When considering writing a history of the house, modern, British, or otherwise, there must come a moment when the author realises, possibly with a sinking feeling, that they have to go one of two ways. They can either lead their readers up the garden path, through the front door, down the hall and so on, or they can refuse to conform to domestic geography and use another conceit to showcase their learning. Ben Highmore’s book takes the first approach, and leads us from room to room like an unusually erudite estate agent, pointing out the interesting features. In the living room, we see the mantelpiece, where for much of the past century people kept their ornaments, letters and odds and ends. Now, the fridge door is replacing it as somewhere to put things that don’t really have a home. The changing fortunes of wallpaper are charted as it slides up and down the social scale.
Drawing extensively on Mass Observation reports, Highmore demonstrates that many of the elements of our homes that we take for granted are really very recent developments. Central heating was a rarity for much of the last century, as were children with their own bedrooms. Television and, more recently, computers, have had a far-reaching effect on the way we inhabit our homes, but so have other, less glamorous pieces of technology such as the freezer and the duvet. In fact, Highmore seems enthralled by the cultural impact of the duvet, devoting pages to its rise (I’m not complaining – its story is a surprisingly good one) although, alas, detail is far more scant on sheds, covered in a mere 200 words.
The author is a professor of cultural studies, which might explain the way The Great Indoors veers between accessible and academic. On one page, Highmore might jauntily describe the mess in a teenager’s bedroom as being the “floordrobe”, on the next he might list numerous quotes that are only attributed in the footnotes. It’s very off-putting to have to flick back and forth. My other gripe is the period photographs that start off each chapter and show the changes our houses have undergone, inside and out. Discovering which period each image is actually from, and what, specifically, it shows us, necessitates a ferret about in the back of the book to find the list of illustrations. Why not just caption the pictures?
So, what to make of The Great Indoors? The structure is sound, if not terribly daring, but while there are uneven sections, the material is good, solid stuff.