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A Home For The Heart
Why it matters for Love, Marriage, Children, Happiness, Friendship
As a feminist writer she once fought to loosen the chains binding women to their homes. So why is Angela Neustatter now advocating a return to domesticity?
It is a person's prerogative to change her mind. But some people might feel that, with her latest book, Angela Neustatter has achieved something of an unforgivable volte-face. For Neustatter, whose oeuvre includes a history of feminism, who was a hack on The Guardian during the glory years of the Woman's Page, and who even managed to get political comment into the fashion pages, now seems to have forsaken the Sisterhood for a good bite of Fifties-style cherry pie.
A Home for the Heart was provoked after Neustatter and her husband, Olly, nearly split up. Analysing what stopped them from doing so was to own up to the amount of time, money and care they had together spent on their house, a converted pub in Islington.
In a sort of epiphanic moment, she realised that if she ditched her husband of some 30 years, she would also be 'ditching the home we had done up from a wreck with sweat and tears if not blood ... where we had had monumental rows and conversely some of our happiest and most formative moments'. And so, having got Olly and herself back on board, Neustatter started thinking about the importance of the home for our psychological and physical wellbeing. And how modern-day pressures of work, greed, and celebrity culture imperil it.
'Well, it took an upheaval for me to recognise how important home really is,' Neustatter says. She's a 68-year-old woman who is overflowingly enthusiastic, with bright blue eyes and an engaging way of stroking your arm when she wants to emphasise a point.
The book isn't so much Brideshead Revisited, however, as Feminism Revisited. Or Get Back Inside, Working Women. At times, this book does read a bit like a 'whoops, we bra-burners did go slightly over the top in the Seventies', tract. Frankly, I turned page after page in a spirit of dismay as anecdotal evidence garnered by Neustatter piles up to wag the finger wholeheartedly at mothers who leave the home to go out to work.
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'Perhaps I could have altered my very busy life a bit to make more time at home . . .' Esme Solanger, a medical sociologist, says. And the 'homeless' Allison Pearson, former star columnist of the Mail, tells Neustatter she wept to friends over the fact that she had no leisure time at all, and now feels guilty about 'not having had enough ... time for her two children during their young years'. Pearson's problem, Neustatter opines, is that she was too successful. 'She found herself constantly overwhelmed with deadlines for her columns, for articles ... she was as fraught, time-panicked and emotionally absent for her children as if she had been in an office job.'
Pearson, who has written openly about her depression and anxieties, clearly had some form of crisis. However, Neustatter has shoehorned this episode into the fact that parents (for which read 'women') spend too much time at work. Only the estimable Baroness Helena Kennedy says forthrightly: 'One of the things I have wanted to pass on, as a woman, is that it is possible to have a career and work hard, but for my family to be valued highly as well.'”
Aside from her, Home for the Heart is all about drained career women having second thoughts. There is no other example of a woman who loves her office work, who has her work/life balance sorted, who is OK about occasionally leaving her children in front of the electronic babysitter. (Actually I'm writing this during half-term, my four children ensconced in front of The Simpsons.) Plenty of working women might take a rather dim view of this, I say. But Neustatter, who has written extensively about social issues regarding children, and edited the child mental health magazine YoungMinds for two years, is unrepentant.
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'I know I'm beginning to sound ultra-right wing but I do think we have put women's rights, and women's needs, above those of our children. I believed in feminism utterly, but feminism didn't take on board children's needs. Children's needs have been secondary to what we wanted to do. Their rights to a future have been downgraded. And if we want to understand their needs, we have to put them higher on the agenda. Women have a right to choose, but children need to feel secure. It's damaging for them not to.'
Sceptics might say that this is all very well; at 68, she's more or less had her glory days. 'It's very hard to make judgments,' Neustatter says, forgetting that her book is a quite lengthy series of them. 'And people have to put the effort into jobs. But when you consider what a child requires when it's brought into the world ... it needs to feel secure. When I had my first son, I thought childcare was the only thing,' she says. 'I was only thinking about my needs.'
Neustatter has two grown-up sons, one who was tiny when she was fashion editor at The Guardian. For her, a true home is a secure, warm base where children can loll around doing nothing very much. That is incontestable. Where it gets sticky is Neustatter's view that the home should have a mother (or father) basically on tap.
How to achieve this Utopia? An enforced limit on working hours and that old friend, 'flexible working', both of which are pie in the sky for many parents, particularly during a recession (although not for freelance journalists like Neustatter).
Furthermore, for this ideal home to exist, you must build it yourself. Yes, with your own elbow grease. Calling up a team of Polish builders and renting a house for three months is no option if you want to be a proper homemaker. The first home she bought with Olly, a derelict ruin in Highgate, was recreated almost entirely by them using wood from skips, including old railway sleepers, which became a bed.
This was not only thrifty but, for Neustatter, who had just resigned from her job at The Guardian, it was morally correct. 'Had we had the money,' she writes, 'had I not left my full-time job but remained on a good salary, perhaps we would have simply handed over the whole business of doing up this house to the professionals and moved into a perfectly finished product.
'I'm glad that was not possible,' she continues, 'because living with our home, being a daily part of its organic process of change ... did mean it became a home that seemed aligned to who we are and how we wanted to live.' She goes on to profile a whole bunch of rather tiresome, worthy types who live with their children in dumps and arduously rebuild them with a sort of Little House on the Prairie doggedness. One family lives in a commune and earns money by making hammocks and tofu. One lives on boats.
So for all of us out there who have worked all the hours God sends to have a Bulthaup kitchen with underfloor heating; that is not the way. You need to have, like Neustatter did, a secondhand Aga which became the cosy hub of our draughty house.
And you must absolutely not trade up for money. Lord, forgive us devotees of property supplements.
What, like you with your lovely airy Islington conversion? 'We sold our family home in Highgate when the children had grown up,' she counters.
In her book she announces that 'our homes are traduced by the profit motive', and profiles families such as the Sampsons, who have apparently 'traded up' eight times in 20 years. Mrs Sampson, who sounds completely barmy, apparently lived on Valium for much of this time, and now despairs of the damage wreaked on their two small sons, forced to uproot and leave their friends year after year.
Some might feel a surge of pure joy that Neustatter has dared to range an argument against the house as cash cow and envy-inducing supplements, but is it really immoral to sell your house for a profit? For many people, the ability to climb the housing ladder can mean a transformation in their living circumstances. And bricks and mortar have certainly proved a safer way of investing your cash than, well, banks.
'Housing supplements teach people to be dissatisfied with living in a housing estate,' Neustatter says. But many people ARE dissatisfied about living in a housing estate. 'Well, housing estates should not be built in grim places,' she argues, somewhat naively. 'I would be happy to pay higher taxes if I could see that people were given homes I myself would not be ashamed to live in.'
It's fun interviewing Neustatter, happy to exist on the far right and the far left of an argument almost at the same time and who, unlike many female commentators, does not seem to give two figs about a) being liked or b) being unfashionable. Oh, and the other thing she can't stand (apart from working mums and gated communities) is celebrities showing off their luxurious homes in Hello!. 'They contribute to our discontent with our homes. It's part of the 'I'm worth it' culture,' she says.
One of the chapters in her book opens with a description of the Florida palace bought by Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren, with its eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms and a boat dock, in an exclusive gated community. Then she mentions a few other celebs and their house options: Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt (Beverly Hills), Cheryl and Ashley Cole (mansion in Surrey) and Kate Winslet with Sam Mendes (£8 million-worth of Cotswolds stone).
Of course, the fact that every one of these relationships has since foundered is grist to the Neustatter argument. Big, blingy houses wreck marriages. Poor marriages need big, blingy houses to hide behind. They are also nefarious because they add to our own discontentment.
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'People like Tiger Woods showing off their multimillion-pound houses and suggesting they have a greater degree of happiness because of them,' she grumbles. 'It infiltrates our minds. It makes us think that bigger and better makes us happier, and it makes us bury any sentimental feelings we have about our homes.' Well, up to a point. I don't think I have ever come home feeling discontented because I know Kate Winslet either has, or once had, an £8 million house in the Cotswolds. I never wanted to live in the country. And I quite like my own house. Even though it was refurbished by professional Polish builders, and I sleep on a bed, not railway sleepers.
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After the interview is over, I wander around Neustatter's house with her. It is full of bohemian charm: loads of paintings, stained-glass windows (made by her), hanging things, raffia, planty spidery things, mats for Pilates, photographs, model boats and what one might rudely call a skip's worth of sentimental junk. Is Neustatter really on to something? Or is this book simply a 600-page argument by an old hippy who regrets working when her children were small, and is now fundamentally opposed to spring cleaning, au pairs, Foxton's, and working women who like Bulthaup kitchens?
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