I’m watching a grey squirrel push hazelnuts into our lawn. She’s bouncing from patch to patch, rejecting various locations before choosing a spot to drop her autumnal treasure. She twitches and skips, momentarily freezing her impressively bushy tail as she catches me spying. Then she bends, pawing through the fallen leaves pushing winter’s sustenance into her turf-pantry. On the endangered species scale, squirrels are classified as “of least concern” and this perfectly sums her attitude to me and my lawn. Come winter it will be riddled with hazelnut shaped pockmarks as she unearths her hidden hoard.
In my antipodean home (latitude 33.8S) autumn is a short, stable, almost colorless transition into an dry, blue-sky winter. Deciduous trees are considered almost sissy. At Foxtwist, (latitude 52.3N) the thinning hedgerows are bejewelled with bright berries. Leaves in fiery hues ribbon the lanes. Clumps of wild cyclamens dot the bridle paths and windfall apples form natural chicanes. Last spring’s lambs have been disappeared – where?! – replaced by ponderous cows. The harvest is nearly over. The hop poles are bare. Fields sport crop stubble and instead of barley confetti, farm gateways are smeared with chocolate mud as tractors putt from one freshly ploughed field to another.
In keeping with the squirreling season, BBC Radio 4 recently aired the five part series “Objects of Desire” about the things we accumulate, the relationship we have with them, what they say about us. While listening, I was wandering the barn, looking for the best spot to place a new fox. It was gifted me by Sarah A/D and it’s made of recycled blanket. The blanket is the old fashioned tartan kind, the kind once edged in satin, that in the sixties wrapped me in a thick, slightly stiff, fuzzy cocoon, that in various colour ways could be found in bedrooms, at Nana’s, on the back seat of the car, or over the Hills Hoist to make a summer palace.
When we move countries, John’s company allocates us half a shipping container (families with child(ren) are allowed a twisted–bitter-teeth-gnashing whole) and pre-uplift I am required to create a list of items I’d be less devastated, more resigned to leave behind if the requisite number of crates don’t fit. It’s a bit like playing a seafaring version of “If your house burnt down, what would you save”. From Auckland to Birmingham, I prioritised 25 cushions over the actual sofa on which they seasonally rotate.
My lovey new tartan vixen joins Foxtwist’s five other foxes in various media (ceramic, paper screen print, etching, felt, wood), multiple galahs and butterflies, four cats (one real & snappy, three near real and stripey), two budgies, one guinea pig, hedgehog, penguin, crossword covered cow, cockatoo, owl, blue wren and rocking horse. Two kiwi, one kakapo and a white rabbit are looped on doorknobs.
There is the modern view that minimalism is more virtuous and that certain kinds of belongings or collections more socially acceptable than others. Indeed tours of the mansions of the upper-uppers have yet to reveal any hanging doorknob dodas, at least on public display. But as the lovely Professor of Material Culture, Daniel Miller asked on the Beeb, when it comes to judging other people’s stuff, why do we care? Why do we moralise, categorising one person and their 700 pairs of shoes beneath another and their 700 paintings?
Luckily for me and my menagerie, the Prof of Stuff shot down (with research, my favourite kind of rebuff) the assumption that people coveting a collection of porcelain figurines or fishing flies do so at the expense of forming meaningful connections with collections of people. Somehow the people who have one hundred souvenir spoons are frivolous, stuck, tasteless, tacky. Instead, my fellow dust collectors, you will be delighted to know that if you are able to make meaningful relationships with both people and things, you are then more capable of understanding the meaning of objects for others and connecting forth with. To wit, to love is to love. Shoe aficionadoes arise!
In one episode, the host of “Objects of Desire” Matthew Sweet, interviewed a fellow who’d pared his belongings down to about 70 things. Everything the said fellow owned had a utilitarian purpose. He liked the feeling he could get everything in one bag and just go. I felt my stomach lurch. I never want to feel I can pack up at a moment’s notice and be somewhere else with only carry on baggage. As a trailing spouse, I want (and know) the packing to be distressing, grief stricken, wrenching, the choice between that sofa and 25 cushions excruciating because it’s testament to my success in creating a meaningful personal space with the objects of my heart’s desire. But given the inevitability of my life, I also want to feel, at the next geographical stop, not only comforted by my stuff but to have that stuff, my useless, joyous stuff, reflect my herstory, my connections. Winter’s sustenance.
Every time I now pass my/Sarah’s fox, I think of us. There is a deep pleasure to be had in just a millisecond. My fox does exactly what I want my stuff to do. It enchants my life. It raises it from the mundane. It reminds me I belong. A 1950s kangaroo & joey salt and pepper shaker rests near my lovely father-in-laws beautiful wood pieces. A New Zealand pumice stone sculpture from Frances hangs in the lounge room. A tiny blue Aussie cockatoo looks suspiciously over her pink crest at an ceramic English fox. Foxtwist’s hallway is lined with paintings and textiles from the Western Desert, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the latter, gifts from my sister which tie her history to mine. These things are symbols of my experiences, memories, connections or as Daniel Miller says, they are my “material CV”. They say I am not transient, I cAn have a permanence in the places I have been, where I am now and where I might go in the future.
In the same vein as “what would you save if your house was on fire”, I have wondered if our shipping container was lost at sea*, what would I have that would still tell my story? What would constitute my belongings and therefore my belonging? I’m still thinking about it, but this is my small but significant list. I would still have the side of the bed I sleep on (with the grateful implication that John occupied the other); the skin scars which tell a history accidents (my knee caught in a playground swing aged seven, two bicycle crashes, one on the way to my driver’s test, aged 19), various surgical interventions (20, 37, 38, 42, 47, 51); a face which immediately identifies me sharing the DNA of Jane and Stephen.
Sarah’s/my tartan fox sits on a sill by Foxtwist’s back door and I love her.
* According to a recent survey by the World Shipping Council (WSC), an average of 1,679 containers are lost overboard every year. Statistically my fear is unfounded.
The Origin Of Words
On tenterhooks. At least as early as the 1500s, newly woven cloth was stretched as tautly as possible and then hooked onto wooden wooden frames called tenters. The drawing below shows tenter frames between London’s originsl roman wall and Houndsditch (so named because it was the city’s dumping ground for rubbish including dead dogs).
Sleep tight. Medieval beds consisted of ropes laced within a wooden frame. Every so often, the sagging ropes needed to be tightened for a better night’s sleep.
Travel Notes to Self
- The Roman Wall Wall, London. From the Tower of London to the London Museum. Not all there (the wall or the signage) making it a treasure hunt as well as a walk. A fascinating 2.8 miles. http://archive.museumoflondon.org.uk/NR/rdonlyres/3646BAAB-2BBC-4171-AE97-34299AE78D36/0/1Intro.pdf
- National Theatre Company production of The Red Barn. Mark Strong, Hope Davis, Elizabeth Debicki. Compelling, creepy, the staging exquisitely clever. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/the-red-barn-lyttelton-national-theatre-review-a7367521.html
- The Banqueting Hall, Whitehall. The perfect lazy Sunday morning cultural activity. You can stare at Ruben’s magnificent ceiling and Charles I’s execution site from a bean bag.
- Moseley Hall, (National Trust) where Charles II, defeated by Cromwell’s armies at the Battle of Worcester, hid in a priest hole before eventually escaping to France.