Diary

Mary Beard

The American Dream starts from a covered wagon; it takes mobility for granted. Recent censuses show that more than 43 million Americans move house each year. This is an annual migration roughly equivalent to the entire population of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin (or, alternatively, every single American in their twenties) relocating every 12 months; and it all seems to pass relatively unnoticed. I asked in a Cambridge (Mass.) bookstore last week for a guide to moving house – not intending to join the migration, but simply out of a vague cross-cultural curiosity at how a nation manages to get itself rehoused at such an astonishing rate. But the sales assistant just looked baffled (in a ‘what on earth would there be to write about that?’ sort of way) and politely suggested I call a truck rental company. A shop that had self-help manuals to cover every crisis of American life, from starting fourth grade to burying a pet, could only offer the Yellow Pages when it came to house moving.

Not so in Britain, where moving house is always big news. And not so in my local bookshop in Cambridge (England), which is richly stocked with more practical advice than you could ever possibly want about the whole moving process: from choosing a removal firm, through packing up the piano (best left to a specialist), immobilising the washing machine drum (ditto), to finding a take-away for the first meal in your new home. There are plenty of books for children, too, in those well-meaning – and flagrantly dishonest – series written to reassure kids about all the ghastly things they’re likely to have to face in life: going to the dentist, granny dying, having asthma, moving house ... Their general line on moving turns out to be one of juvenile self-interest: the move will be a bit of an upheaval, it’ll be sad to leave your old house, but when it’s all over you’ll have your own room and a bigger garden. And the whole story comes accompanied by some brutally (un)realistic photos of mum and dad (no single parents here) looking a bit stressed by the occasion, while the wholesome, kindly removal men expertly take charge, carry wardrobes in one hand, let the kids ride in the cab of the lorry – and, unlike any real-life removal men in recorded history, don’t smoke a single cigarette from page one to the end.

Of course, there’s moving and moving. Anyone who can still get their belongings into the back of a single transit van and claims to have moved 17 times in the space of a single year is not moving house; they are moving on, travelling light. The Great British Move, with its panoply of advice, expertise and expense, is a characteristically middle-aged and middle-class ritual. It is a (literal) rite of passage into bourgeois adulthood; a process inevitably heralded and defined by possessions – or, to be strictly accurate, by the ownership of any single item too large or valuable to be loaded into the back of a transit by you and a couple of friends. It is also, in the cultural mythology of moving, almost always a moving up. That, at least, is the message of most of the children’s guides, which signally fail to contemplate any move that does not mark an obvious improvement in living standards (it’s bigger gardens and more space, no repossessions and back to the Council flat, in these reassuring tales). Moving down is only culturally recognised in the bad luck story of being forced to swap Georgian elegance in (cheap) Bradford for an inter-war semi in (expensive) North London; or in the retirement narrative of the move from rambling Victorian pile to sheltered bungalow (complete with alarm buttons and a warden) – moving down as, effectively, a preparation for death.

Over the last year I have done little else but move – or rather, plan, discuss, assist with, endure, dispute and recover from moving (both down and up); hence my curiosity at the American insouciance about the whole process. First my mother (following the classic retirement narrative) decided to give up her smallish terraced house for a tiny pensioner’s flatlet. This involved us sitting together for days on end, in a strange bonding ritual, drinking gin and sorting through the accumulations of her nearly eighty years – while she simultaneously apologised for the intrusion on my time and joked that it would, on the other hand, save me time when she died. It was, as things turned out, a prophetic joke. Whatever the connection with the move (and there must have been some), she was dead within three months, and the detritus I inherited finally burst the seams of my own house – and set in motion the inevitable process of moving up.

It was my first grown-up move. Partly because of the kind of place we were moving to (a house with two walk-in pantries is pretty well guaranteed to make anyone feel grown-up); but more particularly because of the devastating impact of the move itself. Last time round, when we first came to Cambridge, we had still been at the transit van stage. The evening we arrived, I remember, we paid off the student helpers, fitted the bed together, got drunk – ready to saunter off to the library, back to work, the very next day. This time (despite the no-expenses-spared professional job, plus full packing service) it was a good three weeks before we gave any thought to work, other than a furtive sense of guilt about deadlines missed and passing. Even now, four months since the move, the combined marital total of articles promised but unwritten amounts to four at least (and is still rising), and two rooms in the new house are piled so high with unpacked boxes that you can barely open the door (daring us, I fear, to leave them like that till we move out again). We are still alive; but damaged, frayed and bad-tempered.

It’s not hard to find all manner of things to blame for making this move so much worse than the last. Obviously a bigger house (the two pantries again) has something to do with it. So do two children and an assortment of more or less demanding animals (even the goldfish – supposedly the world’s lowest-maintenance pet – managed to leap out of its tank in the back of the car and provoke a frantic, undignified but ultimately successful rescue operation). Not to mention the undeniable encroachment of middle age: last time round we were quite simply younger and unencumbered. But as everyone who has ever done it will confirm, there is something mysteriously ‘extra’ about the full-blown British Move that ranks it close to the top of the most stressful experiences you’ll ever have in your life. The puzzle is: what is the extra something?

The psychologist’s answer is to liken the experience of moving to bereavement: the loss not just of friends (particularly if you are moving some distance away), but also of your old house. The stress and exhaustion that you feel (so this argument goes) is part of the experience of grief for your lost, dead home. No doubt there’s something in this. For my mother, leaving her old house did turn out quite literally to be a practice run for death; as she somehow knew. But even when that connection is not quite so clear, many of the little rituals that accompany most moves look very much like rituals of loss and attachment. So, for example, the pre-school heroine in Shirley Hughes’s Moving Molly (one of the best observed of the children’s moving stories) looks for a way of immortalising her contact with the house she’s leaving: she writes a large M underneath a piece of torn wallpaper, sticks it back up with her spit, then climbs up into the van, happy in the secret knowledge that her initial will stay in the house for ever and ever.

In my case, though, what I’m feeling does not feel remotely like grief for the old home. I may be a heartless brute (or severely ‘in denial’), but I don’t think I have any regret whatsoever for what I have left. It was great fun while it lasted, but it was too small – and all its little idiosyncrasies (the pink flowery wallpaper we didn’t get round to changing, the odd crack in the hall, the round greasy patch above the bed where my head rested for 12 years) had for a long time seemed more like irritants than sentimental attachments. I am heartily glad that someone else is dealing with them now; I’m liberated.

Part of the problem, I’m sure, is the reinforcing cycle of anxiety that the mythology of the Move, and all the books designed to help you through it, creates. Reading these self-help guides to moving has a lot in common with reading a dictionary of medical symptoms. Left to yourself, you would never have seriously worried that your car would break down on moving day, that the new house would be instantly wrecked by fire (undetected by the ill-fitted smoke alarms of the previous owners), and that anything left would be snaffled by burglars who prey on new arrivals still off their guard. But once you have read the Which? Way to Buy, Sell and Move House these disasters start to loom very large. Good advice, as always, is just another facet of prophecy of doom.

There is also the awkward relationship with the removal men themselves, the stalwart heroes of the children’s version of the moving story. It’s a combination of self-exposure, on the one hand, and latent antipathy, on the other. There is no other occasion in normal human existence when you put all your worldly goods – from your best china to your stained underwear – entirely in the hands of a gang of men who, at best, find you quaintly amusing; at worst, must come close to loathing your prized possessions and what they stand for. It is, in fact, surprising that open class warfare breaks out so rarely in the removal game. It’s surprising that by and large the men resist the temptation to drop or scratch what you love best, content instead to extract some harmless amusement at your expense. My own removers’ little joke was to pack up the entire household stock of contraceptives, lovingly wrapped, and send them off to store for three months.

You would have thought that once you’d moved in and the house hadn’t burned down, the anxiety would soon fade. In fact, it doesn’t – not for months. What keeps it going, I suspect, is money, and the uniqueness of house purchase as an act of consumption. A house is quite simply the most expensive purchase that the average person will ever make, with money they have not got; and when they make their predictable move up, they will always be drawn to spend more than they planned (that’s what ‘house of your dreams’ means: the one you can’t really afford). The golden rule of mortgage payments is, for most of us, that they never go down; and for the first few years of each new house they always tip the balance, Micawber style, into yet further debt. In other words, all sorts of anxieties quickly vanish once you move in; what doesn’t go away is the knowledge that you can’t afford the house.

This is not poverty, of course; it’s being ‘overstretched’. But it brings with it some of the same stresses: like having your cheques bounced or being threatened with the bailiffs by the electricity company, even before you’ve got the boxes unpacked. And what makes it all the more alarming is the general absence of reassurance that you’ve done the right thing in buying the house in the first place. When we confront a choice of five cakes in the baker’s shop, we’re also confronting the knowledge that we could well choose the least nice; when we pick a washing machine, we know that, for all the care we’re putting into the choice, we could still turn out to be picking Which?’s worst buy. But with cakes, we can always go back and try again. And for bigger purchases the marketing industry is there to help out, with vast advertising campaigns aimed as much at those who already possess the product, as those yet to choose. With a house, next time is a long time coming; and you never see the wisdom of your purchase confirmed on the back of a bus. Instead you are forced desperately to construct your own mechanisms of reassurance. The house-warming party is the classic strategy, where every guest is committed to voicing admiration (their insincerity aided by alcohol). I find myself still taking comfort in the property pages of the Cambridge Evening News each Thursday, carefully weighing up the price, size and location of the houses on offer – to convince myself of the superiority of my own place; to convince myself, in other words, that I have not just made the most expensive mistake of my life.

In the end, though, I have a sense that all this stress is driven by cultural myth. After all, any culture can turn any activity from starting school to crossing the road into a vast focus of shared anxiety. There may be all sorts of practical reasons for the laid-back American style of relocation: the different structure of the real-estate market, for example, or the sheer size of the place (it would be hard, after all, to make a big thing of moving round the block, when your neighbour’s just moved across a whole continent). But my hunch is that Americans take mobility in their stride mostly because they have learnt (from the first time the first settler took to the wagons) that this is ‘the American way of doing things’. We do things differently over here; even if we’re a long way from literally seeing our home as our castle, that myth of solid domestic stability still frames our vision of house and home. In our mind’s eye, whenever we move, we are still moving castles, not houses; and moving castles, of course, is a major enterprise.