Stuck in the Middle with You

We’re living through topsy-turvy times, and one of the things we’ve lost in the confusion is our parents’ sense of what things are really worth, says Clive Aslet

We’re living through topsy-turvy times, and one of the things we’ve lost in the confusion is our parents’ sense of what things are really worth, says Clive Aslet

As any estate agent will tell you, the name of Sir Edwin Lutyens has talismanic powers over the property market. This greatest of Edwardian architects, working at a time when British domestic architecture was regarded as the most go-ahead in Europe, is a byword for homeliness.

(Odd, really, when you consider that he had little regard for comfort himself, and sometimes built distinctly uncosy houses: a fact reflected in the frequency with which they come up for sale, perhaps.)

The first part of his career can be characterised as Arts and Crafts, with lots of pegged-oak construction and whitewashed walls. The general look derived from the tumbledown dwellings that he had sketched as he cycled around the Surrey lanes as a boy, using sharpened soap on a sheet of glass (having a prodigious memory for form, Lutyens had no need for paper). In time, he threw over cottaginess for the ‘High Game’ of Classicism, which he punningly called his ‘Wrenaissance’.

Marsh Court, outside Stockbridge, in Hampshire, is an early masterpiece, built in 1899. It wears its Arts and Crafts devotion to local materials on its sleeve — or rather your sleeve, as it is built of dazzling white clunch, a kind of chalk; there will be a white mark on your shoulder if you lean against it. Typically, Lutyens didn’t reject blocks which had flints in them, their knobbly shapes emerging from the otherwise flat surfaces like trolls from a snowdrift.

Inside, the theme continues, with the billiard table resting on an immense bed of chalk, but only so far: the enfilade of rooms along the garden front is sumptuously panelled in the Grinling Gibbons manner, foreshadowing Lutyens’s later style. It must be a great house for a party.

Eighteen months ago, you would have had to pay £14 million to buy Marsh Court. That may seem a big price, but this is a trophy house, immaculately restored. By this autumn Savills and Knight Frank had dropped the price to £10 million. Of course, prices are tumbling everywhere; the runaway British property express has hit the buffers so comprehensively that mortgage lending for August 2008 was down 98 per cent on the figure a year previously.

But you wouldn’t have bought Marsh Court on a mortgage. Indeed, the super-prime, £5 million-plus end of the market has been – until recently – largely unaffected by the hoo-ha that has rattled every level from £2 million down.

Mark Lawson, of the upmarket buyers’ agent the Buying Solution, claims he’s being rushed off his feet by impatient billionaires wanting a deal. Well, you don’t get much more of a deal than £4 million off. But would Marsh Court sell at the new asking price? Or would that price fall further? (At the time of going to press, the sale was under negotiation for an undisclosed sum.) What is this house — or any house — worth in these weird times?

The answer to the last question is that nobody knows. You might say that a house is worth nothing at all unless someone is willing to buy. But while experts used to have a pretty shrewd idea of when that point would be reached, certainties of that kind have now gone out of the Elizabethan-inspired mullioned window.

A banker friend summed it up: ‘We don’t seem to have an idea of value any more.’ He wasn’t only, or even principally, thinking of the property market. It applies across the board: all those sub-prime mortgages that were bundled up, passed from hand to hand in an overheated atmosphere, and are now smelling so rank that some financial institutions are having their heads held over the lavatory bowl by the central banks. It goes back to the dotcom hysteria of the 1990s.

The bubble popped in 2001, spattering everyone within spitting distance with goo. But the idea that novelties that nobody except clever geeks understood might be worth more than anybody could imagine had taken hold. Clever geeks sometimes lack common sense. On the whole, it’s unwise to bet the bank on them, but at Lehman Brothers they did.

In fact, what sensible people of a certain age — my parents, for example — would once have called too-clever-by-half is now the presiding genius of the age. I wonder how many people have given up trying to understand their personal finances. Quite a lot, I suspect.

It’s all so complicated. They’ve got debts everywhere. Their financial advisers have persuaded them to invest in strange products of which they have only a tenuous comprehension. They’ve given up on their pensions. They don’t really know if they’re doing quite well, or are fundamentally stuffed.

Britain has, perhaps appropriately, been the world torchbearer for too-clever-by-half-ness. In the 1980s, we had Margaret Thatcher, bringing the myth of her childhood under Alderman Roberts in a Grantham grocer’s shop into 10 Downing Street: people felt that the national finances were run on the tight-fisted model of a shopkeeper’s till. Like her or loathe her, you knew where you were.

Since 1997, it’s been a New Labour government whose prime skill lies in wrapping public policy in paradox and obscurity. Taxes that don’t appear to be taxes; longer jail sentences without more prisons; foreign invasions but no proper investment in the armed forces; green energy targets but no replacement of our clapped-out old power stations.

We hear a lot about the government’s moral compass, yet it had to be compelled by the High Court to allow retired Gurkha soldiers to remain in this country — surely a decision that most people would regard as a moral no-brainer. How apt that Peter Mandelson, dubbed the Prince of Darkness, should have been brought back into the cabinet.

The turbulence of the financial markets is a small matter compared to the enormity of the challenges faced by our parents and grandparents. They fought in world wars, saw empires melt away, witnessed devastation and misery across Europe, lived under partition and the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

They often had dreadful lives. But they were fortunate in generally having a pretty confident sense of where they stood in the world. They grew up sharing the values of their neighbours. They knew what things were worth.

I don’t want to be sentimental: for many it was a world of grind, poverty and narrow-mindedness. It did, however, produce wonders such as Lutyens’s Marsh Court. £10 million doesn’t seem too much for a passport to the land of certainty and idealism from which it came.