The one in which Heather packs the fireplace…

Home is where the hearth is

Our house, in the middle of our street

We were tremendously excited when it became clear that Australia was going to be the next chapter in our lives together; but if we could have picked up our house, and brought it lock, stock and barrel with us to Brisbane, we would have done so in a heartbeat. Even though all of our possessions – including the lounge fireplace – were packed and stacked into a 40-foot shipping container to eventually join us, we were incredibly sad to leave our home behind. Because 39 Cotton Lane, in the bold, bright and altogether bohemian Birmingham suburb of Moseley, was our first home together as a couple; and little did we know when we bought it, quite how incredibly important this little, quietly unimposing house would become in providing us with a soft place to fall, and be our salvation when the going got tough. Really tough…

It was late summer in 2007 when Heather first saw the For Sale details in the estate agents window, and by autumn the deed was done to buy it. Our postcode ended with the letters ‘S-B’… And Heather said that this stood for ‘Somewhere Beautiful’. And she was right; it was. We were both starting over, each pretty much from scratch; but this house would be the happiest that either of us had ever lived in before.

Property values were riding high when we bought it, and there was every indication that its price would only continue to ‘go north’, as the estate agent who sold us the house liked to say… If we imagined how it would repay us for its hefty purchase price, and the heavy mortgage it took to buy it, we would have assumed that this would be achieved by the house automatically, year-on-year, increasing in market value; because that’s what houses do, isn’t it?

But notwithstanding the feel-good factor that this would undoubtedly give us, if truth be told, that situation wouldn’t really be driven by our shrewd business decisions along the way, would it? No, our house price would rise with every other house in the street, like a boat on an incoming tide; its value, and our equity, building steadily over time, whilst we went about our business elsewhere.

Of course, there are always wider forces at work; and what counted massively in our favour as we rode this property escalator was that as luck would have it, Heather and I were both born into the Baby Boomer generation; that is, we were children of parents who brought them into the world ‘just after the war’: an era ranging from 1946, all the way up to 1964. Heather and I were born within 3 weeks of each other, and whilst we both arrived close to the Boomer’s tail-end; we were still sufficiently a part of it that, with good fortune, we might well reap the rewards from the fortuitous accident of being delivered into the longest-living generation in history – and what some consider to be – the wealthiest. And for the BB cohort, much of this prosperity has come through the ownership of the bricks and mortar that they happen to live in.

Increasingly after the second world war, and growing apace in the 1950s and 1960s, the market for property became so popular, and with successive government’s support, the economy for house building and home ownership so favourable and widespread, that a property could be relied on to pretty much double its worth every 7 years.

Heather did well financially with her homes in the southern hemisphere during the 1990s, before she took some hits, literally, and life started to unravel around her. My position on the property ladder had been arrived at in a steadier fashion over two decades as a homeowner in the UK; but nonetheless I too managed to lose a significant amount of my winnings as personal relationships and financial responsibilities headed in diametrically opposed directions. It has been said before: such is life.

Ill blows the wind that profits nobody

If 2007 ended with forecasts of a chill wind beginning to blow, we did not feel it nor heed it (not least of all because we had prudently invested in cavity wall insulation and new double glazing when we moved in). But we certainly started to shiver in the cold economic winter of 2008, as the significance of the Global Financial Crisis became apparent. What happened has been described by many as the most serious economic downturn since the beginning of the Great Depression, way back in 1929. With unheeded warnings at the time, and the benefit of hindsight after the event, this was plainly a monetary car crash of gargantuan proportions just waiting to happen; it was accelerated into at full throttle by laughable financial regulation, and it was further compounded by joyriding and reckless risk-taking by all the major banks. The Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008 heralded an international banking crisis, and then the US housing bubble burst. With it went the valuations of mortgage-backed securities that were tied to the American property market… And what that meant for you and I was that as day follows night, that year, and continuing the trend in 2009, our property values went south. The tide was well and truly going out.

So, there we were, sitting on a property that we had bought at the top of the market, with a mortgage that even Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl would feel stretched by, and our equity was slowly, and steadily, eroding. This was not how it was meant to be for the Baby Boomers, was it? Our finances were on the line, and as much as we loved our new home, we started to seriously question whether we had made a bad decision by mortgaging ourselves to the hilt. It was a question we would ask ourselves again, later, and thank our lucky stars that we did.

Now at this point, I think it is worth mentioning the type of mortgage that we had at the time; and I want to do this because I became sensitive about the way in which ‘our’ kind of mortgage came in for a lot of bad press, when it was ‘American-ised’ and the BBC newsroom started to use a new term, ‘sub-prime’, in a rather snooty way that only the BBC can truly pull off. What I had taken out was a product in the fine tradition of the British financial services sector – a ‘Self-Certified’ mortgage, it was not some Yankee, sub-prime nonsense. So, what is the difference, I hear you ask? I would say it is this: a British Self-Certified loan was a type of mortgage that enabled individuals to borrow without having to rigorously prove their income; and therefore, these types of mortgages were popular with self-employed business owners (like me) who often found it more difficult to prove their regular income than salaried employees did.

From my point of view, having been a freelance sound professional in the film and television industry since 1989, I couldn’t honestly predict from one month to the next what I would be earning: one phone call might mean ‘Top Gear’ were booking me for three weeks (‘how do you feel about coming with us to America?’); another call might be confirmation of a busy summer on ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ (I recorded the sound for five series’ of the programme); and then the diary would fill-in with days here and there on commercials (the Halifax Building Society was a regular client); there were also days on various corporate shoots (filming internal communication topics for the likes of Cadbury’s, Boots and Jaguar) and what used to be called ‘pop videos’ (which included every single from the wonderful UB40 album ‘Promises and Lies’). But as is the way of freelance life, some weeks there would be nothing at all coming in.

However, over the course of a year, and based on my experience of good and bad years, what I could predict with some accuracy was what my baseline annual income would be – and that is how I set my limits and bought three houses, for increasing sums of money. Self-Certified mortgages were of course more expensive to the borrower, because of the perceived increased risk of default; and by the time the UK Financial Conduct Authority outlawed such products in 2014, it had become fashionable in the trade to call them ‘Liar Loans’, which offended me greatly. Because I am here to tell you that between 1990 and 2014, through all kinds of personal and professional crises, I did not miss a monthly repayment. Not once. I never even made a late payment.

Conversely, the American sub-prime ‘miracle’ model was brought about by unsuitable borrowers with low-or-no credit ratings being advanced money by lenders, even if their credit history showed all four of the major warning signs: a low credit score, an inability to provide anything more than a tiny down payment, a history of late payments and severe delinquencies on previous loans. The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome of all this, exposed brilliantly in director Adam McKay’s 2015 movie ‘The Big Short’, (based on the book by Michael Lewis), showed that these loans were not only poorly structured, high-risk packages of loan securities; they had also received inaccurate AAA ratings from credit agencies, that implied a degree of financial safety that they patently did not deserve. When they were subsequently repackaged and resold in highly questionable ways, they suggested significant assets; but ones that ultimately could never, ever, be realised – the merry-go-round was that they just kept being sold on. Which is a long way around to say: that is not quite the same as me being a freelancer, forever juggling our household budget to make sure we never missed a mortgage payment.

So, whilst we continued to face the economic chilly winds of the time, and somehow kept servicing our expensive mortgage, in return our lovely home remained our safe refuge. A place where we shut out the world and slept soundly; this was our castle and our keep.

Jason Donovan, Guz Khan, Alison Hammond, Joe Lycett et al… They’ve all drunk tea in what Stephen Graham described to Warner Bros. in Hollywood as The Audio Suite’s ‘English country garden’

Life is like a box of chocolates’

Some years earlier, I had moved on from being a solo freelance location sound recordist to owning an audio post-production business and employing staff. But by 2010, the reality of storm clouds gathering overhead had different connotations for us than the simply metaphorical; dark cumulonimbus hanging over our studios did not bode well. The facility I was running – The Audio Suite – was housed in a smart, newly refurbished establishment in the shabby-chic media area of down-town Birmingham, and we were a busy operation: as well as working on feature films like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning ‘Lincoln’, between my picture editing partner and my sound department, we edited and mixed hundreds of hours of television programmes like ‘The Gadget Show’ and ‘Fifth Gear’.

From the off, the expensively refurbished premises for our ’boutique’ sound and picture editing facility gave us cause for concern, through annoyingly persistent rainwater leaks in the ground floor editing rooms during heavy showers. What these warning signs foretold was of an impending doom that would later, and catastrophically, unfold; and so it was that during one great deluge of rain in 2012, the roof that had been guaranteed in writing by the landlord as new and watertight when we moved in, decided that after only a couple of years, enough was enough, and it gave up on its primary function.

The Audio Suite has been Birmingham-based for over 20 years

It later became apparent that the building’s outer roof hadn’t been replaced at all by the landlord; and the consequence was that like a biblical tidal wave sweeping all before it, the ground floor ceilings simultaneously collapsed under the weight of accumulated rain water; straight into and onto the expensive downstairs video editing suites. In one fell swoop, precisely half of our sound and picture business disappeared: and in a crackle, a fizzle, a phut and a splat, so did tens of thousands of pounds of sensitive electronic video editing equipment.

The upstairs of our facility housed my domain, the sound studios: a Dolby mixing theatre and two further mixing rooms that through the genius of acoustic engineer Richard Vyvian’s Big Sky design, were rooms within rooms, barely touching the outside fabric of the building. The wonder of this engineering had two significant facets: the first was that the rooms were inherently silent of any extraneous noise, and they were able to be ‘tuned’ by Richard to deliver an optimal reverberation time (that’s important when you’re mixing movies); the second was that the water gushing in through the collander roof travelled past the sound studios without pause, through the acoustic wall cavities, and landed with full force on the ceilings of my partner’s picture editing suites below. Had the situation been read on the radio as part of Saturday’s classified football results, you would have heard James Alexander Gordon announcing: ‘Sound Editing – three, Video Editing – nil.

We obviously could not continue to run our business from the building, it was impossible to function or receive clients; and with electrical equipment, it was dangerous. We had no choice but to move out. What followed this decision turned out to be the two most intimidating, debilitating, and anxious years of our lives. We became embroiled in a court case that escalated over time and involved QCs, Lincoln’s Inn Barristers and legal costs that ran to hundreds of thousands of pounds; and we faced losing everything if we lost our case, including our beautiful home. The sting in the tail was that as soon as this calamity hit us, what had been positive negotiations for the acquisition of our business by a bigger player, for a life-changing amount of money, immediately ceased.  

The seven people employed full and part-time by me to support the sound department were made redundant, and we had no choice but to close the company; even though we were solvent: a point not lost on the insolvency practitioner I was forced to engage. Out of principle I even paid the last bit of VAT due to HMRC, so that like a Captain going down with his ship, as the Managing Director, I would know that I had done the honourable thing.

It is obvious now, but then, when our days were spent like rabbits trapped in car headlights, the solution to our need for new premises was not immediately obvious. But when the penny did drop, we bought back The Audio Suite name, maxed out credit cards to buy back kit from the insolvency practitioner, and we hit on the idea of bringing the business home.

By the time spring came, 39 Cotton Lane had become a fully operational sound facility: we had adapted, treated, re-wired and made space in the two back bedrooms to somehow fit-in two of the three beloved Fairlight audio editing and mixing consoles that had served us so well in our previous set-up. Richard Vyvian once again advised me on acoustic isolation, and our voice booth had a window that looked out over the back garden, directly out onto the upper branches of a Cherry tree, which at this time appeared magnificent in full bloom; and whilst we once again could be called The Audio Suite, the studios themselves needed a new name to reflect our new start. Cherry Blossom Studios seemed perfect – it had sunny and optimistic connotations for what were still dark days of uncertainty for us.

All things must pass; and after two years of bitter wrangling. so did our legal and financial nightmare. I will not bore you with the minutiae of the outcome (actually, I am not allowed to, not yet anyway); but it came as a massive relief for it to be over. The main thing was we kept the house because we were vindicated in law: we successfully defended the inequitable damages brought against us for leaving the premises mid-term, unbelievably served on us by the party that had created the miserable situation in the first place. Disappointingly, we were unsuccessful in recouping any compensation for the loss of the business sale. But what would have been ruinously large, six-figure legal bills were met in full; and the bank did not foreclose on us – in fact, they started being nice once again. Pragmatically, if not in any way emotionally satisfying, we had got a result. But it took us at least five more years to recover from the trauma of it all. We had gambled the ranch and it had taken us to our psychological limits; and the question we now asked ourselves about buying the house was: ‘what would have happened if we hadn’t?’

This is what my heart looks like

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger

In part 2 of the story of Cotton Lane, I’ll go on to tell you how we quietly built one of the UK’s most prolific home studios, whilst remaining a place that no one knew was there; and how for nine years our wonderful little house would welcome through its anonymous front door some of the most celebrated actors in modern feature film and television production; how Malala and Moby came to visit; and what Heather prepared for Jason Donovan when he unexpectedly came to lunch.

Cover picture: This home is where our heart is. The beautiful bright red Acer Palmater to the left of the picture, a golf course favourite, was planted by us as a tiny sapling when we moved in to remember two much-loved golfers: Heather’s Dad Dennis Reinman, and my dear ex-Father-in-Law, George Foster. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021]

I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.

Neil Life

2 Replies

  1. I am so glad I saw this. Your story is so fascinating and I look forward to learning more as your new adventure evolves. Having met you and Heather, albeit briefly, I know what positive, inspiring, people you are and shall enjoy sharing vicariously in your new life. Best of everything to both of you!!

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