Seventeen Thoughts About Moving House

There are seventeen thoughts about moving house here. I wanted to make it twenty one but I didn’t want what you’re reading to be too long, even though I do in fact have at least twenty one thoughts about moving house. Twenty one is the number of houses I have now lived in. I am not entirely to blame for this. My parents moved a lot when I was growing up. The answer to why I’ve moved so much is not straightforward: circumstances in rented houses can quickly change, life and employment (or lack of it) throws you this way and that, but I do recognise that I am excited by the idea of getting to know new places, and this accounts to some extent for the itchy-footed way I have lived. In my ancestry, on the Irish side, there is rumour of travelling salesmen, so maybe that’s an additional explanation for my wanderlust. I’m disturbingly good at moving now: the packing, the labelling, the sizing up, the prioritising and depriorisiting of bullshit admin. I wouldn’t say it gets easier, but doing stupid things during house moves in the past has, finally, after many years, made me marginally better at not doing stupid things during house moves.

I met an Arboreal Consultant recently. He told me that the big lesson trees teach us is that moving doesn’t solve our problems, that we should stay in one place, put down roots, and sort ourselves out. The problems are all always within. I broadly agree with this, and don’t see new houses as The Answer in the way I once did, but I don’t think the Arboreal Consultant was recognising the full picture. Houses and locations can mould us very decisively as people. If I’d never moved from the Norfolk house I loved in 2013, I know I’d be a very different person to the one I am now. I’m not saying whether I’d be a worse or better person; just that I’m one hundred percent sure I’d be a very different one. After the Arboreal Consultant put forward his theory, he unzipped his fly and urinated expansively on the trunk of one of the trees he’d been theorising about.
There is no better illustration than moving house of the human brain’s ability to con itself as a coping mechanism. “Never again!’ we say, after a move, feeling like we have been slowly backed over three times by a large tractor with tyres caked in hot manure. But after a while, the details of exactly why it was so traumatic fades. “Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all?” we think. It was. Probably worse, in fact. Your memory is lying to you.
I have at many points made the statement “I have cats” to letting agents but somehow what it always feels like I’m saying is “I have a large, volatile dragon who likes to party.”
I can usually tell when I’m speaking to someone who hasn’t moved much and doesn’t yet know what’s good in a house. They fetishise old, dark houses in an uncritical, romantic way. They have not yet fully cottoned onto the correlation between happiness and light.
For me, the moment when I know I’ve moved out of a place is when I start to pack the multi sockets. They’re always the last things you remove from a house: part of that collection of straggling, uninteresting essentials that appear to take up no space in the final illusion of emptiness but actually fill a few boxes and bring your car dangerously close to capacity. After that, all that’s left is spiders, a couple of five pence coins, lines of dustfur ghosting where bookshelves once stood, a couple of screws and elastic bands and the lid from the beloved dried-up pen you reluctantly threw away five months earlier. A relief sets in, but it’s not always a dramatic relief. I don’t remember any feeling of great drama in the final physical act of leaving two of my last three houses, but leaving the house in Devon where I lived from early 2014 to the end of last year was different. I still recall very clearly a unique echo from the crittall doors when I locked them for the last time that I heard in the core of my chest as well as my ears, how suddenly huge a medium-sized living room felt, how lucky I felt to have spent time in this special place. It was very dark outside and beginning to snow for the first time in the whole period that I’d lived there and I felt like a man leaving a house for the last time in a film. I got in the car and realised I had no keys to any house and felt scared but liberated. I immediately wrote down a potential short story title in my notebook: ‘The Man Without Keys’. Then I drove north, into a snowstorm, with the frightening sense that after all this domestic comfort I’d had for almost four years, this was all I was moving to, a snowstorm, but at the same time telling myself it wasn’t true, although in the end it did turn out to kind of be true.
You can think you know how sexy a house is just from pictures, but you never really know until you meet it. You need to get up close and check out a house’s pheromones. Before I found my current house, I met an amazing house online. I then looked at it from the outside and it still looked kind of hot. But then a few days later I was shown inside the house it gave me a shiver up my spine. Then I went up a hidden staircase in the back of it and the shiver got colder. I would be startled if no animal or person had ever been ritually slaughtered there.
People sometimes say that moving house and divorce are the two most stressful experiences in life. This isn’t true. The most stressful experience in life is trying to change a duvet cover when you’ve just come back from the pub and you’re very tired.
I have just written a collection of ghost stories, but I’m still a little undecided as to the existence of ghosts. What I am absolutely decided on is the fact that houses retain experiences and memories. I’ll argue the evidence for this until I’m blue in the face. I could feel the parties that had happened at my last house as soon as I stepped into it, just as I was sure that in my previous house nobody had ever had a party. I doubt anyone had even laughed in that house, except in an evil or at least very mordant way.
If I was ever stuck for inspiration for writing, I would get a job as a removal man. It’s not just that removal companies see the intimate, behind-the-scenes paraphernalia of strangers every day; moving – stressful enough on its own – often happens when at least one other big life event is taking place. Bereavement, a break-up, a change of job, a financial crisis. It’s hard for people to keep their masks on when they’re mid-move. Movers see people stretched and fraught. They see a full flame ignited under stories that have been left on simmer for years. I suspect my movers thought me oddly phlegmatic, my packing amazingly ordered, a couple of weeks ago when they took my stuff from the edge of Dartmoor to east Somerset, but they were dealing with a rumpled relocation veteran. I know that, even then, they found amusement and intrigue in the quirks of my possessions. Why would anyone own this many books yet own such a shit, tired-looking car? “You’ve got a lot of lamps and plants, mate,” one mover said. “It’s true: I have,” I replied. “You’ve got a lot of lamps and plants, mate,” his colleague said, an hour or so later. “It’s true: I have,” I replied.
Were you in the car park of Wymondham Waitrose in Norfolk around Christmas 2002? Did you notice a huge white stain on the ground, directly in line with the store’s entrance, about sixty yards along? I would like to come forward and admit responsibility for that. It was white gloss. B&Q own brand. Some of it went on the brand new Peugeot parked next to me. I got down on my knees and tried to wipe it off the bumper with kitchen roll. The owner looked down at me with distaste, like you would at something that had crawled out of an old watering can. What can I say? I was suffering from exhaustion and wasn’t thinking straight and had balanced the paint pot precariously against my car door. I’d just moved house.
I don’t fully go with that whole “You can’t take it with you” line of thinking. I know full well that you can’t take it with you. I don’t want to take it with me. But I wouldn’t mind having a bit of fun with it while I can. I’m sorry: just because I won’t be able to listen to my mint original pressing of The Gilded Palace Of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers when I’m dead, that doesn’t mean you can have it now and flog it on eBay.
I think perhaps the best instance in recent times of me showing astounding restraint in not telling someone to fuck off was during a house move, just under a year ago. I had spent the previous ten days not just packing but clearing out a garage packed to the brim with nonsense. I had been burning old paperwork and boxes and had burns all over my hands and ash all over my clothes. I was trying to clear a storm of ash that had blown across my lawn, since it looked a mess, and I’d kept the house so neat and nice for so long, and my landlords were due to arrive for the final inspection in twenty minutes, and I didn’t want to ruin everything at the last minute. At the same time, I was trying to find one of my cats, who had gone missing, and vacuum a room, and carry some boxes and bits of furniture down to the van for my movers, Declan and Steve, who were suddenly critically short on time, with the laws about vehicles carrying heavy loads at night. Just a little earlier, I’d smashed an internal window, and was still clearing up the attendant debris. I was coming down the stairs carrying a full length mirror and an aloe vera plant, and the edge of the mirror was digging into the angry blister that was forming on the worst of the burns on my wrist, and I noticed that a posh-looking stranger was standing in my hallway. “Oh hello,” said the posh-looking stranger, who sounded even posher than she looked. “I noticed you were moving out, and wondered if that meant the house is up for rent again, and I was wondering if it would be a convenient time to look around.” I told her it would not be a convenient time to look around.
Nothing will zone your mind in quite so acutely as a house move on how many of your books you haven’t read, and how many you desperately want to read, preferably immediately, to the cost of anything else more pressing that you’re supposed to be doing.
Don’t ever believe that becoming a minimalist is merely about giving loads of your possessions away and not buying stuff. I’ve moved house five times since October 2013 which gives me a slight feeling that I’ve spent the last five years doing nothing but filling my car with stuff and driving it to charity shops and recycling skips. Since then, I’ve bought pretty much nothing but food, books and records. Yet my shed and house is still full of junk. God knows where it all comes from.
Maybe there was a time in my life, a brief long-ago point of naivete, that I fantasised about living in a big house. If so, I can’t remember it. I never fantasise about living in big houses now, not even living in slightly big houses. When some people see a big house they think, “I will live in a place like that one day, when I am rich and famous.” When I see a big house I think, “Fucking hell, what a nightmare the cleaning and heating and maintenance must be in that place.”
A few days before I embarked on my most recent house move, someone in a pub in Bristol stole my rucksack, which contained my wallet, my car keys, my phone, my phone charger, a journal with a year’s worth of notes towards my next book – including The Man Without Keys – a Lush bath bar and a copy of Lindsay Clarke’s 1989 novel The Chymical Wedding. I blame myself, but I also blame Michael Jackson, for being too funky. I was dancing to Michael Jackson when my bag was stolen, which accounts for my neglect in keeping an eye on its whereabouts. None of my possessions have been recovered: a fact that has become less painful quite quickly in some ways (phone, wallet, car keys, Lush bath bomb, book) but is still acutely painful (journal) in others. When you’re sorting all the financial stuff that goes with moving, losing your sole methods of payment and telephonic communication can make matters very tricky, and the entire move almost fell to bits. The morning after I had my bag stolen I got on an early train back to Devon, anxiously hoping that I would find my spare car keys at home, with nothing to my name but a bit of cash that a friend had kindly loaned me. This was all I constituted, materially speaking: some clothes, most of them very old, a return train ticket, and £31.30. My phone wasn’t here, so I could not look at social media and see the barely recognisable attention deficit fax of myself that I see fed back to me every day by strangers, nor the recognisable version, fed back to me by people who actually know me. The excellent book I’d been beating myself up for not reading enough of was not here either. It felt scary and liberating – maybe more so because I was in the middle of a move, and conscious of the burden of possessions. I would not survive for long like this in reality, with limited skills – with the exception of being ok at dancing  – available to me for the raising of quick cash, but, with the painful loss of that journal, the situation focussed me, and pruned me palpably down to what I truly was. I definitely wasn’t what Google thought I was. I wasn’t my record collection (of course not: how on earth could I ever be even half that good?) or the photos I’ve taken. I wasn’t even the clothes on my back. I was just a transient collection of experiences and opinions and hopes, blundering along to the next destination, maybe picking up a few more along the way.
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7 thoughts on “Seventeen Thoughts About Moving House

  1. I've done a fair bit of moving, and each time we move I hire a skip bin so I can chuck out accumulated junk, it always amazes me that even though I throw out whole huge skip bins full of shit, by the time the next move comes along, I've got just as much, or even more shit to throw out. Even when the only things I've bought have been sheets and towels, all of this shit has appeared.

  2. There are some wise words in this article, Tom. Older houses have character and often more generous space, but go away for two weeks and you can come back to horrible maintenance related disasters (even if everything seemed fine before you went). And the point you make about light being important is so true. It may be something to do with getting older, but I crave sunlight much more than I used to, and love houses where you seem to be outside, when you are actually indoors.

  3. I had the same experience as you – saw what looked like a great house, but when I stepped inside it my blood ran cold, and I couldn't wait to get out. As it happens it was a dark house with an odd little staircase. Weirdly, a friend rang me later that day and said "You didn't put in an offer on that house, did you? Only I drove past it today, and a chill ran down my spine …"

    We're thinking of moving again at present, so it was good to read your piece and be reminded of what we're about to put ourselves through!

  4. I have only moved a few times in my life, in my younger days, the thought of a large house was always appealing. Then as I have aged I am relieved that I have never been able to meet that aspiration. I keep my house clean, but housework is soul destroying banality. I have books to read, films to watch, a cat who requires constant and immediate attention until you bore her. So yes I agree absolutely that big houses are not essential. As for buying books at a rate which far exceeds my capacity to read them. Of this I am guilty as charged and must shamefully admit that yours was a Christmas present to myself last year and is still book marked at chapter 2. However, I may be inspired by today's godawful weather to pick it up today.

  5. In terms of removal men gaining lots of inspiration for writing, Jack Rosenthal’s wonderful film “The Chain” from 1984 is about exactly this, the life stories which bring people to that point, and what their moves reveal about them. The removal men, led by the incomparable Warren Mitchell as Bamber, feature prominently. Absolutely fantastic stuff and also very moving.

  6. I just came across this. Seems as if it was meant for me to see it, as within the next couple of weeks I will be moving. Like you, I have moved many times in my life. But this one is different. I feel a great deal of ambivalence about the move. We (spouse and I)will be returning to our house that burned down a year and a half ago in the middle of the night, from which we escaped out of windows. Now it has been rebuilt. Everything will be fresh, new and shiny. It will be the same house, but it won’t be the same at all. Several beloved pets died in the fire (4 cats, all rescues, whom we adored, and one of our 3 dogs). We will be moving urns with their ashes back into the home where they once lived, where they were loved. The bookshelves will be there, but our beloved books, of which we had many, and which we treasured, are no longer with us. This includes first editions, books of family history, books written by family members no longer with us, and sentimental favorites collected over many years; now all gone. I was in the middle of writing a book that’s gone forever. I’m a photographer too. Digital photographic files were destroyed, also negatives and prints. Irreplaceable artwork, including paintings by family members who have passed away; burnt. Souvenirs from world travels and a peculiar collection of eye-related items (spouse is an optometrist) are gone. My 85 year old father in law kept saying, “what does it matter? It’s just stuff?” And it’s true. It really was just stuff, when you get right down to it. But the stuff seemed to have meaning attached to it.
    The house itself is 65 years old and had a history before we ever moved there. We know descendants of the home’s original occupants. Also, among previous occupants of our house were my husband’s grandparents. We moved there after they moved away to sunnier climates. So the house has family history beyond that of just us and our children, now all grown and no longer living with us. There are many memories. But it’s not the same house, because it was taken down to its foundations after the fire, and completely rebuilt. But it is almost exactly the same house. It’s a replica of the old house, down to wall color. Many of the furnishings will be exact replacements of what we lost. The entire thing feels surreal.
    I understand what you mean about somehow managing to accumulate a lot of stuff. Somehow in the year and a half since the fire, we’ve managed to acquire massive amounts of material possessions. How did that even happen? Generously donated items account for some of it. But it also just seems to have happened. I don’t know exactly how. At any rate, I have cried over this impending move. It should feel like a good thing, but so far it’s mostly just overwhelming. Tonight I was sitting, crying about it all, in the living room of the temporary home we have occupied since the fire. This temporary one is only a mile away from our former/future house. The distance is not far. But the move will still feel like an enormous change. Sitting here, I came across your musings about moving, and it helped a great deal. You would have no idea who I am, but I’ve followed you for years, since I ever first discovered your delightfully brilliant “my cat is sad” work. So your musings had more layered meaning for me than if you were a completely unknown entity. Anyhow, whatever. I’ve rambled on long enough. Thank you. Your musings helped. Best wishes to you. I’ll still be following you and enjoying your work. I hope you find joy in any and all future moves.

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