were on our own. Purchasing number 45 had proved beyond our means: could we find somewhere affordable? It was Miranda, our youngest daughter, who came across our destination on the Internet. Annette and I had scanned and inspected several flawed options before she struck. 58 South Street in Epsom was a two-bedroom terraced house with a history and abundant character and draped around a small walled courtyard. Its true ancestry emerged later as Rebecca persuaded local historians to peel back its layers for an A-level dissertation.

We had exchanged an expansive three-bedroom flat for a diminutive two-bedroom house; and we were a family of six. It was a move more forward than backward, as will become apparent through these autobiographical fragments. But our new home’s ancestry proved intoxicating. 1690 said the plaque on front of the three terraced cottages. This had actually been erected at the behest of a couple next door but one. So anxious were they not to discover a later date for their cottage that they forbad entry for the troupe of historians who wanted to look over the terrace as a whole. Their caution worked against them. Not only did the forego an opportunity to learn more about their home, but it transpired that number 58 was the oldest of the three, dating back to Elizabeth I. There were signs for the connoisseur: late mediaeval joints and horse-hair stuffed behind the plastered walls. So our dwelling – likely a farm-worker’s abode – was constructed around 1590-1600. Actually it was its front section abutting the A24 into Epsom that was the oldest. Behind this was a Victorian addition, and twisting round the courtyard a second and much more modern reception room.

It was from here that our daughters completed their secondary education, down the road at Rosebery, an all-girls comprehensive and former grammar school at which I was to become a maverick parent governor. As for Annette and I, we did what parents do and conjured time and space to work as a tutor at the Open and London Universities and at UCL respectively. Often we began work around midnight. In terms of space I was privileged: I settled in what most would probably describe as a cupboard beneath the stairs. There was room enough for a computer and several piles of tumbling books. Several efforts found their way out of this cupboard and into print during our 13-year sojourn in South Street between 1991 and 2004.

In personal terms, what memories survive from this period? They are ad hoc, comprising a mosaic of chipped bits:

  • after many a dig and the dumping of piles of stones and tubers, Annette created a wonderful courtyard garden;
  • I used to sit in the courtyard of an evening and as an interlude from reading, writing or assessing just gaze and absorb our good fortune, as if by osmosis;
  • every night for many years Annette and I converted a settee into a bed, having no designated bedroom;
  • we entered and exited a period of negative equity;
  • opposite was the ‘Queen’s Head’, engaging enough in the early ‘90s under the manager-ship of an ageing couple with a weakness for Irish folk singing but altogether less attractive when taken over by successors desperate to attract clients in an increasingly tricky market: heavy drinkers banned from local pubs gathered there and, eventually, the thumping disco beat on Sunday afternoons drove us to distraction and largely ineffectual complaint;
  • Annette invited her OU students back and I held a couple of A-level revision sessions in sociology for Sasha’s Rosebery cohort;
  • we entertained American students on Emory University’s summer programme on the NHS over several years (I still have photos of Terry Boswell commending Wallerstein and getting stuck into Habermas);
  • oversized lorries pounding past our kitchen window;
  • we bought some pine furniture from a retailer, ‘Inside Out’, but I inadvertently made the cheque out to ‘Upside Down’, or maybe it was the other way round;
  • Rebecca and I visited a David Bowie art exhibition and unbeknown to her I left a note and a stamped and addressed envelope inviting him to dispatch an autographed missive to one of his admirers: impressively I thought, he did, and our passing it to Rebecca under the bathroom door immediately prior to her setting off for an A-level exam apparently did no harm;
  • drunken youngsters kicking off and destroying boxes of flowers cemented to our wall fronting the A24;
  • when Ron, my father, could no longer sustain an independent life in Worthing he joined us, aged 90, in South Street, our living room becoming his personal space over a two-year period.

But there will be more on this longish stay at 58 South Street, our tester for owner-occupation, in future fragments.

 

 

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