This Old House
Our place was built in 1823. It’s a tall, narrow row house, about the size of the average suburban American home, inconveniently spread over five floors. It has all the problems you might imagine: holes between the floorboards big enough to lose Legos in. Windows you can feel a breeze through. Suspicious damp spots that suddenly appear high up on the walls. Ancient electrics that need to be replaced. Inadequate heating system. Something is always going wrong, and nothing that goes wrong is inexpensive or simple to fix. It is, in fact, a bona fide money pit that takes up a lot of my free time. And yet, I love it. Did I mention it’s beautiful? It’s my dream. You could blame a childhood spent watching “This Old House” reruns. But I blame hurricanes.
I grew up on Big Pine Key, Florida, an Island about 30 miles from Key West that few people had heard of before it was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Irma was the worst hurricane to hit the Keys in many years. In my lifetime there have been several that caused severe damage, including Hurricane Irene in 1999, which cost $600 million to clean up. NOAA estimates Irma at $50 billion, which translates to countless lost homes and businesses belonging to people I love. They are rebuilding, determined that their community will come back stronger.
It is largely because of storms like Irma that few buildings in the Keys are very old. Aside from the picturesque Conch Houses in Key West (the oldest of which dates back to 1829), there isn’t a lot of romance to them, either. It isn’t hard to see why someone like me, from a place like that, would be looking for stability: a house made of brick. Our house is solid. Despite its age, it’s hard to imagine it blowing away. After all, in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire (say it with me!) hurricanes hardly happen.
Americans have a reputation for liking new things. I don’t think that’s a fair generalization. What seems a more likely explanation is that the old things Americans like, are not considered so very old elsewhere. I grew up being taken to flea markets and tag sales by my grandparents. In a small town these were social events to look forward to. (Not to mention the delicious flea market fried sugar doughnuts, an approximation of which can also be found on the Kent coast. They make me weepy with nostalgia.) Nana and Grandpa liked old things. They liked a bargain and the thrill of the chase. Grandpa would focus on fishing and boating equipment, while Nana inspected modern rarities like Hummel figurines, needlepoint kits, thimbles (which she collected for me), secondhand hardcovers and assorted knickknacks. She would take her purchases home wrapped in the previous day’s edition of the Key West Citizen and catalog them in a series of red notebooks. I imagine the notebooks were kept for my parents’ benefit, for the far off someday when it all would be handed down to them. I learned to appreciate things with a bit of history, emphasis on story. Things like that are at home in an old house, and so am I.
What a house this age lacks is storage. We have one measly closet and it is dark and tiny, hidden away under the stairs with the old paint cans, bags of cat litter, tools and gardening supplies. It is for this reason I have become one of the new renunciates—Marie Kondo acolytes, hounding my local charity shop weekly with increasingly random assortments of cast-offs. One recent haul included a cake pan, two suit jackets and a pair of vertiginous heels from New York publishing days, five pairs of outgrown kids’ shoes (about which I used to get emotional, before I understood how many dozens of pairs they would outgrow in their childhoods, and decided to save my tears) and some books.
Divestment is my new religion. But on the flipside, I’m drawn to antique shops of the type that aren’t supposed to exist anymore: mellow, musty and usually empty of other customers. Full of “brown furniture” of the type that not many of us covet anymore, at sub-Ikea prices, Georgian picture frames and sets of glinting glassware. I have a weak spot for any item whose use has to be explained to me and I’m still smarting over missing two old club ballot boxes that could have been used to “black ball” someone in the last century or before. I love things that have been knocked around, used and abused and loved before I was born. Unlike Nana, I don’t go in for delicate or breakable things—with two cats and two kids, ours is not a knick-knack-able life.
The comedian Harry Enfield has a recurring sketch about a Notting Hill antique shop called I Saw You Coming. The curmudgeonly old proprietor, Marcus, sells junk to gullible luvvies. His eyes light up as a pretty blond comes through the door, jingle jingle. “Trustafaria! Darling! Mwah, Mwah. Have I got just the thing for you. This rusty old lantern is just the kind of toss you’ll be into.” “How much is it?” “Well it cost me a fiver at a car boot sale, but you have a good eye. All the scratches are actually organic. And I saw you coming—so I’ll give it to you for a grand…”
The shops I go to are nothing like this, you understand. My favorite, Fisher on Gray’s Inn Road, is owned by a young woman named Hilary. She will offer you a glass of sherry on arrival and sell you a regimental drum. Or a ceramic dog. Last November, I bought a Georgian lazy Susan that I use as a cake stand. For my husband’s birthday, a watercolor of a crab with a deep and glossy wood frame. In London these days, shops like hers are rare and if we want them to last, we support them. I’ll take an old thing over a new thing any day. My husband is just the same. On a recent trip to Paris, we could think of no better use for a Saturday afternoon than patrolling the Marche aux Puces for tarnished silver and papery antique table linens. We love to meet the people selling them, and the fact that we never know what crazy thing we will find around the next corner. Last visit, a vast needlepoint tapestry of a bare-breasted mermaid. Alas, we lack the wall space…
My parents have lately fallen into the business of old things. When my grandmother died, faced with the task of dispersing decades of her accumulated collections, they started having garage sales. Before long, they rented a booth in an antiques mall in Ocala, the central Florida town where they now live. They are still working through Nana’s back catalogue, but their greater love is picking their own stock around southern estate sales, tag sales and junk shops. They like old things, they like a bargain and the thrill of the chase. They have been very successful at it. They have an eye, a way with their customers, a gift for imaginative merchandising and dozens of retailing ideas up their sleeves. In the age of eBay, people still love to browse their shop in person.
When they visit us in London, they comb the stalls of the Portobello Road, Spitalfields, and Camden Passage. They find the most extraordinary things: a 19th century child-size steel foot brace, a Napoleonic cannon ball, dozens of cut glass prisms from a defunct chandelier. They pack them up and take them back to Florida, where their customers are enthusiastic about them. For a while the steampunks of Florida couldn’t get enough old pocket watches on chains. Someone bought the foot brace to donate to a medical museum. And any horse or racing-related memorabilia finds an easy home in horse-mad Ocala. Anything from England is automatically old enough and odd enough to be an antique—at least an honorary one.
They don’t live in the Keys anymore, so they missed this latest and worst hurricane. But we remain in touch with many old friends on Big Pine and we know there is cause for hope. Every weekend, teams of neighbors form to help clear debris, remove fallen trees and repair homes. Tropical foliage comes back quickly. Within a few years everything will be greener and more beautiful than ever before. Relationships stronger, too. But some people have lost everything. Reminding us that choosing what to let go of is an absurd privilege. In the charity shops my parents and I frequent, most of the things are the cast-offs of the dead. To be alive, and to have too much, is a guilty gratitude. Then I go back to my crumbling house and know, no matter what, it will outlast me.