I cannot deny that I am an incredibly nosy person. I find people fascinating and just love getting an insight into how different people live their lives and observing human interactions, trying to work out the nature of relationships. I am a helpless people-watcher and, in pubs and restaurants, I will have half an ear/eyes on what’s going on at my table (OK, maybe two thirds – just so people don’t stop inviting me out) and half (OK, a third) on the conversations and (ultimately more telling) body language of those around me. I’ve always been like that and I just can’t help myself.
I confess that when I was a teen I loved babysitting, as it meant someone was letting me into their house then leaving me there on my own to nose to my heart’s content, until I had built up a detailed picture in my head of their life, their loves, their foibles (sorry, past employers). Unsurprisingly, I also absolutely loved that weird programme, ‘Through the Keyhole’. The phrase ‘Who lives in a house like this?’ said in Lloyd Grossman’s signature sneering way, is often still in my head as I find myself in a new abode taking surreptitious glances around me like a detective searching for clues to unlock the mystery of the home-owners.
So one of the things I enjoy about my ecology role is that it takes me into people’s homes, enabling me to observe a huge diversity of walks of life, and the other night I struck nosy-parker gold. I was doing a bat survey at an insanely posh old manor house, but the kind of scruffy, rambling place that has seen much better days. Nostalgia of its proud heydey dripped off the walls in the sagging, heavy-limbed ivy and puffed listlessly through the stable-yard on sunlit dust motes. Yet its age-worn dignity was tempered by a scattering of modern sculptures of the human form in different media and various hints that its current inhabitants were less ‘proper’ and more hippy. There were huge, abstract metal faces propped up against the outside walls, and glimpses of alluring stone torsoes lining shelves in the brightly-lit rooms inside. Messages of peace and love, yin and yang and ban the bomb were scrawled in chalk over the stable walls and a group of lads with musical instruments poured out of a battered landrover and disappeared into the house as we arrived. My head swivelled on its neck like a meerkat, trying to take it all in. What was this place?
Then the plot thickened further. No one was answering the door, so my colleague rang the home-owner. We heard him answer his phone from within one of the stables, and he soon sauntered out into the yard, a lean, long-haired, young-looking man with straw in his hair and a flirty twinkle in his eye – possibly early thirties or maybe younger. He oozed charm and good manners as he introduced himself, then from behind him a stunning brunette in jodphurs and rucked-up vest scuttled out of the same stable and made a bare-footed dash to the house, straw also in her hair and wearing a smug, sheepish smile across her blushing face. Clearly we’d caught wealthy heir ‘at it’ with the stable hand – I felt like I’d stepped straight into the pages of a Jilly Cooper novel – brilliant. I gave the owner a knowing smile and he smiled back unashamedly, with the kind of cheeky, nonchalant surety that I guess comes with inherited wealth.
We needed to go up into the roofspace to see if we could find any bats (we did incidentally – a maternity roost of brown long-eared bats, my favourite species :)) and as we negotiated twisting corridors and spiral staircases, I tried and failed to rein in my overt eyeballing. The furnishings and fittings were dated and shabby, and the place seemed more like an institutional youth hostel than a cherished home. Yet quirky, personal details belied the personalities of the occupants; vintage motorbikes stored haphazardly in empty rooms, yet more human sculptures, old maps pinned to the wall and peppered with annotations, tatty childrens’ toys – I was beyond intrigued…
On the way home I grilled my boss about what on earth the deal was there. It turns out the grandchildren, the oldest of which was the guy we’d spoken to, have inherited the property as part of a trust fund and all live there, sans parents it seems, who have acrimoniously divorced. Our contact, who seems to run the place, is also an artist, and the place seems to have become a bit of a hippy commune set-up, whilst still functioning as an active farm estate and stables. Absolutely fascinating, I tell you. For once my nosiness was fully sated.
It gives me great pleasure to know that so many different lifestyles coexist on our tiny island alone. I’ve surveyed seriously deprived housing estates, traditional old manor houses like this one, with all the associated quirks of faded grandeur, in your face ‘new money’ posh houses that lie behind paranoid electric gates, and a dizzying array of ‘normal’ houses where I see the huge diversity in the occupants and their approach to life and I realise that it is impossible to define ‘normality’. Behind each closed door lies an unfathomable mix of hopes, fears, passions, regrets, memories, relationships, bad and good experiences and everything in between. We can never know all that a person is, no matter how hard we study them and their life (try as I might), and I see that as a brilliant thing. One of the best and worst things about humanity is that transparency is impossible and, I would argue, undesirable. There’s something rather lovely about the thought that we are all unknowable to some degree – it keeps a sense of mystique and magic alive in the world, and keeps us all on our toes… 🙂
Who lives in a shoe like this? My nosiness knows no bounds (ha ha – love the ‘no-ness’ of that phrase!) as I discovered to my delight how accurately these shoes reflected their owners (their owners being some of the wonderfully eclectic group of people I was lucky enough to study Thai yoga massage with recently… :)). Guess which are mine?