“Decorate your home. It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is.” (Charles M. Schulz)

Harsh, Charles M Schulz!  But I chose this quote because I decided to write a post about home and I’m in a decade of my life where I’m supposed to get excited about viewing other people’s new kitchens, asking intelligent things about the organisation of the cutlery drawer/soft close cupboards/steam versus conventional oven for cooking fish, rather than say what’s really on my mind (I don’t care/is there any wine/where is the corkscrew kept?)

So, forgive my and Charles’ bitchiness.  The reason I decided to write a post about home is that I’m giving serious thought to moving, and leaving London.  I’m a Londoner born and bred so I’m wondering how I go about finding a new home. Home is an elusive thing, you can’t predict where it will be, should the feeling take you.  If only finding it was as easy as clicking your heels:

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There are lots of places I like, but the only place that’s not London where I’ve felt at home is a city bookended by meadows, which means I can never live there, or I would spend every waking moment of June with my face permanently like this:

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(Image from here: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/01/holding-in-your-snot-rockets-could-blast-a-hole-in-your-throat-doctors-warn/ )

And so the search continues.  Now, it could easily be argued that many, many stories are about the search for home, so I’ve decided to pick two for this post that are also about houses.  Firstly, The Minaturist by Jessie Burton.  You couldn’t move for the hype about this book when it came out last year, so forgive me if I’m telling you what you already know.  In the late seventeenth century, country girl Nella Oortman moves to Amsterdam to begin a new life as a wife to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, a man she barely knows.  Johannes is often away travelling, and Nella finds herself trying to make a home with his terse, mysterious sister Marin, the manservant Otto, and giggling, nosy housekeeper Cornelia.

“Nella stands on the steps of Johannes’ house, the eve of new year passing with no ceremony.  She wants to be splintered by the cold, transfigured by light.  The canal path is empty, the ice a ribbon of white silk between the Herengacht houses. The moon above is larger than she has ever seen it, larger even than last night; an astonishing pale circle of power.  It looks as if she could reach out and touch it, that God has pushed it down from the heavens for her human hand to hold.”

Returning from one of his travels, Johannes presents Nella with a wedding gift, a huge cabinet replica of the house they live in:

“The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed.”

What slowly reveals itself to the new bride however, is not the construction of the house but the secrets and lies contained therein.  The process is assisted by the mysterious titular character, whose miniatures for the house enable Nella to understand more than she ever would alone.  Johannes’ success through the expanding Dutch trade company the VOC brings him more enemies than friends and their home will see its secrets opened and exposed with devastating consequences.

“Nella sees the hundreds of ships moored, their bodies spanning down the long, tapering jetties belonging to the VOC.  Fluyts and galliots, hookers , square-sterns, various shapes and purposes all for the republic’s good….Those ships that have sails look as if they are in bloom ready to catch the trade winds and take their sailors far away.”

The Minaturist is about how we set about creating our homes, how much we can ever know people, how powerfully destructive secrets can be, how our lives are rarely what we plan for them to be.  It’s about all that people can give to one another in such circumstances, despite – or maybe because of – all our flaws and imperfections.  The Minaturist was definitely over-hyped and I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it and it is well-paced.  Jessie Burton used to be an actor and I’ll eat my (Dutch, felt) hat if this isn’t filmed.

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Secondly, Gaglow by Esther Freud.  This was Freud’s third novel, and I think it’s where she really starts to get into her stride as a novelist.

Sarah is a pregnant actor between jobs, sitting for her father, an artist. He tells her about Gaglow, their ancestral pile in Germany, and the narrative switches between first-person Sarah in the late twentieth century and the third-person describing the three Belgard sisters, living at Gaglow just before the First World War.

“Marianna sighed deeply as she walked towards the house. Empty, she loved Gaglow more than at any other time. Today, with its rooms so recently vacated, the spaciousness that filled it was still warm. Each window hummed with talk and music, and the garden had a fleeting look as if a crowd of people had simply moved inside.”

Sarah’s grandmother Eva is the youngest of Marianna’s daughters, the observer of all that goes on in Gaglow as her elder brother Emmanuel , much adored, returns home with stories of impending war. He is right of course, and rather than enjoying a privileged middle-class round of summer parties to find himself a wife, he signs up:

“Emmanuel was ragged with exhaustion. He threw himself don on the sofa then immediately sat upright, swearing that he wouldn’t waste a moment of his leave in sleep. His mother and sisters crowded round him, craning forward, sniffing and smiling and trying to distinguish the unfamiliar smell of him. The burnt smell of fresh air.”

Gaglow is a very different exploration of home to The Minaturist in that while Nella is alone and Johannes a self-made man, essentially both adrift, Freud is exploring connectivity across generations, where we come from and what endures.

“I tried to imagine my great-grandmother living here, alone with her companion […] They would walk the wide paths together, not always in their widow’s black, and in the early evening, drink coffee with cream out on the porch…I thought I caught their shadows, playing cards into the night.”

Freud returned to houses in 2003’s The Sea House and again in her novel published last year, Mr Mac and Me,  about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Suffolk home. I think this demonstrates how houses are powerful symbols for us – repositories for those we love, significant events in our lives, our memories and mementoes.  Now I just have to find myself a new one!

To end a video which I dedicate to my brother, who basically wants to be Michael Buble, and my sister-in-law, who has to put up with these delusions. They move into their lovely new home next week – good luck T & Z!

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” (Frank Zappa)

This week I went to visit friends in Oxford, an incredibly beautiful city: the dreaming spires, the May morning choirs, the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness… er, where was I?  Oxford has a mythology about it as Britain’s oldest university which inspires both fear and rapture, but I don’t think that’s necessarily limited to Oxford or Cambridge.  Going to university can be an exhilarating, terrifying, wonderful time no matter where you are.  And it can also be a massive let-down, when actually nothing major happens and it’s just another step of many on your path. So this week I thought I’d look at two novels that try and capture this time, one set in Oxford, and one at the fictional Drama Arts school in London. Both novels consider the gap between our aspirations and dreams, what we wish were true, and the reality we have to navigate around these hopes.

Firstly The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, 2010).  Alderman studied at Oxford herself, and so there is a sense of authenticity in her descriptions of Oxford both in terms of the geographical surroundings but also in the psychology of the university: “This is Oxford: it need not be all or nothing, but it lends itself to that way of thinking.”  The lack of romanticism means there is a limit to which The Lessons adds to the mythology of the place which was somewhat refreshing.  However, there is more than a whiff of Brideshead in the tale: a naïve young man arrives at Oxford, is befriended by a rich man from a Catholic family, who introduces him to his glamorous circle, but all is not as it seems…sound familiar? But The Lessons still manages to tell its own tale.  The main protagonist, James Stieff, is miserable at Oxford until the pretty and talented Jess introduces him to Mark, an erratic and charismatic student whose enormous wealth means he owns a crumbling Georgian mansion where he and the rest of the group (bookish Franny, glamorous Emmanuella, and Simon who I felt was quite undeveloped, preventing me from reducing him to a single adjective easily), all live.  During their time at Oxford they bond over student parties and intrigues, but after university they drift apart as so easily happens.  However, James and Mark are bonded by an event at university which means they are not so easily split:

“I thought he needed to be saved and that it was for me to do.  In that moment I was lost.”

Mark is mentally unstable and although previous mental illness is alluded to it’s never properly explained.  When James reflects, fairly early on:

“For this is the heart of the matter: disasters occur where accidents meet character.”

It is a foreshadowing of where the tale will take us.  The character of Mark is both compelling and flawed, and this fatal combination is ultimately destructive to all who get too close.

The Lessons in many ways is a straightforward book with a simple plot and the resolution is low-key.  However, to an extent I thought this was its strength: few of us live life on a determinedly grand scale and the events and realisations we experience can seem outwardly small, however great the significance to us as individuals. Although James believes:

“It is ridiculous to think we can learn anything from so arbitrary experience as life.  It forms no kind of curriculum and its gifts and punishments are bestowed too arbitrarily to constitute a mark scheme.”

He does in fact learn lessons, but they’re just not as clearly delineated as when they are bestowed from within an academic structure:

“No wonder we spend our adult lives feeling we’re simply pretending to know what we’re doing.  After sixteen years spent doing exams , where the lessons we’ve received perfectly fit the challenges we’re faced with, our preparations for the unpredictable events of normal life will always seem shoddy and haphazard.”

I thought Disobedience, Naomi Alderman’s first novel was far stronger than The Lessons, (especially in terms of characterisation, only Mark and James were fully drawn), but this novel still had something to say about how we come to terms with what we learn, inside and outside the classroom, and how we carry that into our lives with meaning.

Secondly, Lucky Break by Esther Freud (Bloomsbury, 2011).  Before she turned to writing, Freud trained at Drama Centre London, and although the Drama Arts of Lucky Break is fictional, it certainly seems authentically drawn (the temptation to wonder if any characters in the novel are based on specific actors is hard to resist).  A group of students start at Drama Arts, a training school with the ethos of: “Break them down to build them up.”  They all embrace the opportunity to be broken, despite Nell worrying that being overweight will mean she always plays maids and wenches, Charlie being a stunning beauty who is utterly selfish, and Dan becoming something of a teacher’s pet.

“There would be actors, acting, and then them, inhabiting their actual characters, an entire psychological life, both physical and mental, all mapped out.”

However, once in the world of jobbing actors rather than in the classroom, they find their idealism quickly fades.  Nell’s friend Sita constantly plays girls despairing at an arranged marriage, as the industry is unable to cast an Asian woman as anything else, there are limited roles for women, and only 8% employment.  The casting couch remains and any signs of physical imperfection result in a career crisis.

Freud’s fluid writing and subtle characterisation creates flawed, believable characters in a highly readable style that whips the reader along.  Although acting is a profession surrounded by glamour that most of us will never experience, Lucky Break shows the reality of the industry and all its inherent frustrations, while at the same time making it understandable as to why people persevere against the odds.  The allure of that lucky break exists not only for actors, and can be a driving force, even when it seems entirely ethereal and beyond reach. Lucky Break is ultimately more optimistic than The Lessons about holding onto idealism once you leave the sheltering confines of further education and head out into the world, but both show the value of realising that the lessons, and therefore learning, never quite end.

Here are the books donning (get it? donning.  Oh wow, I apologise.  That was truly bad.) a mortar board.  I know it just looks like a big black square but I promise it is a mortar board, I just couldn’t get it to balance properly (as with the books, so it is with my head. Is the impossibility of wearing academic dress part of the elitism? In which case I’m screwed.)

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