Steering toward home, in all its forms
LONDON — Home Sweet Home, that cozy cross-stitched ideal, takes many forms, shaped by finances, location, and personal taste. But for the past 20 years, a Londoner named Ann Naysmith has lived out an unusual variation on that theme: Home Sweet Car.
In the early 1980s, the three-story house Miss Naysmith occupied in the suburb of Chiswick was converted to apartments. To protest her eviction, she took up residence in her blue Ford Consul. What began as a novelty gradually assumed an air of normalcy. The car became a permanent domicile. Some neighbors accepted her eccentric presence. One even affectionately dubbed her "our village character."
But this month, time ran out for the village character's rusting wreck. Residents complained that her four-wheeled eyesore threatened the tone and the value of the street, where houses sell for $750,000. Eccentricity is amusing on someone else's block. Most of us would side with the neighbors.
And so, two weeks ago, the Hounslow Council towed the rusted relic, citing health hazards and ignoring pleas from her defenders. A tearful Naysmith returned from a round of errands to find her home of two decades gone. The council offered her an apartment as a substitute. She refused.
British reporters and commentators have gotten good mileage, if you will pardon the pun, out of Naysmith's unroadworthy vehicle. Stories like hers also make good theater. Several years ago, playwright Alan Bennett memorialized another eccentric woman, Miss Shepherd, in his play "The Lady in the Van." For 15 years, Shepherd parked her battered van in his north London driveway, testing his patience and generosity.
These experiences may have their comic side, but underneath, a poignancy prevails. According to news reports, Naysmith is a well-educated former piano teacher. Shepherd also had a musical career as a pianist. What combination of events radically changed these two once-promising lives?
It's hard to feel too sorry for someone who turns down an apartment in favor of a car. Yet Naysmith's situation serves as a reminder of the precarious state of housing on both sides of the Atlantic. A government report released in London last week, "More Than a Roof," finds the ranks of the homeless declining. At the same time, those in a growing group of "hidden homeless," estimated at 400,000, have only temporary roofs over their heads. Count Naysmith among them.
Another report last week, commissioned for the mayor of London, projects that by 2016, London as the fastest-growing city in Europe will need 400,000 new houses just to cope with 700,000 additional residents. What happens to people like Naysmith, already living a marginal existence?
The Lady in the Car, as Naysmith could be called, underscores the touching need for roots, the need to belong somewhere, the universal hunger for a haven and stability. Her brand of fierce independence also reminds housing experts that simply supplying bricks and mortar is not always enough.
When Mr. Bennett was playing reluctant Good Samaritan to Miss Shepherd in her battered van, he noted that some of his liberal peers found themselves embarrassed by the comfort in which they were living. He described "a gap between our social position and our social obligations," adding, "It was in this gap that Miss Shepherd [in her van] was able to live." It is the same gap that Naysmith's neighbors face now.
For Naysmith, the loss of her beloved blue car has been tempered by the generosity of a sympathetic neighbor. TV actress Sian Line, who has lived across the street for five years, donated a 1980s red Mercedes Benz station wagon, complete with blackout windows for privacy. The shiny replacement also bears a friendly sign: "Welcome home, Miss Naysmith."
Defending her action, Ms. Line told British reporters: "We had no option, really. She is part of the community 'round here and didn't deserve to be treated like that."
Trading up to a Mercedes "house" Home Sweet Car ranks as dubious progress. But remaining part of the community counts as a victory of sorts. Home Sweet Neighborhood.