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Where The Heart Is

On writing and home

Home

It’s September 1965. I’m in the bathroom at home and the door’s locked. I’ve been in here for hours. Lined up beside the bath are two stuffed bears, two storybooks, a book of jokes, a red Silvine exercise book, an overflowing pencil case and my sister’s tom-tom drum which I’ve ‘borrowed’ from her bedroom. I’m sitting on a low stool (also my sister’s), drawing a picture of a house. It’s a classic children’s house drawing — front door in the middle, four windows and a smoking chimney. There’s a curved garden path with grass on either side, a picket fence and a garden gate. Behind the house are fields, trees and, eventually, the sea; no neighbouring houses and no people, but there’s a cat and dog in two of the windows and an entire menagerie in the fields. Though it’s nothing like my house (an end-terrace on a busy road in suburban Coventry), this is my home.

Akiko Busch in Geography of Home writes that a child’s drawing of a house is also a drawing of the child, and the child psychoanalysts have always said as much. I should know — I had to see one for years. In September 1965 I was seven and in my second year of debilitating school phobia. Although I was ostensibly confident, sociable and high-spirited, inside I was often riddled with anxiety and spent the vast majority of my time at home. Most days, I used to lock myself in the bathroom to avoid being made to go to school.

Sometimes I’d grab one of our cats and do my best to persuade it to stay with me, but they were usually having none of it. As long as I held the key, I liked to be behind a locked door; my cats did not.

So it was in our house, not at school, that I first wrote poems and stories, in that red Silvine exercise book that I kept in a secret drawer. And I sometimes wonder if, without this part of my childhood, I would ever have become a writer. I sometimes wonder if, for me, the meanings of writing and home are all but interchangeable.

‘The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’ writes Gaston Bachelard in his seminal work The Poetics of Space. I could say the same of the act of writing. ‘There’s no place like home’ repeats Dorothy and is transported back to Kansas after her adventures in the land of Oz. Home as a place of comforting familiarity, intimacy, self-expression and safety; home as the womb and as the place we go back to in order to remember who we are. These days, I rarely draw pictures of houses but, perhaps instead, I write — returning again and again to the subject of home.

Of course, the words ‘house’ and ‘home’ are barely synonymous. ‘A house is not a home’ sings Dionne Warwick; equally, to be ‘unhoused’ is not necessarily to be homeless. We can project ‘home’ onto a person, a city, a woodland… These ‘not-houses’ can correspond to a sense of safety and freedom, being fully oneself, unshackled, uninhibited. And ‘home’ itself is a word riddled with paradox, not only for those who are displaced, without shelter, or for whom ‘home is where the hurt is’. Home, for many of us, can be a place and state of mind we want to leave for the excitement of ‘abroad’; home can be boring, restricting. Yet it’s the ultimate goal of Odysseus and perhaps, like long-term love, is something we tend to take for granted until we don’t have it.

It’s January 2010. I’m at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, on my hands and knees, scrubbing a filthy old kitchen cupboard. I work here, heading up the programme of education and community work and making all kinds of projects alongside other artists. I’m knackered and excited and I’ve just written the blurb for Making an Exhibition of Ourselves — an interactive installation that will delight us when it goes on to be The Independent’s ‘pick of the week’.

Visitors to the installation will enter the studio theatre to find themselves in a yard, complete with messages in (milk) bottles and a washing line of scandal and shame (hanging it out in public…). Through a front door, four furnished rooms will be laid out: a bathroom, living room, kitchen and bedroom; visitors will be invited to explore, rummage, have a nosey. All will not be what it seems. Will they dare open the bedside cabinet of nightmares, find the key and read the letters in that locked case under the bed, relax in the bath of floating dreams, witness a kitchen-sink drama amongst the washing up?

In January 2010 I’ve been at the Royal Exchange for almost eleven years and I’m completely ‘at home’ here. I don’t need to conjure rooms in a house to feel safe in this building. No, I’m just returning to an obsession, a creative interrogation if you like, that stalks almost everything I make, be it poetry or theatre. I sometimes think I’ve lost the plot…but I remember Akiko Busch’s words again: ‘Just as my son’s drawing of a house was also the portrait of a child,’ she writes, ‘I am certain that writing about rooms is a way of writing about people’. Yes — just like real rooms and houses, Making an Exhibition of Ourselves is about people and will have been made by hundreds of them and visited by hundreds more. It isn’t all about me and my obsession. And anyway, the kitchen cupboard I’m scrubbing is as clean as it’s going to get and I need to be back upstairs in my overflowing office — my home within this home, which is so entirely ‘of’ me that when I leave in 2017 one of my wonderful gifts will be a model of the room; a perfect re-creation in miniature of my space, including the books, pictures and plants. It’s a work of art but I treasure it most of all because it somehow holds that room and all it means to me, holds it in the world, keeps it and everything it symbolises tangibly alive forever. It’s more than a ghost and, unlike a memory or photograph, it’s three-dimensional and will never fade. Like something written, maybe.

When Making an Exhibition of Ourselves opens, most of the visitors behave like furtive first-time guests in someone’s house, taking a sneaky peak at the bedroom on their way to the loo. Their body language suggests that awkward tug between curiosity and shame. Simon Armitage, in a recent Guardian article, gave his reason for not giving interviews in his home. He quoted a journalist who had warned him ‘They go through your bathroom cabinet’. This was a metaphor, as Armitage reminded his interviewer, but it’s surely a potent one that we all understand. The belief that to know an individual’s personal space is somehow to know them no doubt partly explains the popularity of visits to the homes of dead writers. What intimacies do we believe they tell us of the writers who inhabited them? What stories do we weave as we stand in the room where Keats died, or look at the table in the Haworth Parsonage that is ‘similar to the one’ around which the Brontë sisters walked and wrote each night? We imagine, I guess. We talk of ‘atmosphere’, hoping for ghosts.

It’s April 2023. I’m reading in my garden shed, with the help of two of my cats who are happy to be here as long as I leave the door ajar. I’ve just finished Ursula le Guin’s essay, ‘Living in a Work of Art’. In it she describes her childhood home and writes ‘I wonder if much of my understanding of what a novel ought to be was taught to me, ultimately, by living in that house. If so, perhaps all my life I have been trying to rebuild it around me out of words.’

‘Yes!’ I say out loud, startling the cats. Through the window, I can see the house I’ve lived in now for over twenty years. It’s a terraced back-to-back but from the front I realise it looks rather like my childhood drawings of home. There are trees. No road. It has a front door in the middle (almost), four windows and in one of them, my other cat. She’s in the bathroom and though she’s not locked in, she is shut inside the house, to save her from her thuggish sons who wish her dead. Even from this distance I can see she’s yowling. She’d be happy if only she had a key. She’d know she was both safe and free to dream; she’d know she was home.

Amanda Dalton is a poet, playwright and writing tutor. After years as a senior creative leader at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, she is now writes extensively for BBC Radio and for theatre. Fantastic Voyage, her third poetry collection with Bloodaxe, will be published in 2024.

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