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?

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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