We have downsized to a smaller home and it has freed us to live the life we want | Damian Barr

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The Guardian

Downsizing is, let’s be clear, a privileged problem – and not one I ever expected to have. I grew up in a series of well-built council houses in Scotland at a time when Margaret Thatcher might turn up with the keys in exchange for a sports bag of dirty fivers if you exercised your right to buy. My parents never could or would. A “bought hoose” was a distant dream, even as “luxury units” mushroomed around our village, neat new boxes popping up where slag heaps once sat. They triggered my aspiration, but also made me feel ashamed.

I didn’t live in private accommodation until university. Neither of my parents were supported to finish high school, so they knew nothing about university. They couldn’t warn me about petty rules, how repairs can be late but rent never can be, and how you are always living on borrowed time. My landlady evicted me after finding me in bed with my first boyfriend – she cited the “moral” clause in my contract, which I had missed. Legally, she was in the right. Luckily, I found a shared house to move to and swore I would never be so vulnerable again. Buying became about security, not prosperity.

The classic Kirstie’n’Phil trajectory is: a one bed flat in an up-and-coming area with your first partner, followed by a two-bed flat with a new partner, then a three-bedroom house close to good schools with your eventual spouse, where you will have fever dreams of a Georgian for ever home. This, of course, assumes that there are two of you, you are having children and you have access to inherited wealth (something that will probably never be discussed, because you don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, least of all yourself).

I now live with my husband, we are not having children and our parents will not be leaving us stuff to take on the Antiques Roadshow. We did get help from my husband’s beloved grandparents, however, and I will always be grateful to them. To secure our first mortgage, we had to answer questions about sex – no, really. Our bank manager asked about our sex life because, in the 2000s, your HIV status could determine whether you got a loan or not. It was mortifying. After all that, we got our first flat and then, years later, a Victorian terrace with a decent garden.

Our new neighbourhood was a festival of renovations. Had we thought of doing our loft? Why didn’t we turn our big bathroom into another bedroom? What about building over the back garden? But we didn’t need more room – we didn’t need a nursery or space for bunkbeds. Yet we felt we should. Why didn’t we want the same as everyone else?

Increasingly, we felt as if we were living out somebody else’s script. We had worked hard to build our own “logical family”, as the author Armistead Maupin calls it: a loving family in the now, not for ever. But our house was pushing us into a life we did not want to live. It was the very architecture of heteronormative capitalism. So, eventually, we downsized. Or rather, we aligned the house we live in with who we really are, not who society presses us to be.

Why, one estate agent worried, were we getting off the ladder? Because the ladder climbs away from where we want to go. I definitely had a wobble – a nervousness I attributed to status anxiety, but which I recognise now as the familiar feeling of having to forge a new way.

After letting go of what people think, I then had to let go of lots of things. Books were the hardest. When the writer and editor Diana Athill emptied her shelves to move into a care home, she briefly ended up in hospital and blamed the stress of it. I thought of her as I culled.

Now, I have a one in, one out policy (and a storage unit that I will one day empty, I promise). We put furniture we had saved for on eBay and sent clothes that seemed silly (and a little tight) after two years of the pandemic to charity shops. What started out as fretful ended up as freeing.

Finally, I feel as though I am home.

Damian Barr is the author of Maggie & Me and You Will Be Safe Here; he presents the BBC’s Big Scottish Book Club

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July 19, 2022 at 06:49PM Damian Barr

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