Houses and home

I went to an extremely interesting conference at one of my favourite museums yesterday.

The Geffrye Museum hosted a gathering of academics, museum curators, and me for an event called Custodians of Home, a project run jointly with Queen Mary, University of London.  One of the main themes was to what extent we feel responsible for preserving the history of our houses,and this seems particularly relevant to people like me, who live in one of London’s many Victorian houses.

I’ve already conducted some half-hearted research into our house, and I’m now feeling inspired to do some more.  I know, for example, that about one hundred years ago the house was occupied by what must have been a whole tribe of Dutch traders, and I also know that, for one little girl living here in the fifties, the garden was “a share of heaven”.  It’s probably just as well that she can’t see it now, as all of the trees which she once loved are long gone.

Although I can’t bring the trees back,  I am thinking, however, that it’s time to lift the dining room carpet to see if there is some way I can preserve and show off the Victorian tiles lurking beneath.  Refinements like this were not on our minds when we first moved in over twenty five years ago and perhaps back then it wasn’t quite so fashionable to have small areas of exposed bricks or tiles.  But we have done our bit as far as other people ‘s houses are concerned.  One of our panelled doors came from a few houses along, and I also rescued a ceiling rose from a skip.  This has been residing in the cellar for the past few years, but again, it could be the time to consider installing it in a more prominent position.

By the way, storing objects out of the way was also one of the themes that came out yesterday.  In some cases, owners haven’t wanted to throw out objects which they feel belong to the house but which don’t have any aesthetic value for them personally.  Indeed, they feel they have been specifically warned against doing this by the spirits of previous owners, which have often lurked over their shoulders seeking reassurance that the character of the house would remain intact.  Perhaps this is why we still have some old fashioned wooden crutches, also in the cellar, which came with the house and it has never crossed our minds to throw them out.  Some one could be relying on them in the after life.

Sometimes I feel envious of friends who have modern houses which are easier to look after and maintain, and, for all my talk of preservation above, we don’t really do a very good job here.  But I don’t think I could ever be drawn to a new house.  Interestingly, although I’ve never described my heroine Julie’s house in detail, in my mind’s eye it’s very similar to ours. There are just one or two refinements inasmuch as her house has a downstairs’ study and the cloakroom  is on the opposite side of the hall to ours.  Not that any of this makes any real difference to anything: it’s just that I like to see my characters in situ and imagine them moving around.  But, if an actual murder ever took place in Julie’s house, this could change things completely…

Incidentally, the Geffrye has a free exhibition until 9 February.  It’s called Who once lived in my house? and begins to explore uncovering the past.


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