Kevin McCloud said, at the end of Man Made Home.
Inevitably this blog would have something to say on the subject of Kevin McCloud, Grand Designs and Man Made Homes.
I only vaguely recall Grand Designs being around before I bought my house in Portugal. Back then it was a show whose principal theme was failure: it invariably ridiculed people’s ambitious building projects which ran over budget, over schedule and failed to meet McCloud’s style expectations.
To be sure, reality TV is not documentary. Punters are deliberately exploited and their stories manipulated to suit the format. I should know, having both worked in TV and been a participant on one of these shows.
I’m not denying that real life ‘grand designs’ are without mistakes or drama. Of course not. The point is that big building projects are inherently problematic. The mistake you make is expecting things to go as planned.
As Grand Designs went on and McCloud’s star rose, it has become a better show. The emphasis has shifted towards more ecological and interesting house plans. Grand Designs today focuses less on the naivety and wasteful spending of the protagonists and more about their ingenuity and endurance. McCloud still makes they should have known better type remarks but almost always credits the builds for their sustainability, which apparently is McCloud’s own interest. Man Made Home demonstrated McCloud is not actually the condescending queeny bitch of the earlier Grand Designs, but someone passionately crafty and planet loving and not really that shallow at all.
I reckon McCloud and/or the producers started off not really understanding the owner-builder story, and only after several years they realised what sort of integrity the program’s concept had. All they had to do was stop looking down on the protagonists and embrace the essential theme of the human search for shelter. Building a house is not just about somewhere to live, or making money. Nor is building your own place just a technical exercise in engineering and project management or budgeting. Maybe there’s a bit of playing with toy-tools and making mud pies, I’ll admit that. Certainly it’s a type of artistic expression, it’s about creativity and craft and imagination. And it can be about our interaction with nature and finding a compatible place on the planet. But ultimately, building a house, your own house, is like a great voyage; you pack your bags with your itinerary in hand, and the rest is unpredictable, challenging, complex, marvellous and humbling. It can turn out to be something of a massive life experience.
It’s not only my story that turned out that way, but many of my friends building houses in Portugal have also had pretty monumental experiences: huge relationship challenges, incredible feats of architectural artistry, financial wins and losses, but above all the imagining and realisation of a home, a cave where we get warm and fed and loved.
So next time you’re wondering why Kevin’s waxing lyrical and getting a bit teary eyed over a piece of junk he’s converted into something useful… well that’s because he’s tapped into a primordial human need to make a space to call our own.
Meanwhile here’s what happened in my life where we left off.
I came back from Sydney, we went on a fab luxo tour of the Douro, and then we built a new bedroom where the hole in the wall was. Then we were planning to strip the floors again and put in the kitchen, as per the last post. My back wasn’t getting any better however. Any time spent in the car getting to the osteopath would kill me, and all that was there every day when I opened my eyes was masses of work to be done on the house. I finally realised that the house would quite literally, never be finished.
(As an aside, it’s got to be said one of the great misconceptions about retiring from city life and living a simple country idyll is that it is relaxing. The idea that I would go back to Portugal and my back would get better is ridiculous. Portugal has never been anything but brutally hard work. As my own boss I am meaner than any city employer I ever had. Whip cracking, cake-eating bitch is she.)
Anyway, we were going to run out of money again sooner or later. So I went back to Sydney again in December 2013. Once the adrenaline I was burning to keep going in Portugal wore off, the full catastrophe of having a fractured spine sunk in. I was in unbearable amounts of pain, going a bit nutty and all the qualified people were looking worriedly at me. My osteopath of 25 years flatly told me he’d never seen me look so bad in my life. Just his professional opinion; but it cut through *ahem* to the bone. I got rushed off to a surgeon who got out my life book, went to today’s page and tore up everything after.
Building a house in Portugal is over. We are moving to Australia for good.
In those first few months in Sydney, I was consumed with regret and failure. Yes, failure. That same illusion Grand Designs plays upon. I suppose it was some sort of grief, for Portugal, for my health and for the dream of building a house. It was all nice and hopeless in my dark hole until I read an article about Bryan Smith, a National Geographic adventurer who says “If you don’t fail every once in a while, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough to try different things.” So there.
The idea of Portugal being just another adventure settled on me, and no, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but it has been an adventure nonetheless. Now I’m more resigned to put it in the box of many mad journeys I’ve been on. It was like a long safari in Egypt. A love affair with someone who doesn’t speak your language. It was like making a film. Like a cliff-edge taxi ride in Morocco. A great swim between the heads of Bondi at three in the morning. It was a test and it changed me.
Still, I’m not patting myself on the back every day about coming back “home”. As great as Sydney is, it still feels like a step backwards, away from what I wanted for so long. I’m sure that’s common amongst ex-expats. But shit hey, that’s life, and when I’m feeling like a loser someone usually comes along and says “I was just telling someone about you how threw it all away to become a Portuguese-speaking peasant”, and I feel so much better.
Então. One year later and I’m not so fatalistic about it all. It’s not like I’m never going back. The house, emma’s house, is just where I left it and is an ongoing concern for The One and our Wookie, Mao and Purdy. Their story is still to come as we embark on new battle with the dark forces of immigration – this time to import 85 kilos of Englishman into Australia.
Actually right now I’m organising some more work to be done on the house. At arm’s length. Across the oceans. I won’t be getting dirty this time. Quite excited.
And I’ve finally found some time to write again…. So stay tuned for Emma’s House, The Final Season…