This book is a bit like Time Team meets Changing Rooms, if you can imagine such a beast. Taking his grandmother’s house as a starting point, the author recreates various lost interiors from history, from Roman palaces to the toilets at the ill-fated Crystal Palace. The historical ‘re-imagining’ is wonderful and I was fascinated by the labyrinthine network of ancient palaces under Rome’s Palatine Hill, the discovery of forgotten medieval frescoes of saints and angels as Westminster Palace burned in 1834, and random facts such as how the Yankee sack of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind is actually the set of Manhattan in King Kong on fire. I wondered if Louis XV, fond of hiding in his private toilet at Versailles to get some peace and quiet, took his newspaper in with him just like Every Man Since the Dawn of Time, and was disappointed that the Great British Class System apparently extended to public toilets, given the proposal to segregate the Crystal Palace loos by class, like the Bedford Square toilets where ‘ladies of quality paid tuppence to use seats concealed in mahogany closets, while working women would spend a penny to squat over a hole in the ground’. For some reason, these toilet-related stories made me wonder whether the Queen sits on a plastic/wooden toilet seat like the rest of us or whether it is pure gold. If anyone has the answer, I would be grateful as this has been playing on my mind.
However this book is as much about philosophy as it is about architecture, describing how people make these interiors ‘memory palaces’ in the way they inhabit space and make it their own. I was a bit like Father Dougal lost in the lingerie store with some of the philosophical wanderings (see YouTube clip below) but I think the author’s account of his relationship with his gran, and his memories of her home, would resonate with many people.
When my Nanny Turner died at the grand age of 97 and a half (‘don’t forget the half!’) in April 2014, she had lived at 33 Nelson Road, Edmonton, for over 60 years. This Victorian terrace was full to the brim with accumulated memories. My cousins (actual legends. All I did was rob the books) filled three suitcases with things Nan had retained purely as they related to each of her three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren – birthday cards dating back to the 50s, every family notice in the paper, every postcard we’d sent her, random children’s school books and pictures, everything. We had recorded our heights on the wallpaper in the front room, and our names on the inside of the wall cabinets that my granddad had built in the back bedroom. The walls were lined with Nan’s pictures, decorative plates, hats, thimble sets, even a rustic bow and arrow. A rustic bow and arrow, people! That was how my grandma rolled!
Going to her house for the first time after Nan had died, it was the moment I saw her empty chair in her front room that it hit me. We hadn’t just lost Nan. We were about to lose the house where our family had gathered for over half a century, where departed loved relatives had roamed, where our parents had been children and teenagers, and where we had been looked after by Nan and in later years had looked after her. I haven’t been able to walk past the house since we cleared it. I can’t believe there are other people in there, making new memories. For us it was the greatest ‘memory palace’ ever. I think we all miss it.
My apologies, I’ve gone a bit soppy this week. I promise that Streetlife Turner will be back in the game shortly.
Fast-forward to 2.13 for the wisdom of Father Dougal