Where the hearth is: we tend to remember details of homes we've lived in with a striking clarity. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lighted rooms inside your head

Houses aren’t just bricks and mortar; they become part of us.

A crash pad, a haven, a residence, a home . . . The 18 different buildings I’ve lived in to date have been, between them, all of these things to me. Most of my frenetic itinerancy has taken place during my adult years, though by the time I left home for university I’d already notched up six different addresses.

The first house I can barely remember; the second comes back to me in hazy snapshots – a sip of orange juice by the open door of the kitchen, a go on the tyre-swing in the garden (or was it a proper plastic seat?); but the third, where I lived between the ages of three and six, is a different matter. I can still take a mental walk through the rooms of that house in Newtown Road, Southampton. I can view it from the street – the rough, pebble-dash walls, the little bay window, the narrow tarmac drive – or I can walk through its interior, taking note of the layout, pausing at the turn on the stairs: right to my parents’ bedroom, left to my brothers’ and mine. I know where the windows are, the furniture – I can even see the fabric of the armchairs and curtains. And I can do the same with all the homes that came afterwards.

There is nothing exceptional about this. Why is it that we remember our houses with such uncanny clarity? The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard believed that there is a dynamic interplay between the mind and its surroundings. Each is shaped by and responds to the other. At the simplest level, a house may reflect something of our character through the furnishings we choose to adorn it, the colours we paint its walls, the number of locks we put on its doors and so on. But there is more to it than that.

The psychologist Carl Jung spent over 30 years building and extending Bollingen Tower, a second home for him and his wife, Emma, on the banks of Lake Zurich. He believed that the towers and annexes of this castle-like structure represented his psyche. After Emma’s death, he added a second storey, which he said symbolized the expansion of consciousness attained in old age. If our consciousness does expand, our sense of home begins to grow the moment we are born – from the womb, to our parents’ arms, to the cot, and eventually to the building where we spend our earliest years.

Since our association with houses is a lifelong affair, it’s hardly surprising that our fascination with other people’s houses grows as we mature. Bachelard maintained that candlelight in a window was enough to bring a street to life. He saw the house, animated by the mind’s activities, as a kind of theatre. Many artists – painters, poets, film-makers – have shared this vision. Wes Anderson’s recent Moonrise Kingdom opens with the camera tracking across the rooms of a home whose façade has been cut away to reveal what is, in effect, a life-size doll’s house. It is a compelling prelude: in a matter of moments the basic tenor of one family’s life – its habits, quirks and make-up – is laid bare.

What makes Anderson’s device so potent is that the narratives played out behind the screening facade of a house are not intended for public view. But sometimes the players have no say in the matter, as the former poet laureate Ted Hughes (an avowedly private man) knew only too well. His final collection, Birthday Letters, was written secretly over many years, following the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.
Several of the poems in it recall specific houses and other buildings that served as the backdrop to the couple’s difficult union. In “18 Rugby Street”, Hughes calls to mind the house in which he once waited for his future wife, at the start of a relationship that was to be exposed to the cruellest level of public scrutiny:

So there in Number Eighteen Rugby Street’s
Victorian torpor and squalor I waited for you.
I think of that house as a stage-set –
Four floors exposed to the auditorium.
On all four floors, in, out, the love-struggle
In all its acts and scenes, a snakes and ladders
Of intertangling and of disentangling
Limbs and loves and lives . . .

While the voyeurism here is imagined, a flick through the television guides of recent years reveals the scale of our appetite for looking into other people’s homes: Through the Keyhole; Come Dine with Me; How Clean Is Your House? It’s an obsession that seems to take little account of class or temperament or political persuasion. Even the most serious-minded are susceptible – witness the success of the Guardian’s “Writers’ rooms” series, where readers can scrutinise at leisure the minutiae of an author’s private workspace. There is the mandatory desk, the chair, the teetering piles (or neatly arranged shelves) of books. But what is that bizarre-looking trinket on the mantelpiece? The open hip flask in the corner? We are a species of nosy parkers.

Walk down any street after dark and it’s hard to stop your gaze from being drawn sideways wherever there are undrawn curtains framing a lit interior: few of us can resist these fleeting tableaux of domestic life. Edward Hopper was another artist to exploit this impulse in his work. The New York photographer Gail Albert Halaban recently took pictures of 16 houses in Massachusetts that were first made famous in Hopper’s paintings. Many of the originals – Night Windows, Cape Cod Morning, House at Dusk – offer tantalising glimpses of interior scenes, said to have been suggested by Hopper’s rides through New York on the elevated or “El” train. In Rear Window, Hitchcock poses an uncomfortable question by subtly implicating the viewer in the action: how many of us, finding ourselves in the place of James Stewart’s housebound character, would withstand the temptation to observe the goings on in our neighbours’ apartments?

It has been ever thus. The heroine of Wuthering Heights is unable to resist the lure of lights in her neighbours’ house. One of the book’s most enduring images is of Cathy and Heathcliff as children clinging to the window ledge of the drawing room under cover of night to spy on the wealthy Linton family through half-closed curtains. The book’s two contrasting houses are clearly symbolic of the two different sides of Cathy’s nature – one wild and windswept, the other (Thrushcross Grange) full of decency and order. She is not unusual in this: again it was Bachelard who observed that we all have our cottage moments and our palace moments.

Our infatuation with houses stems, perhaps, from a conviction that in some way they both contain and express an essential part of us; as if our presence might seep into the very fabric of the walls that surround us. Over time, that presence is absorbed deep into the stone and brickwork – and what we are really talking about here is memory. Several of Thomas Hardy’s poems (especially those about his late wife) express this idea. “At Castle Boterel”, for instance, tells us how the presence of the speaker and his nowdead sweetheart is preserved forever in the surrounding rocks: “what they record in colour and cast/Is – that we two passed”.

The thought is not so very odd: houses have long served as monoliths for the dead. English Heritage puts up around ten new blue plaques each year in London and there are similar schemes across the UK, from Aberdeen to Zennor, from the British Film Institute to the Plastics Historical Society. The process by which a proposed residence is deemed worthy of recognition is lengthy and elaborate but in every instance it’s the worthiness of the inhabitant, and not the building itself, that is assessed.

It would seem, then, that houses remember us just as we remember them; that memories become embodied by the places we live in. The poet Christopher Reid’s award-winning collection, A Scattering, is a moving tribute to his late wife, Lucinda. Towards the end of it, in the long poem “Lucinda’s Way”, the speaker recalls a moment one afternoon when husband and wife:

. . . crossed on the stairs.
Unprompted, you announced, “I love
our house” –
an outburst of the plainest happiness
that the high stairwell
enshrines still.

By the same token, to revisit an old house and discover that there’s no outward evidence of our ever having been there can leave us with an unsettling sense of our smallness. In “55 Eltisley” Ted Hughes registers such a shock:

Our first home has forgotten us.
I saw when I drove past it
How slight our lives had been
To have left not a trace.

Our sense of past self is often so closely connected with the house we lived in at the time as to be inseparable from it. Seeing that house inhabited by strangers is disquieting – like bumping into an ex who’s found a completely new way of dressing or doing their hair, on the arm of someone we’ve never seen before.

At the root of our disquiet is the queer but strongly felt notion that if we live inside our houses, they also live inside us – often long after we’ve left them. In his semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the poet Rilke describes a house he had lived in many years before as “quite dissolved and distributed inside me; here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor. […] Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me: the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness; others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.”

Philip Larkin combines the notion of the internalized house with that of the house as theatre in his unflinching portrayal of ageing, “The Old Fools”:

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.

Given the symbiotic nature of the relationship, it’s hardly surprising that the boundary between house and human should sometimes blur into non-existence. While Bachelard perceived a lit window as a portal to the action inside a house, for the French poet Rimbaud a lit interior is an eye looking outwards on to the street: the lighted lamp “watches in the secret heart of night” (veille au coeur secret de la nuit). And in the contemporary poet Jen Hadfield’s “Still Life with the Very Devil”, other, more covert body parts are in evidence in a house where the dishes are “stacked like vertebrae./ Under the broiler,/turned sausages ejaculate”.

This way of thinking is by no means confined to poetry and philosophy. The house/body analogy is so woven into our everyday language that we hardly notice its presence – in medical as well as other phrases. We talk of the “roof” of the mouth, the “wall” of the womb, the muscles of the pelvic “floor”; and – more curiously – our eyes are said to be the “windows” of the soul. On the flip side, every chimney has a “breast”, every cave a “mouth”, and walls (as many a gossip has learned to their cost) have “ears”.

I think about this last phrase in relation to the house I live in now. What conversations must it have been witness to? Set in a pretty Somerset village, it’s a far cry from the modern red-brick house of my teenage years, which was perched on a dead-end road with a huge chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. My current house is almost 400 years old; it was put up during the only time in English history when there was no monarch on the throne. Here and there, the flagstone floors are worn to a hollow by the many hundreds of feet that have travelled over them. So it is that the house serves as a reminder of my own impermanence – a thought I find every bit as consoling as it is discomfiting: more often than not our houses both precede and outlast us. And if they do retain some sense of our existence – even if only fleetingly – so much the better. Life rushes on, before, behind, around us; for the time being, at least, I’m more than happy to stay put.

Julia Copus’s latest collection is “The World’s Two Smallest Humans” (Faber, £9.99).

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood