What is this ship trying to tell you?
A face, Loretta Young said, “is like the outside of a house, and most faces, like most houses, give us an idea of what we can expect to find inside.” Our house is 74 years old, built during the Second World War as state housing: good quality housing for the working class. It’s still a good quality house. Rimu doors, matai floors, cupboards that don’t fly open in earthquakes…
A house is the embodiment of the culture which built it, but New Zealand culture has changed. As Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens noted in their book on the New Zealand state house, past and present (Beyond the State: New Zealand State Houses from Modest to Modern), most ex-state houses have been adapted, extended, enlarged. But not all. To quote: “Having lived in the house now for several years, Aaron [Kreisler, ex-state-houseowner] feels he has grown into it. Instead of adapting the house, he has adapted to it.”
There is a fascinating depth to that idea which I would like to delve into. The idea of cutting your coat to suit your cloth is quite passé, but why? What is the allure of indebting yourself in order to increase your space beyond what you actually need? First you spend money on stuff, and then you spend more on enlarging your house to fit it. Why not instead take the house as it is, as your ally in living a life of enoughness?
I feel particularly blessed in that regard, as my house seems to have been neatly designed for enoughness. It’s not an ornate and draughty Victorian behemoth, or an eighties temple to overconsumption, or even a modern there-is-a-house-somewhere-behind-this-garage architectural ode to our cultural dependence on personal vehicular transport. It’s a 1940s row house/terraced house, with a slightly cottagey aesthetic.
One can imagine the first occupants moving into it with the precious furniture that their family managed to hold on to through the Depression, each item carefully tended and given its own place. If there’s one thing that this house would not have seen a lot of in its early days, it’s clutter. Its ‘face’ suggests an interior of comfortable simplicity, an efficiency without sterility, a warm and unpretentious home. Slick modern luxury? No.
McKay and Stevens describe the ex-state house bathroom as “a surprisingly perfunctory space. It is tiny and speaks of a very different attitude to what is seen nowadays as an indulgent daily ritual.” Our very typical bathroom contains a bath, a basin (no stand, it’s attached to the wall) and a toilet, with the sum total of storage provided by a small medicine cabinet set into the wall. If you want to avoid accumulating clutter, the ex-state house bathroom is your friend, the tough no-nonsense kind of friend who will chuck your extra conditioner bottles out the window if you overcrowd the sill.
Storage becomes a bit of a theme in McKay and Stevens’ description. “But the thing you really notice when visiting these houses is how little storage space they had compared with today’s homes. We don’t take up more space, but our stuff seems to; indeed, quite significantly more. A standard-issue wardrobe for these times was about a metre wide. With all the consumer temptations thrown at us today, this would barely be enough for a coat collection.”
On reading this, I immediately thought of what could be construed as my coat collection. I have one winter coat of wool, one jacket ditto, one alleged raincoat (showercoat, more like), and one red velvet coat, plus one large cloak. This seems to me like a lot, but I can assure you, it doesn’t take up half of the wardrobe space which the 1940s have bestowed upon me. Six dresses hang in the same wardrobe, along with a collared shirt, two skirts, my evening wear, an off-season dressing-gown and my wedding dress. And a hanging doohicky which holds scarves, hats, kerchiefs, belts etc. And that’s just the rail. What more do I need?
“’There’s this fascination now for people making their mark with these über-sized houses,’ reflects Aaron, ‘where your kitchen has to be a chef’s kitchen and your bathroom a large walk-in space. [I am happy to say that I have yet to see a bathroom into which one cannot walk. Possibly he is conflating the idea of the large en-suite bathroom and the walk-in wardrobe?] The addiction to spending is huge. We are the generation that is allowed to carry large amounts of debt. And so the state house presents a different set of attitudes about ownership.”
Perhaps that’s something we can use to help ourselves, as our culture careers down the slope of constant-growth consumerism like an out-of-control shopping trolley toward the muddy ditch of debt and buyer’s remorse. If a house speaks to us of the culture that produced it, perhaps we can use the house as a way to reach back to that culture, or rather, a way for that culture to reach out to us.
I can’t help feeling, though, that the past is most likely to reach out and smack us round the head, shouting “what on earth do you need that many clothes for? How many bodies have you got? And what do you mean, his and hers bathrooms? Haven’t you got any bladder control?”
My house is 74, after all, and at that age you’ve got past any awkwardness about asking people embarrassing questions.
How old is your house? And what might it say to you?
I have never been honest with myself about my stack of books waiting to be read. In fact, I have been so far from honest about it that there isn’t even a stack. Not because I have it all in the form of e-books (I am a paper-lover, myself) but because I have cunningly hidden them all on the bookshelves among the books I have read.
I had a look this afternoon and was horrified to find that I own seventy-four unread books. Seventy-four. Take a minute to let that sink in. If I read one every week, that would last me til April 2017. If I did come clean and make an actual stack out of them, it’d probably be taller than me.
That isn’t counting reference books or the Stephanie Pearl-McPhee one I bought today. Or most of the Caped Gooseberry’s books, because I don’t plan on reading most of them (e.g. An Introduction to Abstract Algebra, Vol. I). Just to look a little legit, however, I did count the books I have started, but not yet finished.
Shall we look at the breakdown?
Non-fiction was far and away the largest section, with a whopping 44 books awaiting my attention, on subjects ranging from bookbinding to religious drama to the history of Europe to a book simply titled On Killing. (Not, you will be happy to learn, a DIY book.)
Fiction I broke down into Classics, General and Sci-Fi/Fantasy, since that’s how I shelve them. I have seven unread classics (including War and Peace, naturally) and seven unread members of the general fiction class.
There were only five unread sci-fi/fantasy novels, mostly due to buying a series which I am working through slowly.
I also have eight unread children’s books – those are the ones I intend to read myself, rather than keep for the convenience of visiting children – and a paltry three books of unread poetry or plays.
The question that then arose – “then” being after I’d recovered from the shock – was why all these books were unread. The reasons, of course, differed. Some I haven’t had for very long, like the Moomin book; others are just hard to get through. Like War and Peace. Others I feel I really ought to read, but never having had the mental energy and the interest at the same time, it hasn’t happened yet. I suspect my re-reading habits have a lot to do with this.
Mind you, with a lot of these books my intent is to read them once, and then pass them along.
So far, so slow. I managed to purge one fairly decent-sized book this month, as well as a tea-infuser in the shape of a duck (I love it, but it seemed selfish to keep it when I never used it) and a set of bracelets I found still bagged and tagged under a tree in our garden (a complete mystery).
How is simplicity looking in your neck of the woods?