Sunday, 20 November 2011

Books in the Lavvy

As you know, I spent much of the last few weeks redecorating my flat, which is up in the eaves of a late medieval building right in the centre of Oxford. The loo was particular dismal: nasty pink glittery lino, budgie-yellow walls. Now, however, it is done in Farrow & Ball's 'All White', a crisply chalky shade, and the floor is in smart black and white tiles which were a bugger to lay around all them wonky surfaces.

(If you ever want to really rile me, tell me that as a supposed intellectual I'm not practical. I am in fact very practical, good at digging, decorating, and making something that I've imagined into a real object in the outer world.)

Adorning the walls is Tom Phillip's much loved , semi-allegorical portrait of Iris Murdoch, glancing sidelong in front of Rubens' The Flaying of Marsyas and next to a sprig of the ancient and unchanged gingko. Over the cistern is a startled yet compelling Romanesque face from Parma Baptistry.

After several hours painting the snot-coloured room white (it took three coats), I felt disinclined to spend any longer in there. Bodily needs must, however, and so I decided to leave a selection of the most interesting, quirky books I own in there for visitors---why did I nearly say 'customers' there?---to peruse.

Perfumes: The Guide, Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin

Simply splendid, dippable, addictive account of 400 great and not-so-great fragrances, all written up in synaesthetic, critically astute, often hilarious prose. If you like the sound of one, you may well find it in the wicker basket by the sink.

The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton

One of the English Renaissance's strangest books and a brilliant illustration of Saturnian humour, monumentalism, and creativity. 400 pages of relentlessly learned, highly rhetorical prose on what we would now call depression: its causes, its manifestations, and attempts at its cure. Disenchantment and the longing for death emerges forcibly as an arch-metaphor for life, rough-textured and richly-lived.

There's an unsettling story about Burton. Whenever his melancholy affliction got too much for him, he used to go down to the river and watch the boatmen coming and going, all the while laughing hysterically. One speculates as to why.

Towards Emotional Literacy, Susie Orbach

Little two page extracts from Uber-therapist Orbach's Guardian columns, ideal for learning to make soothing, leftist, on-message noises about say, smacking, or adolescence, or failure. I do this in much the same way that other people might learn Balinese.

The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd

A small, knocked-off book of true ghost stories by a large clapped-out queen, clearly dashed off to pay an unexpected bar bill. Good on the English uncanny; I was particularly unnerved by the unheimlich implications of the story of a three year old child in the late 19th century, who, when asked to describe the old man who had appeared to him, said: 'He’s like Father Christmas. Only he’s wearing burnt paper.'

Ackroyd once tried pulling a Harold Bloom and Naomi Wolf number on me when I was a student (the heavy paw creeping up the thigh, the sherry breath coming in wheezes); I laughed almost as hard as Burton.

How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Britain's best journo stylist takes on the legacy of feminism; hilarious, lovable, verbally pyrotechnic yet unpretentious. Especially marvellous on words for the female genitals ('Minge': hmm, sounds like a slightly put-upon cat'), she handles puberty, love, music, eating disorders, pregnancy, childbirth, beauty and abortion from a barstool. I was aiming to ask her to a feast at Porterhouse---even though I feared she might be, in her own words, 'as out of place as a seagull in a beehive'---partly because I think she's a national trezh, and partly because I would then have trolled someone into college in whose lap Lady Gaga has laid her head.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

'What kind of person lives in a house like this...?'

A few years back, I gave you all a bit of a Through the Keyhole moment with my flat at Porterhouse. I never really felt comfortable in it---the ceilings were low and though it was beautifully appointed it was also a ground-floor fishbowl with an oppressive fifties feel. So here, as promised, is the sequel.

My new flat is at the top of a wooden staircase in the heart of the front quadrangle of a venerable, central Oxford college. The building itself is late medieval with a great deal of later frontage, and despite being the home of 500 madcap young persons it is also, unexpectedly, almost completely silent. So when students or friends enter, having wheezed their way up three flights, this is the view as they are shown in:

The solemn, enigmatic face of the Virgin is placed to draw the visitor through into the flat, framed by the open doors the rectangular shape of which it echoes. The walls are a faintly greenish white which I chose for its cool neutrality and ability to hold light. As the windows are low, fostering light is of the essence: the first thing I did when I arrived was to take down and store the curtains safely (I keep the heating off.) The whitewash also subtly picks up the green accents through the room, visible in throws over the sofa, tabletops, cushions, paintings and the jugs and bowls of flowers I leave around the place. Through the left-hand door is the bedroom, which slightly oddly has a shower leading directly off it---as though one is climbing into a cupboard---and a separate loo:

You can't see this in the picture, but the shower door has been covered with a long rustic curtain made out of rough sacking. The bedroom in truth was a problem: sickly, budgie-yellow walls, tatty carpet, and minimal storage space as the wardrobe is shallow. I have painted it throughout in Farrow & Ball's 'All White'---their brightest, chalkiest shade---and for the recessed parts of the woodwork in their 'Strong White', actually a very pale pigeon-feather grey. Buying F&B paint has been a major expenditure, and you might well think me crazy---but I justify the extravagance by telling myself that this is a period building, and I might well be living here for fully five years. It makes such a difference to the sensual pleasure of the place that the colours have that classical richness and subtlety that you simply don't get with other brands. To soften the stark effect, rough untreated fabrics---like the sacking curtain---have been used on the floor and bed, and a tumble of cushions and pillows with contrasting textures. The bed is covered in an unbleached cotton dustsheet and a cream jacquard table runner; there's a white amaryllis in a jar on the windowsill, and an old cane chair does service as a bedside table.

Retracing our steps through the main room, to the right we find the kitchen:

Problems with the bedroom aside, the kitchen was, I think, the least prepossessing room when I moved in, as it's rendered hopelessly poky and studentesque by the steep angle of the ceiling. I opened it out by painting the woodwork in Farrow & Ball's 'Pointing', a faintly creamy white, and the walls in 'Cord' (also Farrow & Ball), a lovely warm ochre similar in tone to a buff envelope. The floor, which was a gritty pink linoleum the colour of a granulated liver (barf), has been covered with stick-down lino-tiles in crisp black and white, the pattern picked up by the Greek prints in square black frames. The elm chair beneath them in 200 years old. (You can see these in the very first picture, above.)

Back in the main room, here's the workstation, with MacBook and plenty of space for piles of papers:

The table, which my friend Ian picked up years ago and which has done sterling service as a dining table in no less than four homes, has been painted and then distressed. The legs are Farrow & Ball's 'Pointing', and the surface is 'Polly Green'; the corners have then been roughly sanded to give the impression of a history of hard knocks. Similarly distressed are the cane chairs (matching the one on the bedroom), which have been coated in Farrow & Ball's 'All White' before being sanded back to reveal bare wood. The white cushions come from India and are hand-printed.

The heart of the main room, which is of course simultaneously my living room and teaching space, is the book-wall, through which one walks in order to enter. The shelving under the window and the raised shelves in the curve were all added by the college's carpenters after I arrived, unpainted: they and the shelves that were already there have been painted the same cool, faintly melancholy white (F&B's 'Cabbage White', in fact) as the walls for an unfussy cleanness:

As you see, crowning the book-wall is my recent ikon of the Virgin of the Sign, hanging from the ceiling in a half-moon mandala:

I find her cosmic yet human face comforting as I sit writing. (Or rather 'writing', to be more truthful.) Of course, it drives noble friends and colleagues mad that I have my books arranged as I do, on their sides, but I am now past caring: I just prefer it, and like the textured shades of neutrals that this engenders. As they are catalogued and arranged strictly by subject I can in fact find everything with ease. Oddly the selves are much deeper on the left, where the books are double-stacked.

The nearest thing I have to a lounge is a long, hard sofa and these two smaller pieces, both arranged by the fireplace. In due course I may accentuate the depth of the mantlepiece by painting both the oblong coving and piece of board that blocks the fireplace off in a deep grey. This area generally is still not quite finished: I really dislike the green of the chairs and am going to have them slipcovered in brilliant white, as really I feel that this area of the room is too dark to have heavy wood and velvet. The long sofa has been covered in a hessian dustsheet from Homebase, washed and ironed. (It has a hectic, jazzy 80s print underneath.) Note the medieval hunting-scene cushions, and the two green silk pillows. You probably can't see in this picture, but the legs of the long sofa have been swatched around loosely with the fabric, which was then secured using safety pins and cheap pieces of silvery Moroccan jewellery. The various bits of floor-matting are all sisal, seagrass, and unbleached cotton, and the light-fittings are el-cheapo crystal-drop chandeliers, which I found for a fiver each in a hardware store. Both were ex-display and broken, so I repaired them with wire and a small pair of pliers.

This bit of the room sees heavy use: I sit in the armchair and students coming for tutorials sit on the sofa, as Oxbridge teaching ideally takes the form of a conversation between two or three people. (How lovely finally to be giving decent Oxford tutorials and not Cambridge 'supervisions', which always made me think of a training analysis.) Above the mantlepiece hangs an ikon I painted some years ago, which turned out with a particularly fuscous, Russian feel and a mysterious expression. Next to it is propped a carved and whitewashed wooden mirror and some miscellaneous objets: a wooden clog, a couple of antiquarian books, and---in homage to Guy Davenport's book of paintings and drawings---a balance of quinces, their green-yellow intended to pick up the shade elsewhere in the room.

The flat is south-facing, and though the windows are small and low, the space is often cut across by stripes of cool autumn light, accentuating the unity fostered by the simple painting-scheme:

That brings the tour to a close. I'm happy here, in this very personal sanctuary. By my wooden Buddha in his stillness sits a green bowl of artichokes, and here, to finish, is a bunch of late autumn dill, catching the slanting light next to a piece of bracket fungus now gone hard as oak.

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