SAMPLES from Chapter 6, 'Making Homes and Moving On':
(Further samples are below the Introduction - click here for 'The Estate Agents Home' or here for 'Home on the phone')
Here's the introduction
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
If a sense of home is essential for our wellbeing, how can we enhance it? How, following trauma, or bereavement, or the breakdown of a relationship, can we start to put ourselves together? How can we have the confidence to move on, or branch out, or enter a new phase of life? Without a sense of ‘home’ to accompany any of these, we may not literally perish, but we will probably feel that our life is adrift and diminished.
In this chapter we shall take a look at some of the ways in which people strive to establish a sense of home; avoiding the threat of a directionless and meaningless universe. Some develop a passion for gardening or home improvements, or simply re-arrange or de-clutter the place in which they live. Some may commit themselves to a political system, or a career, or a family, or belief in God.
Every situation presents itself as a set of possibilities. At every moment, we have a choice, informed by our personal map and the values expressed through it. Consciously or unconsciously, we refer every thought and every experience to our map in order to give it value and meaning.
Most people only thrive when their world makes sense – to themselves, if to nobody else. For most, there will be a multi-layered pattern of such worlds: family and friends, location, home and garden, the circle of like-minded enthusiasts, a political or cultural world, a career with its peer groups, perhaps also a sense of being part of a global community.
We hope to thrive by establishing a physical home that reflects who we have become, or who we wish to become. Pick up a lifestyle magazine and we are presented with homes designed to reflect the taste (and wealth) of their owners. Look what this person has made of a very ordinary terrace house! Here’s how to set your stamp upon a narrowboat, a caravan, an RV with all facilities, a hut in the forest, or a sumptuous penthouse. We look at the images and think: ‘Could that be me?’ ‘Would I want it decorated like that?’ Those bookshelves? That open-plan kitchen? The view through the French window and across the patio to the gazebo and pool?
Perhaps I am taunted by the fact that the magazine parades a lifestyle that I shall never be able to afford. Is it trying to tell me I’m a failure? However unwisely, we may fall for the intention of the article, and start to wish that we could take ownership of that place, and be ‘at home’ there. How then would we feel about ourselves? What would we need to be (other than wealthy, of course) to live there? What does it say about us that we aspire to, or simply admire, what it offers?
That glimpse of another possibility for home may contrast with the cramped apartment in which we live, the badly worn furniture, the drabness that we cannot find the will or energy to brighten up. Glimpsing new possibilities may sometimes be cruelly stimulating.
Or perhaps, at the other extreme, the photograph that catches our attention is of a small tent and campfire at night in a wilderness, a comforting pinprick of light in the midst of darkness, the temporary home for the most adventurous. Might that be equally attractive? Could we live in such simplicity for the sake of exploring unknown territory? Or the milder version: the nostalgia evoked by an old Volkswagen camper!
The process, by which we make space our own, works in modest, almost trivial ways. Yet the process itself is far from trivial. It is essential, if we are to feel at home in our world. Deprived of such personal effects, we become dehumanised.
It is Sunday afternoon, and I follow the crowd of personal space-makers into the garden centre. They are on a quest to personalise and improve their environment: garden furniture; patio slabs; shingle; bark chippings; to say nothing of the plants, shrubs and grasses. Such things have their part to play in re-shaping, beautifying and personalising the small portion of the universe to which they claim ownership. Their cars may already be full of paint and other materials from the home improvements store next door. They are designing their own personal worlds – kitchen fitments, floor coverings, colours to choose and compare – encouraged by posters advertising products that suggest a happy family settled in their own space, their ideal home, their environment of happiness.
They are forming their cosmology of house and garden, to express their taste and preferences. They buy living things in pots and place them thoughtfully, in order to place themselves in the wider scheme of things.
Mock none of this; however mundane, it is essential. Just look at what happens when elderly people move out of their own space and into a care home. However kind and attentive the staff, they are always in danger of becoming institutionalised. They try to adapt to their new environment, but, however secure and comfortable, it is not one of their own making, nor one that expresses their personal history. They are in danger of losing features of their former identity, which previously had been reinforced by living within their own personalised space.
So let us look further at just some of the ways in which we find and enhance our personal space and sense of home.
Located in a desirable area, close to high-performing schools and plenty of green space, preferably within easy commuting distance of a city for purposes of work, shopping and culture. What else should we put on our list? Ah, yes, at least three bedrooms. And the principal bedroom has to have an en suite, unthinkable without. Mock Tudor is not acceptable, I’m afraid, and a classical portico might not be in the best of taste. Nothing showy, but it needs to speak quality.
Fine, if you can afford it. If not, head for the ‘compact’, ‘bijou’ and ‘cosy’. For the down-at-heel area, try ‘charm’; for the dangerous-after-dark, try ‘edgy.’ Go for the ‘rural retreat’ to guarantee no facilities within walking – or perhaps even sensible driving – distance.
The art of presenting a house, transforms the factual and utilitarian into the emotionally engaging, creating a nexus of images that give a positive slant to everything that might count against the property. Give it a story; make it a dream. Best, of course, if the sellers can arrange for bread to be baking and coffee brewing during a viewing – there’s nothing like the aromas of home to suggest that this box could become one.
We may be tempted to poke fun at the language used by estate agents, but their task is not an easy one. The buyer comes with a notion of the ‘home’ they seek, an expression of all they want in terms of personal space, which may, or may not, be realistic. What is on offer is something quite different: a utilitarian list, a set of possibilities in a place that – at the moment of first viewing – has no personal resonance. The task of the agent is to intuit the nature of the home being sought, and somehow to shape up the images and hints that will enable to potential buyers to start the process of mapping themselves on to the house he or she plan to sell them.
Identical dreams, piled high?
As a buyer, you visualise yourself in that kitchen, or looking out over that view. You try to imagine the rooms furnished to your own taste.
In other words, you start with an impersonal, built space and location, and try to imagine what it would be like for your points of significance to be mapped upon it. That’s where the children would go to school, that’s where I could do my local shopping. In viewing a number of potential houses to buy, you find yourself crafting, for each of them, an imaginative reconstruction of what it would be like if one of them were to become your home.
Perhaps the important thing for you is to live somewhere that inspires. Working on your first novel or screenplay? Where would you, as a writer, need to be? London’s Hampstead? Paris? LA? A remote hillside? If your map feeds the sense of who you want to be, then choosing the right place might help you to establish yourself. That, at least, is the hope.
Your original family home will never be thought of in this way, because it will already be too heavily laden with memories, good or bad. It may speak of who you were, and perhaps who you want to escape from being.
What is certain, as you scan the advertisements in the estate agent’s window, is that you are not looking at a home. You are looking at a piece of impersonal space that, in your view, has the potential to be personalised. You are looking at an empty space on your personal map and wondering whether it could become home. Buyer beware; you are always in danger of trying to buy what is not actually for sale – the self that you want to be once you have that home. Your dream house is, and will probably always remain, exactly that. By contrast, your future ‘home’ will require effort, personal mapping and the ability to avoid the most obvious hype of the agent’s sales pitch.
One final observation, before we despair of finding a chunk of real estate that suits us. Beyond a basic minimum, it’s not down to money. Whether you are renting a room, or buying a mansion, the task of making it into a home is not price-dependent. The wealthy are as likely to be emotionally homeless as the poor. By dividing their time between different houses, flitting from continent to continent, their chance of a genuine sense of home and the emotional comfort of personal space is diminished. The more money you have, the more tempted you may be to assume that it can buy you personal space. Big mistake! All it can buy are nicer chunks of impersonal space; making it personal requires you to put effort into it – and the wealthy may find themselves too busy to spare the time for that.
There are shortcuts to feeling at home. One of them is the smartphone. The apps that instantly connect you to the rest of your life, testify to the phone’s ability to re-create personal space. At any spare moment, you can lift from your pocket the means to check your email, scan the notifications on WhatsApp, dip into one or more of your Facebook groups, respond to comments, Tweet your views, ‘like’ your friend’s latest photo, read whatever news interests you, check on your personal finances, even see whether your car needs refuelling. You pick up the phone to see your life. Indeed, while on the boring commute, the phone may seem to be your life.
By condensing so much of your life into one place, it becomes your temporary home. Wander into that bleak hotel room, flop on to the bed, and pull out your phone. They are all there – your friends and family, your photographs and videos, your connections or business partners. There may be just time, you realise, to Skype goodnight to your children. However impersonal or temporary your surroundings, you feel comforted. You are tethered, by a long umbilical cord, to the people and places that give you comfort.
Towards the end of 2020, one of the many short videos, which did the rounds to cheer us up during the pandemic, appeared to advertise ‘Helping Hands’ a spoof organisation whose employees, identified by their ‘Helping Hands’ T-shirts, are seen gently guiding a person across the street, as he is glued to his phone, or helping to push his child on a swing as he is busy texting. It ends with a man propped up in bed, busy on his phone, while a ‘Helping Hand’ is next to him in bed, having sex with his partner! Clearly, if you bump into other people while looking at your phone, or find what’s on the screen more interesting than what’s in your bed, you need a ‘Helping Hand’. The truth, of course, is that the phone connects you to so much of your life that the space in which you find yourself physically is not necessarily your true, present location.
Social media provide both advertisements and news on the basis of a feedback loop; that is their power and their danger. Your preferences are analysed, based on your internet use and your responses to previous media events. This then triggers targeted advertising, based on what it assumes you are interested in, thus reinforcing your identity with the products they hope to sell you. In the commercial sphere, belonging is important. I cannot just buy a car, but must now see myself as identified as a ‘Toyota family’ or with a lifestyle offered by the Mercedes Magazine.
Social media produce strong group identifications because any response is magnified by those feedback loops. You identify and vote because you are the target of media that suggest you are the sort of person who will vote that way. You ‘belong’ to the brands you support. Your identity is shaped by what you wear, what you drive, where you live, how you vote, your sexual orientation, your race, your religion, your philosophy, and especially your shopping.
I am defined by my cluster of loyalties. Personally, I am a M.A.N. – Mercedes, Apple and Nikon – and if I am approached by another M.A.N., I know we will have much in common: new products to discuss; memories of earlier generations of cars, computers or cameras to share; jargon to keep us in immediate touch with one another, but separated from others present. Two keen amateur photographers, especially if they share the same camera marque, can become happily engrossed in a world of their own. Your purchase of a new 50mm f1.8 lens affirms your status within a group of users, and you can immediately post a photograph of your new acquisition, still in its box, on the appropriate Facebook® group. No, I am not exaggerating; I belong to one such group where, in spite of recommendations to the contrary, people continue to post photographs of boxes!
Targeted advertising works on the basis of the pleasure that comes from enhancing these little interlocking worlds. We may be in the midst of a global pandemic, uncertain about the economic fallout from Brexit or the Trump administration, but I can bask in the comfort of a short video comparing the quality of the f1.8 and f1.2 lenses. My tiny world is controllable and reassuring, it offers a temporary escape from the cold breath of empty space.
Social media enhances our reality, boosting our sense of identity. For some, an event, or meal, or night out is only real once it is posted on Facebook®. Friends – both the real ones and the more distant people who are nevertheless ‘friends’ by being clicked as such at some point in the past – respond; they ‘like’, they ‘comment’, they reinforce the value of what you are doing. Your own personal map now includes their ‘likes;’ your reality is both physical and media-based.