The innocent-looking word "property" once stopped me being accepted into Oxford University. I was 16 and had applied to read law at Exeter College. As I was from a line of poverty-obsessed Irish immigrants, none of whom had been to university – my grandmother left school at nine – this was truly like sending a lamb to slaughter.
A couple of law dons sat on either side of me and asked me to define theft. “Taking someone else’s belonging without their permission” was my nervous answer. The dons’ sadistic game was then to fire examples of taking another’s belongings that contradicted this simple definition and ask me to amend it accordingly, adding endless subclauses, such as “without intending to hand the object back” and “assuming that the other person objects to its being taken”.
I’d built up a long-winded definition, with about five subclauses, when one of the dons suddenly introduced the word “property” to the conversation. “So taking someone’s property . . .”
Property was the thing that had lifted my grandmother out of grinding poverty and whose importance had been drilled into us as children
This slightly confused me. “Property” had a completely different connotation for me from what it had for the dons. Property, in the sense of real estate, was the lifeblood of my family – the boarding houses that my grandmother had acquired in 1930s Manchester and tenaciously held on to through the terror of the Blitz. Property was the thing that had lifted her out of grinding poverty and whose importance had been drilled into us as children. This is what the word “property” instinctively meant to me.
“Theft would not have to involve someone’s property,” I interjected – and left the dons and myself momentarily staring at one another in mutual miscomprehension. “He means real property,” one of the dons finally remarked to the other, as if dealing with an imbecile. I was asked to resume my long-winded definition, but I discovered that it had completely disappeared from my mind.
If I had come from a family of eminent barristers rather than low-level landlords my Oxford interview might have proceeded considerably more smoothly. But I have found throughout my life that property investment is an activity that has to be kept almost as a shameful secret.
I maintained a double life, studying for a PhD in literature during term time and hunting for property-investment opportunities during holidays
In my 20s, when I started building up a portfolio, I maintained a double life, studying for a PhD in literature during term time and hunting for property-investment opportunities during holidays. My academic supervisors would have been horrified to know what I got up to while I was out of sight.
When I came to publish my first book – an academic tome souped up from my PhD – the publisher asked me what university I was working at. I had to nervously respond that I didn’t actually work as an academic but, rather, derived my income from property investment. The publisher’s eyes opened wide: if they put that on the book people would think I was a gangster!
Since then I’ve maintained a strict division between business and artistic activities. I never liked the idea of my tenants’ knowing what books I was writing or what my personal interests were: this seemed like an unnecessary invasion of privacy.
But, equally, in the academic and artistic world, telling anyone that you are a landlord is a short cut to not being taken seriously. Business and art generally don’t mix (or at least interact mainly on the plain of patron and client), but within that uneasy relationship landlording was always seen as the particularly dirty end of the business spectrum.
Finally art and property began to assume some kind of synergy, and I could present myself not as a mere investor but as a restorer of once-magnificent buildings
Things did improve a bit with the millennium buy-to-let boom, when suddenly investing in property was the new cool and landlords became rebranded as “buy-to-letters”. But it still wasn’t enough to lure me out of the closet in my academic and artistic circles.
What finally allowed me to come clean on all fronts about a lifetime of property investment was the acquisition of historic and beautiful buildings. Finally art and property began to assume some kind of synergy, and I could present myself not as a mere investor but as a restorer of once-magnificent buildings, respectable in the eyes of the great and the good – supposedly even Oxford dons.
- Damian Flanagan is a property developer, writer and critic; @DamianFlanagan