My perfect museum: ‘A living house’

This morning on the way to work i found myself thinking about museums: why they are always unsatisfactory and what they ought to be like. In my notebook i wrote: “A living house: 1940s”. What did i mean by that?

***

You begin out on the street looking at the house from the front. What you see as you look through the windows is a modern-day home in the midst of every day life. It’s film footage: the windows are screens, though this isn’t apparent. Likewise, the faint sounds you hear from within are recordings.

You meet your guide – incapable of speech it seems – who ushers you into an adjacent house. Here the windows are blacked out, front and back, and the building is soundproofed. Looking around, you see you are in a waiting room: nondescript and devoid of anything but chairs (along the walls); and a great clock, which ticks, yet whose hands do not move. A bare bulb flickers uncertainly. The guide motions you to be seated and disappears through a door which locks behind them. There are no other doors. You wait.

Your guide returns. Now he or she is dressed in the fashions of the forties. You are led through a door that had been concealed from you: down into the cellar and along a tunnel. When you emerge at the other end you are at the bottom of the garden – a long garden with high walls – of the house through whose front windows you had earlier gazed. Washing is on the line. Voices can be heard indoors.

You enter through the back door, straight into the kitchen. This is no longer a modern house; the furnishings, all the contents, belong to the 1940s – or earlier still of course. What do you see? Maybe a table with butter and other ingredients laid upon it – as though someone had stepped out partway through baking a pie. Or perhaps the table is set for tea. You must smell it too: reality always has an odour. You must also touch it. There can be no ropes draped around the scene, sealing you off from it. Go on… pick up the fork, taste the butter if you want and place your hand against the side of the kettle – you may be startled to find it’s still warm. All the rooms are like this; each contains a tableau suggesting life in motion, arrested only upon your entry. Whichever room you are in you hear sounds from one or more of the others: a wireless; the voices of people discussing the war; laughter; rows. But as you turn the handle of the door, that room falls silent.

In the front room you go over to the window and when you look out you see the road – the very one in which you’d stood earlier, gazing across at this room; but this time you see it as it looked then. It’s quiet and still, there is no-one around. When you look from the upstairs windows the scene is still that of the past, but now there are people going about their business. The guide – how long have they been there? – is standing behind you, watching you watching. You’re led across the landing into the back bedroom. Through the window you see a woman come out to remove the washing.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of air raid sirens… BANG!!! The house is felt to shudder slightly. The lights go out. The guide produces a candle, lights it, and leads you out of the room and down the stairs. More explosions can be heard, thankfully this time at a distance. On the ground floor you smell burning and, glancing through the downstairs windows as you leave, you can see the house across the road has been hit. Sometimes you may hear the sound of a woman crying.

The guide leads you back down the garden path. The washing is gone from the line.

Back into the tunnel you go and into the waiting room. The bulb has failed. Ushering you through the darkness the guide points urgently at the door. You emerge and find yourself back on the road, which is just as you left it. As you pass the house the people inside are watching TV.

***

Ideally, there would be multiple scenarios, for different parts of the day – and perhaps for different days of the week: so there wouldn’t always be a bombing for example. One thing i wouldn’t have is live actors. Seen close up modern day people never convince as citizens of the past: too big, too brash, too obvious that they know how the story will turn out.

In any case, the key is the house.

Advertisements

A little bit of butter: A.A. Milne

I’ve had this poem by A. A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh) going round my head for days now, so you may as well share in the fun:

The King’s Breakfast

The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”

The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Now
Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,
And went and told the Alderney:
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”

The Alderney said sleepily:
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade
Instead.”

The Dairymaid
Said “Fancy!”
And went to
Her Majesty.
She curtsied to the Queen
and
She turned a little red:
“Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But marmalade is tasty, if
It’s very
Thickly
Spread.”

The Queen said
“Oh!”
And went to his Majesty:
“Talking of the butter for
The royal slice of bread,
Many people
Think that
Marmalade
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little
Marmalade
Instead?”

The King said,
“Bother!”
And then he said,
“Oh, deary me!”
The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
And went back to bed.
“Nobody,”
He whimpered,
“Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!”

The Queen said,
“There, there!”
And went to
The Dairymaid.
The Dairymaid
Said, “There, there!”
And went to the shed.
The cow said,
“There, there!
I didn’t really
Mean it;
Here’s milk for his porringer
And butter for his bread.”

The queen took the butter
And brought it to
His Majesty.
The King said
“Butter, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he kissed her
Tenderly,
“Nobody,” he said,
As he slid down
The banisters,
“Nobody,
My darling,
Could call me
A fussy man –
BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!

( A. A. Milne)

Wonderfully rhythmic! The last line is the killer, although i always remember it as: “I do like a little bit of butter on my bread”. Say it out loud and hear the percussiveness:

“I do like uh litt-uhl bit-uhf butt-uh to my bread.”

You have a rhythm created through the shwa vowel sound (uh) and another created through the repetition of the consonant ‘b’. The doubling of  short “i” in “little bit of” causes you to instinctively read that part more quickly creating an internal half-rhyme; and then finally you have the contrast between those two short “i” sounds and the wider, heavier vowel sounds that remain.

The magic of Children’s verse! Actually, it’s even better with pictures – something all Children’s literature should have in my opinion. There’s a page with what look like they could be the original illustrations here, although it’s been too long since i saw them for me to be sure. To be honest, i’d forgotten the poem itself till i ran out of soya milk:

I do like a little drop of soya milk on my muesli.

No. Doesn’t really work, does it.