Things are looking up: the new stairwell at Sandy’s country house is taking shape
We have hit an exciting milestone in our building project. The roof of the new wing is built and all three stories, two above ground and one below, are watertight.
I am thrilled, even if the building with its rain-drenched breeze-block walls and gaping holes for windows looks as welcoming and pretty as an abandoned Chernobyl fertiliser factory.
Coinciding with this milestone, my wife and I were asked this week by our building team to make a minor decision about the construction of our new bedroom. This led to a remarkable personal revelation: after 20 years of harmonious marriage, I discover my wife and I each have a completely different idea of luxury. And this in turn reminded me of the more general truth that all of us tend to have convictions about what constitutes excess, and what is an absolute necessity, which are wildly inconsistent.
I should not be surprised.
In my professional life at RedBook I am fortunate to see some of the most beautiful newly built or freshly decorated homes in existence, and I hear about other projects all the time. So this same week I was with a designer (not the one we are using at my own home) who creates interiors around the world with outrageously flamboyant detailing on fantastical budgets, and she was recalling how a client of hers had asked her to design a platform in the ‘dog room’ on which the client’s adored Poodle can be showered after a muddy walk—a platform that would rise and fall at the touch of a button. The designer arched an eyebrow as if to say to me, ‘Ever heard of anything more crazily over the top?’
The unfinished new wing on the house: ‘as pretty as an abandoned Chernobyl fertiliser factory’
By complete contrast, friends of mine in the country are refurbishing their home on a restricted budget, so I was amazed when they told me recently they are installing a Japanese loo in their bathroom. It will cost them £5,000 – £10,000, perhaps a 10th of their entire project’s cost. No doubt worth it if you absolutely need your bottom buffed and shined like a new Bentley in a Mayfair showroom.
In our own new bedroom, my wife and I agreed a while back that the floor should be built of concrete slabs that should protect us better from noise below than wooden joists and boards. More expensive but worth it, since this bedroom will sit above a large new family room where our eldest daughter, now at university, and her slightly younger sister are longing to bring friends to hang out and party.
Good bones: the reassuringly solid-looking roof and walls of the new bedroom suite
All was well then until this month’s site meeting when one of the builders asked my wife and I out of the blue, ‘Have you thought about noise coming up the chimney stack into the bedroom?’
I slapped my forehead in horror. The builder helpfully suggested, for a ‘mere’ thousand pounds or so, we could have the chimneystack wadded with acoustic insulation. ‘Essential,’ I declared. My wife, who could sleep through an air-raid siren, spluttered loudly about absurd indulgence.
Later, I pondered more carefully where the dividing line lies between excess and necessity in my own mind. For instance, my nose for excess wrinkles whenever I see one of those fancy kitchen taps that permanently supply boiling water at the press of a button. Irrational, I know. But surely waiting a minute for a kettle to boil is one of life’s more tolerable burdens?
Fancy footwear: painters’ special shoes, lined up at the end of the day
Then, later in the week, a Chinese acquaintance told me over lunch about her grandfather, a landowner in pre-revolutionary China, who loved a good cup of tea. Her story jolted me slightly.
This being China he was choosy about the type of tea leaves and their source, she explained, in fact he cared about them as much as a British wine collector would about the vineyard and vintage of his claret. When it came to the water for his tea the grandfather was just as picky.
So each morning he would send one of his servants to the pond at the foot of the garden to collect fresh water. Perhaps you are thinking, as I did when I heard the story, that the servant scooped a bucketful from the pond and occasional blobs of frogspawn or pond weed would end up swirling in the cup? But no.
Lotuses blanketed the surface of the pond, closing their leaves as the sun sets before opening them at dawn. The servant’s daily task was to pass from lotus to lotus and collect dew caught in the newly opened leaves so the grandfather could enjoy his daily cup brewed with crystalline water.
Hearing this, I couldn’t help but admire the grandfather’s exquisite connoisseurship. Then I remembered my allergy to boiling-water taps. Inconsistent, moi?
To define luxury is a matter of very personal and irrational taste, I conclude, and almost anything can look like expensive nonsense to someone else’s eyes. Except for acoustic wadding in chimneystacks which is beyond-argument essential, obviously. So we are getting it in our bedroom.
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