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.

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Why does Afghanistan spell war?

The recent furore over Gordon Brown’s apparent misspelling of a dead soldier’s name has left me baffled. Of all the things to get worked up about: an “m” where there should have been an “n”! Not only that but the soldier’s name, “Janes”, is one I’ve never even heard of before, whereas “James” is common (my own surname gets misspelt all the time for similar reasons). I can understand the mother’s reaction – she just needs a target and a trigger to allow her to vent her grief – but the way in which the Sun ran with this story is bizarre*. Instead of inventing scandals, how about some attention to the real issues? Here’s six questions for a start:

1. What proportion of the UK’s resources can and should be channelled into the Armed Forces? One aspect of this story that has almost got lost amidst the obsession with handwriting is the suggestion that the soldier might have survived had he and his comrades been better equipped. I have a relative in the British Army and I know that it’s nowhere near as well provided for – in any sense of the word – as are US troops. Where do people propose to get the money from to fund the Army better however – other than cuts in the Public Sector, the savings from which will largely be eaten up by existing budget deficits. Do people propose paying higher taxes? Thought not. Should the scope of our Armed Services be scaled back to a level we can fund adequately from the existing defence budget? What would that mean: practically – not just now but also in the (perpetually uncertain) future; in terms of national pride; and in terms of international standing? What is the attitude to these questions in other European countries? Is military power really the most important factor in the 21st Century; or does economic strength count for more?

That’s a general question. The others concern this war in particular:

2. Who is the war against? We seem to have gone into Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda (global terrorist organisation) as our quarry, following the 9/11 atrocity; and ended up fighting a war with the Taliban (local terrorist organisation). I grant you the Taliban are reactionary and despotic, but so are many other organisations and regimes with whom we are not at war (Mugabe’s Zimbabwe anyone?). No-one even bothers to pretend we’re after Osama Bin Laden and his cronies any more, yet his presence in Afghanistan was the original justification for the invasion.

3. Why are the Taliban so important? What threat are they believed to represent which other extreme Islamist groups don’t? What is the evidence for it? Yes, Al-Qaeda found sanctuary in Afghanistan but they had also previously found it in Sudan. Is it not the case that in Britain the greatest terrorist threat is from people who are already in Britain (people who are as often as not citizens of our country); but who are disillusioned, disoriented and, consequently, easily radicalised? How does the war in Afghanistan mitigate this threat? Globally, are not Saudi Arabia and Pakistan of more importance than Afghanistan? It can be argued that the war in Afghanistan has strengthened extreme Islamism in Pakistan.

4. What are we fighting for? Are we trying to prevent the Taliban from imposing undemocratic rule on Afghanistan? If so, why do we not take a similar view with Hamid Karzai? Are we trying to secure a better life for the Afghans: healthcare, education, religious freedom, rights for women, etc? If so, is warfare the most productive way to go about it? Are we trying to protect the UK and, if so, are we achieving that aim? Or are we just hitting back so that the Islamist extremists won’t see us as weak? In which case, is the war achieving that aim? Could it not be argued that we are allowing the extremists to determine the rules of engagement (blood, blood and more blood) and in that way shoring up their sense that they call the shots?

5. What is the Islamist threat which we are seeking to avert? Are we trying to avoid another 9/11? The radicalisation of Western Muslims? The Islamisation of the West (demographic? cultural?) The polarisation of the world into spheres conceived in terms of ‘civilisations’? How many different anxieties are getting mixed up in this war – anxieties which in almost all cases concern things that can never be resolved on a battlefield.

6. What is the endpoint for this war? At what point will we be able to say it’s been won, it’s over? If there is no defined endpoint then how are we ever going to say it is over? Are we just going to fight it forever, each year sending more young men to die for this mysterious ’cause’? And that’s in addition to the thousands of ordinary Afghans who have been killed as a result of the conflict.

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically; nor am I a pacifist. I know there are situations in which it is both right and necessary to fight (WWII for example). I just do not understand the current war or our attitudes towards it. The Scandal of Gordon Brown’s Handwriting is just the latest in a line of stories which seem to focus on anything other than the war itself.

* And then again, this being the Sun we’re talking about, maybe not so bizarre.