Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Secret Life of Houses, part one

 

I think this shows all the roofs in the house, each one representing a different phase of the development of this rambling building, but also disguising it

I think this shows all the roofs in the house, each one representing a different phase of the development of this rambling building, but also disguising it

Old houses are forever changing: the ground shifts under them, the wind and rain lash at them, insects eat their timbers, families (some of them human) move in, expand, die or move on, never without leaving some trace of themselves. Half of our house — of our wing of Orchard House — is over four hundred years old, perhaps far older than that if you listen to some people around here, though why they are so sure I cannot imagine; most of the rest is definitely a hundred and twenty years old; while the main staircase is dated somewhere in between. So there is a palimpsest to be read by a good eye (that would not be mine)….

The layers of history:  the finial is sister to a much more weathered one at the front corner of the house and it looks as though this one was once outside too -- that is, the house was extended around it, enclosing it indoors;  the fireplace seems to have been built at the same time as this upper floor was extended (the one directly below it on the ground floor seems older);  the Delft tiles may be original to the fireplace or added when it was repointed at some stage;  the embroidery was executed by my mother in the 1980s; and the hen and her yellow chick were made of recycled plastic bags in Africa early this century

The layers of history: the finial (silhouetted against the green, top right) is sister to a much more weathered one at the front corner of the house and it looks as though this one was once outside too — the massive brick chimney (which you can see left in the roof picture at the head of the post) was built  around it, enclosing it indoors; the fireplace seems to have been built at the same time as this upper floor was extended (the one directly below it on the ground floor seems older); the Delft tiles may be original to the fireplace or added when it was repointed at some stage; the embroidery was executed by my mother in the 1980s; and the hen and her yellow chick were made of recycled plastic bags in Africa early this century

Really old houses like this one have likely been empty for extended periods of their existence, neglected for perhaps a century at a time and generally maltreated. Our researches suggest that this house was two or three separate dwellings for most of the nineteenth century, and perhaps partly abandoned at times  The images below suggest some of this story.

Our house in about 1875, with three paths to it and divided into at least two parts.  An 1801 map shows these buildings as separate, but that cannot be relied upon either wayOur house on the Ordnance Survey map in about 1875, with three paths to it and divided into at least two parts. An 1801 map shows these buildings as separate, but that cannot be relied upon either way

This is possibly the entry for this house in the 1871 census: it was not called Oak Hall in any other census or document that I know of, but it tallies in other respects. I have deliberately not included the surnames

But for centuries before that it had been the farmhouse for what remained a working farm until halfway through the twentieth century. In 1895 the farm was bought by a prosperous local farmer, who built his family a modern place a few hundred yards away, from this house.  He then pulled down part of this old place (perhaps it was falling down on its own!) and added a new wing. In 1901, he moved into his new mansion up the hill, and sold this place to the village’s first doctor, who made his own adaptations, including a patients’ waiting-room at the side door. Doctors continued to live and practice here for most of the twentieth century, and our neighbour nowadays is the NHS surgery which succeeded the one in the big hall of this house.

The staircase, which will be beautiful when it is restored, may be eighteenth century, and would have been built when the house was occupied by the farmer. Such things were not built for farm labourers, who would have had to make do with access by glorified ladders.

The staircase, which will be beautiful when it is restored, may be eighteenth-century, and would have been built when the house was occupied by the farmer, possibly in the eighteenth century.  Such things were not built for farm labourers, who would have had to make do with access by glorified ladders.

How a place like this has stayed standing is a miracle. Most houses built at that date (1500-1600) have after all long since fallen down. Turn your back for a second and wham!, water gets in. Keeping water out is one way of describing the whole purpose of a house, and I once knew someone who was very convincing on the subject: the day we brought plumbing into houses was the beginning of the end of civilization, he said, and taking it above the ground floor was utter madness. Water is the enemy.

In Part Two of this occasional series, I’ll talk more about what water does to houses….

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Two a Penny

There is nothing in my history which makes me the grandmother who rises at six to attend to the sourdough loaf and to start the hot cross buns — to be ferried later that day from Orchard House to a house in South London… There is nothing in my history to make me so happy to be doing this.  My grandmothers didn’t do such things for me, and I didn’t expect them to.

I simply love doing it. hotcross buns 2014 The recipe was based on my Orchard House co-tenant’s two versions — one at her Feasts and Festivals blog, and the other in her lovely little book Cornish Feasts and Festivals.  That said, I had no mixed peel, so I used a good dollop of home-made marmalade (which worked very well) and instead of her spice mix I used mine, which I had by me in an airtight jar:

1 tsp each of fresh-ground
nutmeg
black pepper
cinnamon
cardamom
1 tsp ground ginger (not fresh-ground, as you need dry ingredients for this)
and 20 fresh-ground cloves.

The sourdough loaf was even better. I’ll write about that someday. My starter also came from my co-tenant: she calls hers Montezuma (ask her, don’t ask me) and so mine is Montezuma’s Mother. Clearly it is more a daughter, but I like the old term ‘mother’ for the starter.

In the real Orchard House. the kitchen was a good size, as befitted its status as one of the two centres of the house.  There is small sign that I can see that hot-cross buns were a New England tradition (perhaps the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers did not hold with such frivolous things), but bread was surely made in this kitchen.  I must discover if I can how they did it….

Pomona contemplates the fluff under the bed.

In one of my favourite trashy reads, the heroine is in her bedroom and pointedly ignoring her cousin who is trying to claim her attention. The cousin exclaims,

“Listen to me! There are more important things than clothes!”

The heroine calmly replies, “Of course there are. But not when you are dressing for dinner.”

I’m not sure that Georgette Heyer was actually trying to give us a lesson in mindfulness, but this passage has always struck a chord for me. She is reminding us to give something our best attention whilst we are doing it, then forget it and move on to the next thing.

Mindfulness is partly about concentration. Do you remember your school reports? Mine always said, ‘Sadly lacks concentration.’ Or ‘Her butterfly mind is in danger of failing to absorb the opportunities she is being given’ or some such arch nonsense. Actually by the time I left school I had bloody good concentration and it was obsessive reading that developed it. With my nose in a book – even a Georgette Heyer (or maybe especially a GH) I could have ignored the apocalypse. Sadly these days, flitting from one bit of the internet to another means I can pursue those butterfly thoughts deep into the pages of Wikipedia, even unto the place where I have forgotten my starting point.

The power of concentration though, is not what I have been pondering. I have been contemplating the loo. Armed with enough chemicals to alert the United Nations I’ve been cleaning the Orchard House bathroom. Despite an expensive and prolonged higher education I still put my arm down the lav. But d’you know what? I don’t mind. In fact I quite like doing it.

In the ‘real’ Orchard House, of course there would have been a servant like Hannah Mullet in ‘Little Women’, but those were the days when even modest establishments could boast such a maid of all work. I’ve never felt that cleaning was ‘below me’. That’s not to say, I haven’t, when pressed for time, paid someone else to do it (and that has never troubled my conscience either) but I don’t share the disdain for the daily round and common task that is usually expected of a bookish woman.

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(Early nineteenth century American woodcut)

Can I digress a moment?

I used to know a brilliant woman – a very elderly German refugee called Marianne Kuznitski. When I told her I was learning to drive, she said in her heavy Germanic accent, ‘My instructor, he is telling me, that it is most difficult to teach an intellectual to drive.” Then with a wicked grin she added, “Until then, I did not know I was one.”

So why are people surprised that I do my own housework? Because it’s seen as mindless? Because I could be spending my time more fruitfully on my own pursuits? Or even because I should be giving the work to someone who needs the money? An acquaintance who knew that I am preparing to move house, asked me recently if she could ‘take over’ my cleaner. Cleaner? What cleaner?

Of course intellectuals who live in a compete mess surprise no one and their name is legion. Iris Murdoch and John Bayley hunkered down in a squalid nest of domestic chaos. Simone de Beauvoir eschewed the duster on the grounds that it would only take a short time before everything was just as dusty as before. Here’s what she said.

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.’

There is an apocryphal story about Thomas and Jane Carlyle who, incidentally, had a maid who secretly gave birth in a cupboard. I wonder who cleaned that up? When a famous poet came to visit, he left his hat on the floor by his chair. Several months later when he returned, it was still there. Here is the very room.
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Of course one could argue, and I would, that you should apply your intellect to the domestic arts just as to everything else and there are numerous examples of academically minded women who were good cooks and gardeners and vice versa – Vita Sackville West and Jane Grigson to name but two. Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson were both the bakers of the family. Jane Austen made jam and worried about the price of fish.

So, far be it from me to disagree with the blessed Angela Carter, but I do. She wrote, “Oh God, in my misspent youth as a housewife, I too used to bake bread, in those hectic and desolating days just prior to the women’s movement….I used to feel so womanly when I was baking my filthy bread. An ecstasy of false consciousness’

It is the bog standard (if you will forgive the pun) business of cleaning that really gets us to the nub of the housework issue. Intellectuals are allowed to live in a mess and it’s seen as frightfully lower middle class to criticise them for being indifferent to their surroundings. They are allowed a filthy dishcloth or a splattered bathroom floor because their minds are on ‘higher things’. That, if you don’t mind my saying so, is a load of tosh.

Here’s a Carl Larsson to inspire you to a state of domestic perfection.

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I’m also wondering whether there is a vestigial notion that cleaning is a working class pursuit, writing is definitely middle class and you do not betray your class by taking over the territory of another? I don’t know. I throw these things out only for you to mull them over at your leisure.

Personally I work better in a clean(ish) house. ‘But you don’t have to clean it yourself!’ I hear you exclaim. Actually I do. I like to cook for myself and I like to cultivate my own jardin. And just Iike The Grand Sophy when she is dressing for dinner, if I’m cooking I try and think about cooking and if I’m gardening ditto. Although I must confess that when I’m cleaning, I do so to the accompaniment of very loud music. Fleetwood Mac or the Verdi Requiem are this housewife’s choice.

Anyway, next time you notice the fluff under the bed or the yellow stains in the toilet bowl, crank up the volume on the ‘Dies Irae’ or ‘The Chain’ (very appropriate) and pull on the Marigolds. You never know, you might enjoy it.

It’s your fluff after all.

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Link

… is the title of one of the volumes in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. In the book, the phrase is attached to a character called Bagshawe, a man in love with literature and publishing. Bagshawe is mostly a figure of fun, and I think we are meant to smile in a superior way at the sentiment. But Mr Bagshawe was right. Books do furnish a room; they can furnish a house, dammit!

We are great readers, here in Orchard House, and have been as far back as we can remember; and so it is that we love libraries, including our own. Here is a glimpse of what the book room was like in my last house:

A distant view of the book room at my previous house

A distant view of the book room at my previous house

In all the twelve years we were there, this is the best view I have — a blurry one, taken, as you can see, as we packed to move out. So you will have to take my word for it that there were three other sets of shelves like the one you see here, along two walls of the room. Below is a picture of our new book room in the making. The excellent deal is that the Domestic Comrade makes the bookcases and I fill them: another room is full of the boxes which will overflow the shelves which you can see stacked on the trolley front right — shelves which we at last started painting that day:  they got their undercoat.

Bookcases taking shape in the study in my wing of Orchard House

Bookcases taking shape in the study in my wing of Orchard House

.. and here is the same room a few weeks later, not finished but in use

.. and here is the same room two weeks later, not finished but in use

Meanwhile, in a place far from here, my friend is packing up her books to move into another wing of our Orchard House.  I am rather ashamed to admit that, even with my head-start of a year, it is very likely that she will have them all unpacked well before I have mine in order.

What to call a room full of books? (Apart from “agreeably cluttered”.) “The Library” sounds stilted, pretentious even. I think we say “study” more these days — or is that just in the British part of Orchard House? The New Jersey house where my mother grew up (and the first house I remember) was not a grand place, but the front upstairs room was called The Library. I recall two items in it: a small grand piano, which took most of the space and which no one played, and my grandfather’s set of the Harvard Classics, almost hidden behind glazed bookcase-doors, along with lots of other books. I have a sense that I wasn’t allowed in the library (I was five or six when the house was sold) — but I have a distant memory of sneaking in there, and lying under the piano, reading a book of my own.

Amos Bronson Alcott had a study in Orchard House where he kept his library….

Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, in his study (sorry about the small image!)

and his daughter Louisa had an alcove cupboard in her bedroom where she kept hers…

LM Alcott's desk and books

LM Alcott’s desk and books

These are modest libraries, of course, befitting the modest, at times less than modest, resources of the Alcott family. And then there is perhaps the most impressive personal library I know: Sir Walter Scott’s at his palatial pile at Abbotsford, which is as he left it, housing some seven thousand volumes.

Sir Walter Scott's library

Sir Walter Scott’s library

For most of us bibliophiles, Scott is not a model. Space and cost prohibit it. Orchard House is a better guide, if guide you need. And books do furnish a room. You will need a table and some chairs as well, plus a light, but then you’re done. The colour of the spines of your books are the best wallpaper, and there’s nothing to beat their smell.

Here is a picture of I know not which library — it could be the London Library (http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk) — but wherever it is, it is the real thing, a place clearly devoted to books.

My ideal library

My ideal library

Another such place is the magical Morrab Library in Penzance (http://morrablibrary.org.uk), an independent library, as is the London Library — but the Morrab is even older, founded in 1818, a generation before Thomas Carlisle thought of setting one up in St James’s Square.

The wonderful Morrab Library, Penzance

Corner of the wonderful Morrab Library, Penzance

In both places, the London and the Morrab, membership is a wonderful privilege. Just to wander the shelves and the stacks is one of the best uses of time I know. Getting lost in the vast, rambling, haphazard London Library, which is delightfully easy to do, is an adventure, every time.

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There is some evidence that the Alcotts’ home town, Concord (Massachusetts), had a public library from before 1672, and there was certainly a subscription library there from 1795; then from 1821 there was a proprietary library (something like Mudie’s was in Victorian England or Boots more recently). I don’t know whether the young Miss Alcott patronised it, but surely she was a member of the Town Library (which was housed in the new Town House, above), founded in 1851. And she must surely have joined the gingerbread-house Free Public Library (below) founded in 1873.

My first public library: Hasbrouck Heights

My first public library: Hasbrouck Heights

The first public library I joined was this one (above), in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. The children’s library was in the main library space, behind a low white picket fence which I adored; it was still there when I revisited it in the early 1980s, thirty years later, but I don’t suppose it is still there. The building is, however, and that early imprinting means that it remains my idea of what a public library should look like.

The library in my village, a former railway station

The library in my village, a former railway station

My current public library, here near the Kent (England) branch of Orchard House, used to be the railway station. Its selection of books is not wonderful, it is under attack as all public libraries are nowadays, but it does its best with the little it has. It is charming, isn’t it?

What do your bookshelves look like? What do you call the room where most of them are? Which are your favourite libraries?