The Good Life (or How to Make a Home)

The Good Life (or How to Make a Home)

Today, in Not the Guardian Family Section, writer Kate Lord Brown muses on loss, the skeletons in family closets, and how to create a home in an uncertain world.

‘If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton you may as well make it dance’

George Bernard Shaw

We live in uncertain times. Protests in the West, uprisings in the East, even Brand is baiting Paxo with calls for revolution. A recent article in The Telegraph claimed that we’ll never have it so good again. It was a thought that struck me over the summer, packing up one, two, three, houses – dismantling three remarkable family lives. They are the kind of homes I would love my children to grow up in – with apple orchards, and attics crammed with nonsense, junk and forgotten treasures. My grandmother, in particular, never threw anything away. The cellar shelves were full of dusty jars with mysterious preserves dating back decades, the box room full of carefully folded used wrapping paper, and the workshops were untouched since my grandfather died twenty years ago – chisels lined up by size, tools sleeping silently in hand made dovetailed boxes.

The article struck a chord. With hard work, that stability and longevity had always seemed possible. Now, to spend seventy years in a house like that would require not only a medical miracle (circumstance has left it a bit late), but a literary one (the standard reply, ‘Let’s hope so’, to ‘Oh, you’re a writer? Are you going to be the next J K Rowling, ha, ha?’ is delivered with increasing determination through gritted teeth). There is no such thing as writers block when you have a family to take care of, no better inspiration than riding the recession and redundancy.

My life and my grandmother’s could not be more different. She was tiny, barely reaching my waist towards the end. She never worked or learnt to drive, and lived independently in her own house until the age of 96 when she died, last year. She was of good Welsh Methodist stock – her mother from the Georges of Lloyd George, her father from the family who helped Henry VII defeat Richard and was rewarded with land and wealth. Lord knows what happened to all that, some mishap in the family tree no doubt – but that certainty, of who she was and what she believed in, and that strength of character stayed with her right to the end. She was fiercely intelligent and always determined, defying her family to marry my grandfather (a boxer, who she fell in love with at first sight when she saw him flyfishing in a stream in Pembrokeshire – he looked like Clark Gable). I admired her, and loved her, and miss her.

As an expat, the loved ones you leave behind at home are bright beacons guiding you back. In the last four years we have seen them go out one by one – a mother, two fathers, a grandmother. I am still punch drunk with grief – veering between a sense of deadened loss, or peaceful acceptance and thankfulness, to a wild rage at the unjustness and suddenness of it all. But you go on, and learn to cope the clichéd way – one day at a time. I have also learnt of the perfidy of blood relations. It is amazing, after someone dies, how skeletons tumble from closets and people reveal their true colours like vultures snatching for bones. So yes, I’ve learnt a lot, learnt to roll with the confusion, rage, grief, loss, betrayal – but as a writer, the saying goes, nothing is wasted. In time, all of this raw emotion will filter down and clarify into something universal and true (that piece of ice in every writer’s heart is glinting at the thought of it – I’m going to make those skeletons tapdance).

Whatever happens now, there is a sense of being battle-tried and in the front line – that it’s up to us to make a good life for our family, to care for the remaining older members and to help the youngest become the best people they can be. Change is the only certainty in life, and it’s with us on a global and personal scale. Historically, periods of upheaval are creatively rich. Let’s hope that’s the case this time. In the midst of clearing and packing up three family homes, I was grateful for all the peaceful years of love, for several good lives. As a global nomad, the people who stay put in one place like my grandmother, and put down roots, are exotic and curious to me. Right now, with our life in storage, I simply long for a place to unpack my books.

But I realised something. My grandmother moved into that beautiful old house in the middle of World War Two. In the midst of global uncertainty, she made something quiet and good, one day at a time. Perhaps that’s all any of us can hope to do. Interestingly, this line, ‘Your home is within you, you carry your place in the world,’ from The Perfume Garden has been picked up as a meme by domestic companies in the US. It’s obviously resonating at the moment in these uncertain times, and it’s something I believe. You carry it all – the love and the memories of the people and places that shape you, wherever you go and whatever changes you face. A good book and a good life is simply made – one word, one day at a time.

Before you go, take a moment to click on this video link


Kate grew up in the wild and beautiful Devon countryside. After studying at Durham University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, she worked as an international art consultant curating collections for palaces and embassies in Europe and the Middle East. When the family left London for the orange groves of Valencia, Kate began to write full time, publishing work internationally and gaining a MA Dist in Creative Writing. She now lives in the Middle East with her family, and writes a regular blog for writers juggling their work with family life, and the fortnightly Ahlan! magazine Book Club column. Her debut novel THE BEAUTY CHORUS was published by Atlantic in 2011, and this year THE PERFUME GARDEN is being published in seven languages.

You can find out more about Kate and her books by clicking  here.

To follow her wonderful blog, What Kate Did Next, click here.



  1. Sue Fortin
    31 Oct 2013

    So sorry to hear of your losses, Kate. An eloquent and moving post, which I found very touching. Wishing you peace and comfort made from happy memories.


  2. Sarah Schofield
    1 Nov 2013

    Lovely article. The thing I’ve found interesting and poignant when clearing houses after a loved one dies is pondering over why certain items; objects, scraps of paper with curious note or dates, long worn out clothing items, etc have been carefully kept by the person who has died. It makes throwing things away difficult because you wonder at the special significance that might be attached to a thing that at first glance doesn’t look to be anything of importance. I look forward to reading The Perfume Garden.

    • Kate
      1 Nov 2013

      Thank you, Sarah. It is the ephemera that’s so touching – there’s the obvious ‘skip’ pile, the ‘charity’ section, and the ‘keepers’ then there’s that nebulous collection of things so personal you still feel like you’re prying. Funny how you learn so much about someone only after they are gone.

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