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IN PRAISE OF DOMESTICITY

The Daily Telegraph, 19th December 2001

 

George Bernard Shaw was gifted (or cursed) with the ability to craft statements for maximum effect and minimum usefulness. The chief source book for sixth form debating topics is his 'Maxims for Revolutionists', at the end of 'Man and Superman': precepts which owe more to specious wit than truth. There with old chestnuts about marriage, royalty and democracy, we find this, on domesticity: 'Home is the girl's prison and the woman's workhouse.' Those of you who are immediately crying 'Yes!' should consider his, 'When domestic servants are treated as human beings it is not worth while to keep them'. He only did it to annoy....

But thirty years ago I'd have bought Shaw's notion. Certainly, there was truth in it in 1903, but not now. You cannot unthink ideas about the status of women, nor (more important) disinvent the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner. It was necessary and healthy that the feminist movement should question the whole concept of domesticity which kept women tethered, as Shaw said, to home and family. But still to embrace Shaw's limited definition implies a misunderstanding, and undervaluing of what the word 'home' implies. The old feminism urged women out of the home and into the workplace, and although it served its purpose, arguably it sold us short. My feminism embraces men equally, and refuses to devalue nurturing skills. On the contrary, old-fashioned thought it might sound, I believe we should teach the young (of both genders) to value those arts which are essential to the creation of a home - with all the values implicit within the word.

There is no complacency here. I know that 'home' for many people is a place of poverty, violence, misery, but the gentle retort would point out that those things are a contradiction of my ideal/ideal of Home, and therefore have no bearing on what follows. To make this clear, I shall use the latin Domus to mean the concept. Nor is this revisionism; no middle-aged road to Damascus to delight those who ascribe all modern ills to working mothers. No, my home has always been the centre of my life, as it was for my grandmother, and like her I have always worked. But at the moment my reverence for the Domus is overwhelming, and Christmas lends an even deeper resonance. Every so often one is forced to analyse a certain mood; a subtle shift in the psyche which both calls one's priorities into question , and confirms deeply held beliefs.

On September 11th I was on a plane to Chicago, diverted to Toronto. My colleague and I decided to hire a car and head for the border we were told was shut, but which we crossed easily. In the meantime, my 21 year old daughter (in London) heard that four planes had been highjacked and crashed in the United States. With no details, she was distraught with worry. When we spoke on the phone she said in tears, 'Mum, you mustn't ever go away from home again'. Now, of course she wasn't trying to put me in prison. She was using the word' home' to suggest, simply, safety and human love. Over the folowing four weeks, travelling over four thousand miles across the United States, I met ordinary Americans who murmured, again and again, that the terrorist atrocities made them value all the more their 'homes and families'. There, the word home has little to do with real estate, no more than the phrase, 'He came from a good home' is code for a number of en suite bathrooms. No - 'home' is love, sweet mundane habits, shared values. 'Home comforts' - the solace of home.

I flew home (meaning, to my country) the day after the bombing began - which itself prompts the dispassionate reflection that when people have their homes destroyed, and/or become refugees, they lose far more than the roof over their heads, vital to survival though that may be. The loss of a family dwelling, no matter how humble, can inflict a profound psychological damage. We have no appropriate translation for the German 'Heimweh', which transcends mere 'homesickness' to describe a condition of the soul. The Domus contains within it a rich cluster of emotions and needs, bred in blood and bone.

Since I returned from the States on October 9th I have only wanted to be at home and 'potter'. With the second draft of a novel to finish and several articles to write, not to mention projects to discuss, I have been wasting time - clearing out cupboards, tidying, measuring, setting things in order. I don't want to go out. Self-deprecatingly, I tell friends, 'All I want to do is arrange flowers', and since my taste in floral displays is a bunch plonked in a pretty jug, it's obvious flower-arranging is no more than a metaphor. No vestal virgin, I am amazed to find myself content to tend the sacred flame.

The Romans would commonly raise a glass 'to Vesta' before a meal. Her Greek equivalent was Hestia, the revered goddess of hearth and home. But we've neglected Hestia, too obsessed with Aphrodite and Minerva: women aspiring to be lovers or achievers, or both at the same time. It was telling that Nigella Lawson attracted such virulent mockery for daring to call a cookery book 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess.' Leaving aside the delicious light irony of the title, it struck me as a perfectly worthwhile aim - a Divinity of hearth and home, why not? There's nothing sexist about the idea. Housewifery and good husbandry were always two sides of the same coin, neither activity seen as inferior to the other, both essential to the equilbrium both of home and community. When, in 1982, Susan Hill published a book called 'The Magic Apple Tree', it received some of the nastiest reviews it's ever been my misfortune to read. Why? She wrote of the rhythms of her home against the backdrop of the seasons, and her delight in the whole. But that wasn't 'allowed.' Susan Hill was supposed to win prizes for fiction, to write plays and short stories.... but not to embrace the virtues of the WI. Yet to regard the home as the still centre of all things is not to embrace drudgery, but to put yourself in touch with all peoples, all classes, all cultures. The Mongolian family which travels to new pastures with its yurt keeps a place rigorously designated for everything, from food to God, with the (practical and symbolic) stove in the centre of the round tent. Romany families take a pride in their beautifully equipped caravans (not so much painted decorations nowadays as microwaves and lace curtains) - since the idea of home is just as important to nomadic peoples. The Domus does not require tangible foundations; its meaning depends on creating a space in which will be placed a set of objects both useful and decorative, mundane and sacred, to form a framework for family life. Or (of course) a fulfilled single life.

The home, then, is more than just a place. When you visit somebody and exclaim, 'You've made a lovely home' the praise is not for what they have spent but a more for more intangible thing: atmosphere. I have visited grand houses created by the over-rated tribe of interior designers (or decorators as they prefer to be called) and the atmosphere has been zilch. The Domus can't be imposed. You cannot create a home 'for' somebody because home is an organic growth from somebody.

Just as the Domus implies more than place, so it makes fashion - even taste - irrelevant. To create a home you do not need much money, just a feeling for the spirit of place and people alike. In my childhood, working class families used to redecorate every twelve to eighteen months, because coal fires and damp took their toll on the wallpaper. But slaves to style redecorate because they've read somewhere that 'we're' not doing borders/chintz/ William Morris patterns/stippled paints any more. But that's not home-making, it's 'lifestyle': a conspiracy to make us uneasy - and spend more money. It is receiving ideas and keeping up with the Joneses, without reflecting that the home you create should be a mirror for your own soul.

I couldn't care a flying duck about fashion. In one room we have hand-cut stencils, done over twelve years ago by a dear friend. Hopelessly old hat now, you know. A kitchen designer visited recently to measure for an island unit and remarked that the paint effects we chose (only six years ago) were now 'dated'. Just as consuming cookery books and TV shows has done nothing to increase the culinary ability of the populace, so the neo-game-show popularity of programmes like 'Changing Rooms' does little to instil domestic skills. At the same time, I suspect that the extraordinary proliferation of magazines and newspaper articles about cookery, furniture and design indicates a collective yearning towards an idealised image of home.

Why? Everybody I know is getting busier. I returned from the States to observe precious little peace of mind in my friends and none at all in myself. Was it that the world-shattering atrocity, and subsequent fear, called the quotidien frenzy of our lives into question? Whatever - in a deep gloom I contemplated the reflection of a woman who has spent the last year skittering, scrabbling, scurrying, scrambling.....and screaming. My home rebuked me for getting the work-life balance all wrong. In the last twelve months I finished the first draft of a big novel as well as a children's book; made a TV series for 'Artsworld' about paintings and a Radio 4 series about God; continued to work on an on-going animation project, 'The Mouse With Many Rooms'; edited three issues of a glossy arts magazine 'Proof', wrote a monthy column for Saga Magazine, reviewed books and wrote articles. But what was that all about? I also bought cook-chill meals, let mess pile up in corners, and ceased to feel at home in the chaos of my study. Workholism had me in thrall, and the truth is, it cannot co-exist with homemaking. People who spend all their lives working see their homes as places to rush back to after a hard day, and places to leave in pursuit of social life or weekend respite. They are not places to be. And gradually it wears you down.

No wonder I want to arrange flowers. I can come out of the closet now, and confess I look forward to visits to 'Homebase', and derive pleasure from buying two sale cushions which so cheer the ancient sofa it need not be recovered. I mend clothes, and stitch bits of lace on to old garments to make them like new. I cook soup, and reflect that the sneers (in some quarters) that greeted 'How To Be a Domestic Goddess' indicated a sort of miserable and miserly terror. People reject the old values of hearth and home because they are afraid of their own lack of skill - and here I am not referring to wizardry with the paint roller or the sewing machine. For at the root of the Domus is the most essential skill of all: giving.

A homemaker is somebody who makes a home. I like to roll the phrase around my tongue: home-maker. No domestic slave or prisoner, a homemaker is a creator, a craftsperson, a weaver of magic. That this concept is still associated with the oppression of women dimisnishes the value of the activities involved, and demeans those who take pleasure in them.domesticity It is partly to do with definitions. I take issue with my shortert Oxford Dictionary which defines homemaker as, 'a person, especially a housewife, who manages a home.' Rubbish! Why 'housewife'? The 'house' element implies the building, whilst 'wife' is inescably female. Why 'manages', with all the dreary connotations of that word? Thus has the worship of Hestia been reduced to a harassed woman trundling a trolley and balancing a budget.

Whereas the homemaker ....He or she regards time watering the plants, or putting peanuts out for the birds, or chopping an onion, or pottering in and out of rooms gently tidying as time for contemplation. And do not tell me that this is the privilege of the wealthy, because it is not. The children may be a nuisance and the ironing pile up.....but it is still possible to find that deep centre, as long as you reject Shaw's axiom, and choose to make the time. The homemaker knows that the ecology of the planet is healthier if we fix, mend, make. Better scrub an organic carrot than pick up the supermarket bag of pristine, pesticidal orange sticks. The homemaker is a true creator, at ease in small studio apartment or large house, as long as the place is a reflection of the soul - a bit worn at the edges maybe but beautiful for all that.

If I close my eyes I can summon up an image of my grandmother- the first and best homemaker I knew - walking up the long path to the block of flats where we lived, bent under the weight of her shopping bags. Her life was devoted to home and family; to earn money she worked as a dinner lady (serving, again) and was glad to clean other people's homes, taking a pride in beauiful objects that were not hers. One of my happiest memories (c 1955) is of sitting with her to make cushion covers out of old blackout material, of which there was an abundance in postwar Liverpool. She showed me how to cut petals and stamens and leaves out of brightly coloured felt, and glue the patterns while she stitched the squares. My mother knitted and sewed everything we wore. They made meals from leftovers and soup from carcasses....Was that mere thrift , or wondrous creativity? After all, the embroidery they taught me had nothing to do with necessity. Everything in my childhood shone - from the brass hearth set to our shoes.

Am I wrong to feel nostalgia for the time when families like mine sat round the kitchen table for every single meal, chatting and squabbling in equal measure? And homemaking wasn't considered a second-class activity but an achievement? When I went to girls' grammar school in 1958 all of us had to learn 'housewifery.' Later, of course, the 'clever' girls like me could drop domestic science, but no matter, three years of it did the trick. In a full curriculum I learned Latin, French, History and the rest - but alternated cookery and sewing, and domestic arts like cleaning too. Did you know that you cannot put polish on until you have scraped the mud off a shoe? I learned that at home, and at school too. It was a useful science.

Such skills should be taught today, in school to girls and boys alike - because they are useful and achievable to all. They teach the value of taking care. More than that, they contain within them an ineffable good which is hard to define. Without them there is an inbalance, breeding discontentment, in generations that do not know how to settle, how to be. If your children see you taking care (whatever form that takes) then they will learn to take care too. They will learn that making a meal and serving it well (even if it's pasta and home-made meatballs and sauce) can allow you all to partake of Ms Lawson's 'divine'. My daughter comments that she is 'turning into' me, because she eschews student squalor and likes to light candles at the table and cook a meal for friends. It sits very happily with her readings of women's literature. She sees no contradiction at all.

The homemaking skills - and pleasures - need to be passed from generation to generation, and celebrated. I am my grandmother's granddaughter. I like my harmonious house to shine, and be tidy. The girl who could transform grotty 'sixties bedsits with beads and shawls, is now a confident woman - proud that the home I have created is perhaps my greatest achievement, inseparable as it is from the family itself. OK, so I've written things and interviewed people, and earned my own money.....but so what? What matters is this Domus I've made, where people like to be. Maybe they don't notice that the house is full of subtle shrines for, agnostic as I am, I have evolved my own careful rituals for the worship of Hestia. Since September 11th they have grown all the more important - and that's why Thanksgiving had such a deep symbolic significance in the USA, and why I am looking forward to Christmas with more than usual intensity. Each night, even when alone, I light candles and burn scented oils, because I know that these things permeate the very walls, pleasing the household spirits and helping to keep the darkness at bay. And their meaning will go on - even when the lights are out.

 

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