Tom Sutcliffe: Strawberry Hill forever

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I wouldn't usually suggest to you that you visit a museum that is still a bit of a shambles but I intend to this week. Though before I go on I should say that "shambles" probably needs a bit of qualification. There's no absence of organisation in the place I'm talking about – or of planned purpose. It's just that you don't usually expect to find yourself passing wet-paint warnings at a heritage site – or squeezing past the builders' step-ladders. And yet when I visited Strawberry Hill near Twickenham recently the place was nowhere near complete, despite the fact that it had been officially opened up to the public a few days before. I visited on an off-day – when the general public weren't around – so it's possible that everything is a bit more health and safety in routine operation. But even if they are it's clear that paying customers are going to encounter a work in progress rather than one that has been fully finished. And since you generally pay for a finished article – and are entitled to feel a bit cheated if there are big bits missing – you might think that it would be better to hold off a visit to Horace Walpole's "small capricious house" until the last bit of scaffolding has been unbolted and the last bit of gilding applied.

You'd be wrong – not least because if you have any interest in how the gilding gets on there in the first place, the craftsmen currently working on the building are extremely obliging about answering questions. I also spent a very instructive 10 minutes with the man piecing together a bit of gothic tracery in Walpole's great gallery, a ludicrously but lovably excessive space in which the ceiling has been copied from the side aisle of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster and the great door borrowed from the north side of the cathedral at Saint Albans (not literally – there were limits even to Walpole's considerable purchasing power). But you'd also be wrong for a slightly more complicated reason. The truth is that when the restoration of Strawberry Hill is finished there is likely to be a degree of poignant emptiness to it. There shouldn't be – Walpole having taken legal steps to ensure that the collection of antiquities, paintings and historical curiosities he amassed during his lifetime would stay in a building that had been conceived from the very beginning as a kind of live-in monstrance. Unfortunately, the greed of a later descendent dispersed the collection, ignoring his wishes completely. Perhaps Walpole wouldn't have minded. He seemed sanguine about the prospects of a durable posterity, writing once that "my buildings are paper – like my writings – and both will be blown away 10 years after my death". But even if he'd have been philosophical the truth is that Strawberry Hill will eventually be a box without its contents.

A hell of a box, it's true, and well worth a visit in its own right, both as an expression of eccentric self-indulgence and as a hugely important part of the gothic revival in Britain. No Strawberry Hill, no Houses of Parliament, or at least not as they look now. But still, it's going to be a little echoey without its books and its bric-à-brac and its furniture. And in the absence of those objects, the presence of the craftsmen and builders offers an alternative kind of life, one that certainly wouldn't have been out of keeping with Strawberry Hill in its heyday, since Walpole was almost constantly tinkering with the building and extending it. Had it featured in some 18th-century version of Grand Designs it would have been one of those projects where Kevin McCloud never quite gets round to a full reveal, because there isn't a moment at which it's ever really finished. It's part of the great charm of the building that it expresses a playful mind that is always finding new things to interest it and isn't aiming at some kind of symmetrical perfection. I'm sure it will be lovely when the restoration work is finally completed, but in an odd way it's unfinished state may well get you closer to what it was as a living building – a process and not a monument. Go now, before they tidy everything up.

A confession: I was Just So wrong about leopards

The Today Programme piqued my attention the other day, with its suggestion that Rudyard Kipling had been closer to the truth than people might think in his account of how the leopard got his spots. Since the story explains how an Ethiopian with "plenty of black left on [his] skin" pressed them into place with "five fat black finger-tips" I was puzzled by exactly how this might mesh with standard evolutionary theory. In the event, it was only Kipling's explanation of the spots' purpose that was on the button – hardly surprising, really, since he would have been perfectly aware of evolutionary theory. Far more intriguing was the suggestion that, contrary to proverbial wisdom (but in line with basic Darwinian theory), leopards have probably changed their spots repeatedly over the course of their species' history, in response to alterations in their habitat. It's not a cliché I use very often, but until the other day I hadn't realised that whenever I did, I was unconsciously signing up to a creationist notion of zoological permanence – one entirely consistent with the proverb's Biblical origin (in Jeremiah 13.23 "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?") – but at odds with what I actually believe to be true. Preserved in the sedimentary layers of the language, there's this fossil of discredited conviction. I'm now going to use the antithesis as often as possible to make amends for spreading the gospel by stealth.

Corrie as comfort blanket

I am having to brush up my Freud, having agreed to take part in a conference called Remote Control: Psychoanalysis and Television, which takes place at the Freud Museum next Friday and Saturday (www.freud.org.uk). The panel I'm sitting on – Water Cooler Moments: TV as Transitional Object – still sounds as intriguing as it did when I was invited, but my confidence that I've got anything interesting to say about it dwindles with every passing day. A transitional object was Donald Winnicott's term for the things to which very young children can become inseparably attached – a blanket or a soft toy, say – and which helps them in negotiating their separation from the mother. So, should we think of Coronation Street as a kind of "blankie" for grown-ups – and if it is, why hasn't the audience transitioned to the point at which it can be taken away without provoking an almighty tantrum? More to the point, can children's television programmes (enjoyed with an intensity that suggests they are more than mere diversion) operate as a helpful bridge to a more independent life, or do they just dull the pain while the real work is being done elsewhere? And how creepy is a transitional object which knows what you're thinking and alters itself to seduce you more effectively?

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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