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The importance of home

Updated: Jun 6, 2023


By John Hubbard


John is an architectural historian and a retired English teacher, currently tutoring for the U3A. He is a member of Dorset Humanists.







There cannot be many speakers of English who are not aware of the very different resonances of the two words ‘house’ and ‘home’. At the simplest level the first is an architectural definition, the second, a social one. But even that seems too limited, because the social dimensions of the home are multiple, and they interact with the psychology of residents in ways that are hugely significant for their sense of self and place in the world and, inevitably, their well-being. In the mixed economy of housing I use the word ‘residents’ advisedly, because I am aware that the sense of permanence is variable and affective. The home-owner and those in long-term tenancy will feel rather differently about spaces they inhabit compared to those in short lease arrangements or ‘temporary accommodation’ – a term that covers a multitude of insecurities.


Let us try to unpack for a moment why the complex idea of home is so significant. In his poem about his ancestral Somerset village ‘East Coker’, T S Eliot asserted its absolute primacy: ‘Home is where one starts from.’ It is also the centre of our ‘going out and our coming in’, to quote the psalmist, a fixed point of our engagement with the world at large, an expression of the centrifugal and centripetal dimensions of our day to day lives, a place from which we deliver ourselves and into which we gather experiences and related possessions.


During our lives, too, we have different relationships with various types of home. Firstly, the parental home, ideally the ultimate place of safety and refuge (although that may not always be the case). Robert Frost put it like this, calling home ‘the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.’ He expresses this idea of unconditional acceptance thus: ‘something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’ We transition then, maybe, to accommodation connected to university or first employment, and arrive later at our own more settled home with its various accumulations. Larkin caught the essential optimism of home-making – ‘A joyous shot at how things ought to be...’ – until his melancholy got the better of him, declaring it to have ‘long fallen wide’ in his poem Home is So Sad. For many it is just the reverse, and even Larkin in the same piece imagines an evening sitting going through a photograph album, an act of re-confirming lives and histories.

Home with its 'various accumulations'.

Later, we may experience the pruning or downsizing as parents now with adult children, and perhaps the move into the limited space of a care home, where only the most precious possessions and maybe a couple of small items of furniture are there to remind us of who we once were. Ultimately, when we die, the sole adhesive nexus of those hundreds of items that belong to us is withdrawn from the world. The one being who understood the significance of that vase, of those prints bought in Italy, the bundle of letters, the table, the lemon-squeezer, the shelves of books and their tabs and markings, the odd-looking 1920s group in the silver frame, all that knowing of these things, all that telling of them, is gone forever. Family traditions may grasp at vestigial traces of that life story as things are passed down, but that unique glue of absolute individuality breaks and leads to dispersal or uncomprehending disposal.


One writer on artistic and material culture, Mario Praz, called one’s domestic surroundings ‘a museum of the soul’; others have described home as ‘a shelter for those objects which have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely the aspects of the self that one values’ (Csikszentmihalyi & Halton 2012). Because they are so ordinary and so diffuse they elude comprehensive study, perhaps luckily. Scholarly engagement with possessions is highly selective, giving priority to those of artistic merit or historical interest of longer provenance than a Sellotape-repaired paperback with a casual inscription on its flyleaf, or a drawer full of old corks and fuses. But this is very different from our lived experience. When we move about an unfamiliar home for the first time, we grasp ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’ and feel how true of its occupants is the picture presented by both antiques and day-to-day clutter.


It is significant what one decides to keep... perhaps for ever.

And yet… we must also be aware that interiors have been, and still are, subject to fashion. The extent to which one feels pressured to conform to it is, it is fair to say, an indication of personality type, although Gaston Bachelard would probably have argued that seeking individual distinction from others in such choices is an almost universal human trait. But we are also, necessarily, of our own era too. The move from hard upright wood to padded articles for sloping lounging speak of their time, although the contemporary fashion for minimalist sofas which offer no support to the upper back baffles me after such former advances in comfort. I am equally bemused by the habit among my young relations of completely renewing interiors every five years or so, rather than settling on comfortable and favoured pieces, though I shall not be sad to see the end of the era of grey everything.


Of the more ephemeral in life it is significant what one decides to keep for longer, if not for ever – and what can a minimalist interior cleansed of almost all the personal say? Perhaps only that we are more aware of the increased intentionality of a smaller range of objects, of a heightened self-consciousness in selection that may strike as something of a pose, rather than the apparently unedited and almost accidental revelations of a fuller space.


Maybe the same could be said of those extraordinarily cluttered Victorian interiors which we have probably seen in photographs - draped tables weighed down with objects and photographs, unusual furniture evocative of different parts of empire, palms and plants in brass or majolica pots, heavily patterned carpets, and walls packed with gilt-framed paintings, curtains with almost as much ruched fabric as the mistress of the house’s dress? In the same way as the apparently more carefully curated modern interior, this too is saying – ‘none of this is careless, all of this is confirming my priority and respect for current taste, I am asserting my claim to a certain rung on a social ladder.’ In all this, though, it becomes clear that the formation of an impressing home derives from both conscious and unconscious motives.


The home, too, frames not only objects, but the activity of living, and for most of us that will involve taking care by ourselves of the extraordinarily quotidian aspects of our own existence and self-care, though sometimes choices of means will again be telling: the selection of soaps for washing oneself and one’s laundry, the bags for shopping, the manner of making the initial list, the particular pot for stews, the kitchen knives, the range of herbs and spices and their containers, the tablecloths, the cutlery, the polishes. It is these fundamentals of sustenance and cleanliness that we practise within the home which anchor us in basic ways that modern media, for all their potential sociability, cannot do. All of them require us to put our phones down and engage using both hands.


Finally, the home is a centre of physical sociability. Of all those whom we know, probably only a select few outside the family will sit round our table and be cooked for or stay with us. The table becomes an affirmation of our closeness to important others, as it also is of the central relationships within the walls of the house, and while those walls may change, the likelihood is that one table will move with us, a piece of furniture that has been sat at and eaten from several thousand times, perhaps the most clear symbol of the habitual attentiveness that makes the home what it is.


Much of the above may seem self-evident, yet it is also so commonplace as to be very much taken for granted; the home’s gifts of confirmation and celebration of who we are as individuals and as families, and our sense of self and of security, are central to our self-realisation and well-being. The real value of all those things framed by the home is not monetary, it is in the fact that they are not merely extensions of ourselves, they are us, and the function of the house in holding that in one place makes it a home.


Reference

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Halton, E (2012) 'The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self'. Cambridge University Press.



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