Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

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I want the dog

I want the dog to come back
running
across the wet grass –
wet tongue hanging from
her happy mouth,
her tail wagging and snagged with
brambles.

I want her to bark.
I want her to have dirty paws
and one ear
folded back on itself.

But most of all
I want her to smell
of dog
and feel like
a dog;
and not just to look like
a dog
sitting in a field in a photograph.

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.