Not my home, but… – on reading, remembering and using never before visited places
June 10, 2012 Leave a comment
This blog-essay is about meaning-making and tries to capture how in the first few hours I drew heavily upon memory and other ‘dust’ in order to make sense of a new place and learn how to temporarily dwell there. It’s an analytical postcard of sorts. Looking back on it I don’t now recognise much of those early memory-laden impressions, which is the point. For, once acclimatised via this process, the lived-present increasingly took over.
As we pulled into the drive and swung around to face it, the process inevitably kicked-in. We each started to make sense of our holiday cottage in accordance with the mental baggage we’d individually brought along for the ride.
In providing a photo of the cottage here, I’m triggering your own process of interpretation too. Did you think bunker? Beached ship? Bauhaus? I did.
But did it also spur you to think of: Sunday mornings robing in a fading 1950s suburban church hall?; complex early 1970s family scenes set amidst paisley curtains and orange wallpaper?; early 1980s swimming lessons in a municipal pool courtesy of the South Western Electricity Board? For me it triggered those personal biographic associations too.
In this blog-essay I will explore some of the ways in which I projected meanings onto the canvass of this place, and by doing so add further to my developing argument, that place is actively created by the act of interpretation by each of those passing through it. For far from telling me about itself, and channelling meaning, the house initially presented a set of stimuli, open to differential interpretation. And that interpretation in each visitor is partly shaped by culture and partly by biography.
In part I’m influenced here by a paper I heard at the Affective Landscapes conference recently when I chaired a session on Traumascapes. Katja Hock’s (Nottingham Trent University) paper on the transplantability of memory-recall to surrogate places (in her case forests), showed how surrogates may come to feel more authentic as memory aid than the original site of the events to which the memory relates. This may be for practical reasons – time’s passing has changed the original venue – or something more primal and affective than that, perhaps a smell, a colour-tone, a reminiscent creak on the open staircase.
“Ah, Mr. Bond – we meet again”
Stepping into the cottage we were accompanied by the local housekeeper. A cultural gulf between us (she no English, me no French) was relieved momentarily by my reflex of blurting out “Ah Mr Bond, we meet again” or some other half remembered phrase from early 1960s James Bond films every time I enter a situation that tumbles back a childhood memory of scenes of stylised confrontation with a Germanic Mega-Villains. Here the trigger was the mechanical jolt of the electronic shutters winding up to reveal stunning pastoral vistas. A shared moment celebrated in a knowing chuckle from us both, then back to the job in hand – gesturing, polite smiling, pointing and nodding.
The image of the penthouse, base or lair is (for me and the housekeeper – and probably many others of our generation too) a powerful, trans-cultural medley that links an nervous awe towards advanced technology, the Modernist design ethic of the baddie’s lair and the thriller trope of the menacing rendezvous, with its calm malevolence.
My notion of ‘continental’ housing was acquired in childhood through war and spy films. Perhaps all continental housing of the post-war era looks like this cottage inside. Shutters are – of course – ubiquitous in these climes, but to English eyes they carry a more exotic connotation.
Other features within the cottage fitted the mould set for me by those films too – an asymmetric beaten copper chimney flue, a pair of masks – homespun echoes of abstract expressionism, Picasso and Jung. I dimly remember the era of tribal masks as ornament – the last echoes fading sometime towards the end of the 1980s, an atavistic drum beating at the heart of angular Modernism.
The church within this place
Many of the resonances presented here were fleeting and/or consciously summoned. But one was recurrent, and embedded deeper. Every time I walked up the open wooden stairs, past the copper tubing inset as railings I was tumbled back to memories of the physical essence of the 1950s ‘wood, glass and white walls’ suburban church hall I spent formative early teen Sundays in many years ago. Those were knockabout days, doing it for the money, shrunken cassocks with DMs protruding beneath. Early local steps on a journey to agnosticism. But the slightly damp smell, the slate floor, the tone of the wood on the stairs and the copper all took me back. Back to my strongest enduring recollection, a sermon in which the pathway to a virtuous life was presented through the metaphor of a crisp packet. The indictment: open the packet at the right end. The legacy: an uneasy feeling if I accidentally open a crisp bag upside down (honestly).
Paint flakes and old lady dust
In their first few hours of our visits, my kids searched for neat phrases to summate their reaction to the rustic local housing. They soon settled on ‘shabby’ and set about assigning houses into lists of ‘shabby’ and ‘not-shabby’ as we drove along. But my daughter also came up with the phrase ‘old lady dust’, which has great resonance. That smell of talc and stale air trapped in small hot homes of elderly relatives.
Dust is natural and unavoidable, but we fight against it. For Georges Bataille:
“dismal sheets of dust constantly invade earthly habitations and uniformly defile them: as if it were a matter of making ready attics and old rooms for imminent occupation of the obsessions, phantoms, spectres that the decayed odour of old dust nourishes and intoxicates” (in Dillon 2011: 31)
In linking dust to the invasion of particles of errant memory Bataille captures well the notion that a house could be haunted by an ‘elsewhere-past’ carried in the thoughts of those passing through it, alongside its own past’s accretion of matter. As Erikson notes “the creative aspect of human activity is sedimented as dead material” (87) things pile up, and feintly testify to the prior actions of others. Sometimes these layers present as strata, that can be read as a time record – drill down through a pile of books, journey to the back of a cupboard – others are less linear, presenting a heterogeneous muddle, inviting the viewer to create meaning from these accretions. I enjoyed both rummage-explorations in this cottage.
Outside, the housekeeper was insistent that we lock, bolt and bulwark the front gate at night (a practice which seemed to reflect an endemic paranoia – or privatism – to be glimpsed at the perimeter of many local homesteads).
Standing by the gate, performing a ritual that I didn’t feel the need for, I suddenly felt something crinkling in my hand, looked down and saw paint flakes now gathered there. What struck me was that there were two shades of blue. The Navy Blue of the gate that I recognised, and a lighter – Prussian Blue – underneath. Just like the ‘layer-beneath’ of my own garage door at home. You can’t buy Prussian Blue for love or money nowadays, yet in the 1950s it was endemic (along with its more culturally durable cousin, Racing Green). But Prussian Blue is outré now – a colour in exile, much like Turquoise was, until it’s (inexplicable) recent rehabilitation.
Can you unselfconsciously row a boat on your holiday cottage’s lake?
Why do I feel compelled to reassure the reader that this wasn’t a posh place? Honestly, it wasn’t. But it had a lake. And a boat. So we tried it out.
Watching my kids get to grips with rowing was a memory-in-production. Something that we were conscious would (or should) become a cherished holiday remembrance for us as a family. But it also triggered a whole stock of received cultural tropes, and other peoples’ memories. I’ve never expected to find myself, and my family, facing ‘on golden pond’ moments. Watching us on this lake became intertwined with these notions of WASPs holidaying in Vermont, Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons territory. Therefore performance of our use of this lake was at times self-referential. But at others, this search for referents switched off and learning to row became an end in itself. Even we achieved the simple nirvana of ‘messing about in boats’.
And yet, watching my kids master a new skill, and conscious of their rather basic swimming abilities, at times my attention turned to my own experience of learning to swim. I had been taught by my aunt, travelling with her to the local municipal swimming pool every Thursday evening (the night set aside for exclusive use by staff of the South Western Electricity Board). Standing by this lake on the day of our arrival I had received a call confirming that my aunt had died after a short illness. This water and this learning experience could not therefore – for me – just be a simple pleasure in the ‘here and now’. This irruption of the past made a linkage to my past. It did not dominate our holiday or our use of the lake, but it gave it some context, connecting ‘now’ to a ‘then’ and ‘somewhere else’.
Instructions for use
But getting to know (and use) a temporary dwelling is not an entirely free-form process. There is a layer of explicit normative coding deployed by the owner. As a family we’ve holidayed in many rented cottages across the UK over the last 20 years. Venturing to a ‘foreign’ holiday cottage for the first time is a process that accentuates the induction entailed in ‘explaining’ a house to its new temporary dwellers. When you visit somewhere there are subtle processes of induction and steerage, normative expectations that need to be transmitted to the new arrivals. In most places those processes pass unnoticed, in UK rental cottages we’ve naturalised to the process, so stepping abroad gave us clearer sight of how the steerage is given. Due to language issues and the need to cater for a wider range of cultures (more countries from which dwellers may hail, things need to be ‘spelt–out’ more).
This normative mapping is provided through a variety of processes: the physical arrangement of this place, the context set by the brochure description, the tone of the housekeeper’s welcome, the ‘Guide for our English visitors’ , the notes pinned around the house describing how the cooker, the heating and toilet should be used.
In arriving here the processes of dwelling – which would shrink into the background through familiarity if we stayed here long enough to become ‘residents’ – are matters of preoccupation and concern. Where does the rubbish go? How does this TV work? Where does food come from? All of these loom large, and we must read this house and its instructions in order to learn how to live here.
And then there are the incursions of law and liability-anxiety. At this cottage these are low key – some warnings about the lake and open staircase as ‘hazards’ in the brochure and some netting affixed in recent years to prevent falls from the balcony. There was nothing here to rival my favourite example of holiday-cottage liability aversion: contractual small print absolving the rental company of any liability should any member of the holidaying party commit suicide (presumably a term prompted by this sometime happening) or my cherished example of the gap between what the lawyers write and the owners use – a sign encountered in a UK cottage complex, warning that the owners would accept no liability for any misuse of the swimming pool. Nothing unusual about that, except that at the bottom of that sign it said:
“[insert here the name and contact details of the owner]”.
The owners had received the lawyer’s wording and pasted it up without filling in the missing details – perhaps without reading it at all. They had ordered this magic wording, this talisman, and fixed it up to ward off the evil that they feared. They saw it as something abstract, and separate from the ‘owner’s notes’ aimed at actually explaining how to use this place.
And something struck me as strangely familiar about this sign. And then it hit me: I’d written it two years before. I was the legal soothsayer from whom this spell had been purchased. That was an early introduction to the ‘gap’ between inference and implication. In my professional world there is a literalistic assumption: that people will understand and do what you are telling them. But people (clients, owners, visitors) bring their own baggage to the act of interpretation of documents and places – they are steered by conventions and what comes before, but in the end make place or action their own according to their needs and desires, for as Eriksen puts it:
“Human action relates to earlier human action in the reproduction of and change to society. New acts are not mechanical repetitions of earlier acts, but at the same time they are dependent on earlier acts. The first act determines where the next begins, but not where it ends.” (2001: 87)
As our holiday week progressed, our cottage came to feel our own. We passed out of the ‘getting to know it’ phase. The reliance on metaphoric recourse to ‘past’ and ‘other places’ prominent in early days faded. I got on with living my holiday rather than thinking or writing about it. Having set up our base camp we recursively adjusted this place to our needs and living style – both within the physical and normative shaping forces of this place and also within the framework of our own interpretative baggage. It was ‘ours’ for a while, then we removed our imprint on this place and handed it back, leaving few traces of our having passed through. As instructed (and in order to get our deposit back) we erased our own dust from this place, and packed up a few more memories to carry onward to the next encounter with a new place.
Dedicated to Auntie Joy: with thanks for the swimming lessons
and the Barry Manilow playing in your car on the journey home.
Dillon, B. Ed. (2011) Ruins – Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery: London.
Eriksen, T.H. (2001) Small Places, Large Issues – an introduction to social and cultural anthropology, Pluto Press: London.