Ruth Dalton, author of the forthcoming book Living in Houses: A Personal History of English Domestic Architecture, considers the background to her book, discussing the social situation (of Covid-19) which compelled her to consider, in a new light, just how we live in different houses, and which qualities we most value in our homes...
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In the spring of 2020 during the UK’s first lockdown the nation suddenly became obsessed with houses, or so it seemed to me. I remember receiving an email from a journalist who was writing an article about the struggle that families were having with open plan living and was asking whether I had any tips on how to ‘compartmentalise’ spaces to make open plan living more harmonious during lockdown. Just a week later, I had another journalist contact me about the benefits of outdoor space in homes, again seeking expert quotes/comments. Meanwhile, the daily news was full of stories about the yawning inequalities of the ’lockdown experience’, describing how people’s experiences were primarily driven by the size (numbers of rooms), type and style (open plan or not open plan) of their houses as well as their access to outdoor space (gardens, yards, balconies etc).
The flat roofs transformed into garden terraces & the current roof terrace of my old flat, now a riot of lush greenery. Image 1: Photo © Andy Stone; Image 2: Photo: Grace (Mengwei) Guo
I recall idly wondering what my lockdown experience might have been like had I been living in any of the other houses I had previously lived in and trying a sort of ‘thought experiment’ of re-positioning myself back into some of these former houses that I had known so well, and, in my mind, trying them out for size as alternative lockdown locations. It was at this moment that I had a blinding flash: I had lived in an astonishingly diverse selection of architecturally different houses during my lifetime. My husband sometimes jokes that I am half-person, half-spreadsheet and so, as I am wont to do, I immediately opened up a spreadsheet and began listing all of the houses where I had lived: where they were, when and how long I had lived there, what kind of house-type they were, what architectural style, whether they had access to outdoor green spaces or not, what they were made of etc. etc. Extracts of this first spreadsheet (it evolved and evolved during the writing process) even made it into the introduction of my book as various tables. It struck me that here was the kernel of an idea for a book – a book that had the potential to tell the story of the history of English housing but through a selection of houses with which I had been intimately acquainted over the years. For, after all, do you ever really understand a house unless you experience it first-hand?
Furthermore, this topic for a book had the advantage that I did not need to travel to undertake any field research: I could just travel back in my mind to when I had been living there: my memories were the only field research I needed. What could be more perfect for a lockdown writing project? In the end, of course, I did have to undertake a large amount of archival research in order to unravel the history of many of the houses, a history that I had paid scant attention to (I am ashamed to say) when I was actually living in them. Many of the archival records I needed had been digitized and so I was able to peruse whatever accounts I needed, online. But some archives were undigitized, or closed, or far from my home in Northumberland, during lockdown (when travel was restricted), and so I had to either defer accessing certain files or enlist assistance for some geographically remote archival work.
Prichard's Road, by the Cat and Mutton Bridge, 1903. Image © London Metropolitan Archives (City of London)
But for me, the process of working on this book definitely helped me through lockdown. I became fascinated with the past lives of these former houses of mine. In the introduction to the book, I describe how:
“During the writing of each and every chapter, I have felt as if I could move back again, in a heartbeat, given half a chance. Is this the same for everyone? For me, even these names resonate with feelings, experiences, a sense of light and shadow, of materiality, of small intimate details that were so familiar at the time, of sounds and smells, of a life fully lived in, and shaped by, these places. And so, this is a history of housing unlike any other, since each example is as dear to me, and intimately known, as an old friend.”
And these houses really did start to feel like friends to me; at a time when everyone’s world had literally shrunk to the physical extents of their home and, socially, to the composition of their household, it almost felt as if my social circle had re-expanded to include these houses as old friends. It would be too much to say that the writing of this book got me through lockdown, but an element of that is certainly true.
Pre-order your copy of Ruth's book HERE. (Publishing on 3rd October 2022)