Where the heart is: Writers invite us into their idea of home

There’s no place like home. The rituals, traditions and intimate moments that go on behind our front doors and in our gardens transform them from neutral spaces into theatres of domestic life. Alain de Botton, Jeanette Winterson and Will Self consider the idea of home, and what it means to them

Saturday 07 June 2008 00:00 BST

Alain de Botton: the idea of home

For a word that carries intimate associations of sanctuary and relief, "home" seems riddled with a remarkable number of incoherencies and paradoxes. To begin with, home is almost always a place that we don't appreciate when we are there. Its omnipresence makes it invisible. Think about how differently we approach "abroad" as opposed to "at home". We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be meaningless details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or hairdresser unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.

Home on the other hand finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our house and our neighbourhood, primarily by virtue of having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place which we have been living in for a decade or more. We become habituated and therefore blind. But if we leave home and end up in an alien and frightening environment, how soon we remember home – and with what fondness! The only time we really "see" our homes and recognise their value is when we aren't in them – just as we might only truly feel the love we have declared for our spouses when they are away from us, or when they are dying. Deprivation quickly drives us into a process of appreciation – suggesting that one way to better appreciate something is to regularly rehearse its loss.

To all this we can add the thought that our need for a home arises out of a vulnerability and a lack of solid identity. Our sensitivity to our surroundings may be traced back to a troubling feature of human psychology: to the way we harbour within us many different selves, not all of which feel equally like "us", so much so that in certain moods, we can complain of having come adrift from what we judge to be our true selves.

Unfortunately, the self we miss at such moments, the elusively authentic, creative and spontaneous side of our character, is not ours to summon at will. Our access to it is, to a humbling extent, determined by the places we happen to be in. In a hotel room strangled by three motorways, or in a wasteland of run-down tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away. We may start to forget that we ever had ambitions or reasons to feel spirited and hopeful. We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need – but are at constant risk of forgetting we need – within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to stanch the disappearance of our true selves. In turn, those places whose outlook matches and legitimises our own, we tend to honour with the term "home".

Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name. Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a hotel. Our love of home is in turn an acknowledgement of the degree to which our identity is not self-determined. We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.

It is the world's great religions that have perhaps given most thought to the role played by the environment in determining identity and so – while seldom constructing places where we might fall asleep – have shown the greatest sympathy for our need for a home. The very principle of religious architecture has its origins in the notion that where we are critically determines what we are able to believe in. To defenders of religious architecture, however convinced we are at an intellectual level of our commitments to a creed, we will only remain reliably devoted to it when it is continually affirmed by our buildings. In danger of being corrupted by our passions and led astray by the commerce and chatter of our societies, we require places where the values outside of us encourage and enforce the aspirations within us.

Without honouring any gods, a piece of domestic architecture, no less than a mosque or a chapel, can assist us in the commemoration of our genuine selves. Imagine being able to return at the close of each day to a beautiful home. Our working routines may be frantic and compromised, dense with meetings, insincere handshakes, small talk and bureaucracy. We may say things we don't believe in to win over our colleagues and feel ourselves becoming envious and excited in relation to goals we don't essentially care for. But, finally, on our own, looking out of the hall window on to the garden and the gathering darkness, we can slowly resume contact with a more authentic self, who was there waiting in the wings for us to end our performance. Our submerged playful sides will derive encouragement from the painted flowers on either side of the door. The value of gentleness will be confirmed by the delicate folds of the curtains. Our interest in a modest, tender-hearted kind of happiness will be fostered by the unpretentious raw wooden floor boards. The materials around us will speak to us of the highest hopes we have for ourselves. In this setting, we can come close to a state of mind marked by integrity and vitality. We can feel inwardly liberated. We can, in a profound sense, return home.

We value certain buildings for their ability to rebalance our misshapen natures and encourage emotions which our predominant commitments force us to sacrifice. Feelings of competitiveness, envy, and aggression hardly need elaboration, but feelings of humility amid an immense and sublime universe, of a desire for calm at the onset of evening or of an aspiration for gravity and kindness – these form no correspondingly reliable part of our inner landscape, a rueful absence which may explain our wish to bind such emotions to the fabric of our homes. A beautiful home can arrest transient and timid inclinations, amplify and solidify them, and thereby grant us more permanent access to a range of emotional textures which we might otherwise have experienced only accidentally and occasionally.

There need be nothing preternaturally sweet or homespun about the moods embodied in domestic spaces. They can speak to us of the sombre as readily as they can of the gentle. There is no necessary connection between the concepts of home and of prettiness. One can feel at home in a place which is very unhomely – such as a diner or a motorway café with others similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within a person that they are alone in being alone. The very lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture can be a relief from what may be the false comforts of a so-called home. What we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.

Alain de Botton is the author of 'The Consolations of Philosophy' and 'The Architecture of Happiness', among other works

Jeanette Winterson: leaving home

When I was 16 I had to leave home. As I set off down the gloomy hallway, past the coats hung like dead men, and the coin-slot gas meter that ticked and glowed like a golem, my mother called out to me. I turned, wondering if there would be some regret or a kind word. She said, "Jeanette, why be happy when you could be normal?" My mother, if she had known it, had asked me a question as wise, complex, and potentially fatal, as any fairy-tale riddle, where the right answer leads to the treasure or the princess, and the wrong answer is death by ogre.

I had made the mistake of confessing first love, love that when requited makes us insanely happy. Unfortunately my love object was a girl and my family were strict evangelical Christians. And thus my mother's question... But it was really a question about life: life choices, life savers and lifelines. It was not a question about lifestyle. There is no such thing. My family home was poor, and I took nothing with me because I had nothing to take. For the next couple of years I lived where I could, sometimes in the back of a car, sometimes in a tent, and finally in a boxroom lent to me by a teacher – I was still at school. Trying to get to sleep in the back of a steamed-up car, I thought a lot about my mother's question. It wasn't a true opposition, like hot and cold, dark and light, and in any case, I wasn't so happy now that I was sleeping in a duffel coat in a Hillman Imp.

I realised that while living by other people's rules is no guarantee of personal happiness, living outside of those rules is no Wonderland either. Happy/normal was going to take a lot of unpacking, and while I was heaving ideas around in my head, I had to deal with the pressing practical question of how to make something like a home in temporary, transient, unlikely and uncomfortable places. It's a predicament that more and more people find themselves in, as life becomes less and less stable. That old fundamental, a happy home, is something we all want, but how do we make it happen? And is it possible to create a happy home, even when you yourself are unhappy? I only know of one way to begin – and it holds for the beautiful apartment, the nasty rented room, the bed-sit, the soulless little flat, the house you find yourself left with when the person you loved has gone, the place you take on because you have to get away, the nowhere-land, the transit zone. I call it private magic.

When I was a child, a hearth rug was a flying carpet. Remembering this, in my borrowed room, I saved up some money from weekend work and bought myself a rug the size of a duster, one that folded into my case as easily as it expanded in my imagination. From then on, wherever I found myself, even in a doorway, I put down my little rug, and I began to feel calm. Better than calm, I imagined myself free. My rug became my comforter. Years later, when I was awkwardly accepting a six-month stay at a rich man's house, I rolled up the Persian carpet in my room, and put down my own threadbare Arabian night. I believe that you have to begin with one single thing that you call your own. Possessions should be objects with which you have a connection. If your life is filled with meaningless objects, you will always be unhappy.

The modern medicine for unhappiness is spending. When people are left to start again – new home, or old home stripped of its past by an abrupt exit – the obvious answer is shopping. I think that is a disaster. If you can tell me a story about every single thing in your house, then you have a home. Anyone can go shopping, but meaning cannot be bought. You can, though, buy something simple and beautiful that you will always love – a cup for your morning coffee, a vase for flowers, a lamp that stands for light in all its meanings.

Private magic is about investing ordinary objects with talismanic power. Children do it all the time, and adults forget to do it at all. I once stayed in a strange castle with the sculptor Antony Gormley. The first thing he did was to turn the portraits of Scottish ancestors, faces to the wall. Then he asked us all to make some quick drawings of our own to pin gently on to the brown paper backs. Next he went outside and hauled in driftwood to lighten and subvert the heavy Gothic furniture. Then he found a dozen eggcups and turned them upside down to act as candleholders. This was another form of private magic – the alchemy that shifts one thing into another. If you are unhappy, or vulnerable, or hurt, or lost, it is still possible to live in or to create a happy home. This isn't sleight of hand, it is magic at its most sympathetic. And because it is magic, what can't be done is a version of the past. The thing has to be new, different, unafraid, even if you, the person making it, are very afraid. Fear is not a problem. Fear of fear is a huge problem. If you walk through your new front door and feel panic like the world is falling in, the first thing to do is to create a space within your new space where you will not take your misery or fear. This can be a room, or as simple as a chair, but when you sit in that chair you can have no negative thoughts, no tears, no rage. The moment you feel anything bad, you get up from the chair. This in itself is instructive – can you feel OK for five minutes? An hour? All evening? For me, the positive space is my study. I work there, I read there, but I don't stress there. If I want to cry or shout at the cat, I go somewhere else. When I had nothing, the safe space was my little rug. I could cry myself to sleep in bed, or sit with my head in my hands at the table, but the rug, as I understand it now, was a place of informal meditation. At the time it was more like a life belt than a flying carpet, but whatever it was, it worked, because once I had named it and claimed it as a safe space, I had to believe that it was so. If you shatter the magic, it's lost – and so are you. Gradually, if you have one safe calm space, the bigger space around you becomes safe and calm too.

It is important to make some rules for yourself about your home and you inside it, and if you live by those rules, they will work for you. This takes thought, planning, self-awareness, courage, and a sense of humour. You don't need a big budget or a TV show that helps you "create your space". Rather, you need a space inside to project on to the space outside. Inner houses, outer houses, as my Jewish friends tell me. Happy/normal. Normal/happy. Home is where the questions are answered well.

My little rug is still with me. It has gradually unravelled as my life has come together. The threads are loose, the loom-work visible, but the colours are still bright and strong. It was probably 100 years old when I bought it, and 30 years have been added since. It hasn't been well-treated, but it has been well-loved. And if I had to grab a bag and run for my life, my little rug would be the one thing I wouldn't leave behind. It is both memory and courage. Part broken, part whole, you begin again.

Jeanette Winterson is the author of 'Sexing the Cherry' and 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit', among other novels

Will Self: homebound

I got home the other evening after two weeks away in the US. Even as I stepped from the door of the aircraft on to the gantry I felt as if I was home: the grey frayed carpeting, the crap-flat lighting, the odour of Heathrow Airport – the busiest in Europe – was at once chilly and cloacal, suggesting the presence of many thousands of (albeit invisible) bodies. It doesn't sound too good this, does it? Not exactly what the Germans would term gemütlich, and yet I found it so. It got better – or worse – as I romped along the endless travelators, through jerry-built corridors of unspeakable drabness. At Immigration, the official scanned my passport and said, chronic boredom doing battle with politeness, "Thank you, sir." And I was in. The echoic Heathrow Express train station, the even more cavernous Paddington, with its 19th-century whale's belly of glass-and-iron ceiling; then I was down, striding through the foot tunnels into the Tube. Ah! The ineffably homey London Tube: I grew up in these people-funnels, their warm zephyrs freighted with a myriad cold viruses and food smells. When I was a child I travelled eight stops on the Tube to get to school, a roundabout journey geographically, but in terms of time the quickest way there. On the weekends I would buy a ticket for 30 pence, and spend the whole day roaming through this subterranean world, only popping up to ground level from time to time.

You may have the impression that I'm straying off the point here – that I'm not writing about "home" as commonly understood, but my home town, an altogether different notion. However, in my case the two are indissoluble: home is, after all, a gestalt, compounded of the senses, their memories, and the mind's determination to assemble these into a harmonious whole. The point is, that from the age of nine or so, for me London began to be my home, rather more than my parents' house. I don't want to make a big deal about this, but mine was not an especially happy childhood. Certainly, I have happy enough memories of home when I was small, but the emphasis here has to be on "enough". It's also the case that those memories are a thick broth of the sensual: the touch of my mother's flannel dressing gown, a glint of father's change scattered on top of his bow-fronted chest of drawers, the smell of the puppies when they – and I – were small. And, of course, I recall the layout, the look, the very embodiment of my childhood home, with an increasingly veridical accuracy. I can sit here now and draw a floor plan that will show where my eldest brother's double-bass was propped, and where the reproduction Matisse of mussels on a plate hung.

It's not far from where I sit typing now – only an hour by Tube. In the past decade I've been back that way two or three times. It's not a remarkable house: a red-brick semi in a suburban street, but the most remarkable thing about it, to my eyes, was always that the driveway, with its irregular pattern of flagstones, and a chipped ridge of granite guttering, had over the decades remained exactly the same as when I came into consciousness there, as a toddler, dabbling in dirt and twigs. Then, the last time I went back, a year ago, it had finally changed. The current incumbents had resurfaced the driveway. I stood there, looking down at its bluey-black expanse, obliterating my heimat, and felt a curious liberation: you can never return to the past, but it's as well to have the occasional door slammed in your face – simply in order to hammer this home.

As it happened, I was engaged in an unusual survey of my sense of home on that particular day. I had decided to walk from my current home, to where I was born, to my childhood home, to where I was at school – all within a few miles of each other in London – and then on to Oxford, where I was at university. There are few people, nowadays, in the mobile West, whose lives are sufficiently geographically condensed to be able to do this – but I'm one of them. I wanted to connect all the principal sites of my life with the effort of my own muscles, to bind them to me physically. Looking back on the enterprise, it occurs to me that this was all part of the homemaking of London that had been going on since I was nine. When I was nine, my father left the family home. He came back and went again a couple of times in the next eight years, but essentially, my idea of home was irretrievably damaged at that point. When I was 17, the family house was sold. I went away to university – I returned home. I went and lived with my father, who had made a new home for himself in Australia – but I returned to London once more. The years passed, I married, and moved out of London for a couple of years, only to come home when the marriage collapsed. And here, with the exception of some brief sojourns, I have remained ever since.

In 1997 I remarried, and the past decade has seen that most strange of things: the gradual accretion of memories, and sensations, and memories of those sensations, that perfuse mere bricks and mortar and possessions, to end up, quite inevitably, creating a genuine sense of home. Children help. To be with psyches, agglomerations of billions of neurons, which have coalesced in a particular place, is to feel that much more rooted. Two children have come as newborns to this house, and their two older half-siblings also have thought of it as a kind of home. There have been births and parties and the whole quotidian go-round, the wheels of domesticity leaving their hopefully happy ruts in the road. So, here I come, listening to the Cockney accents, leafing through the free sheet – then out of the Tube station, observing the guys messing about outside the station. My weary feet are carrying me past the curiously beautiful Modernist bus garage, then the Duke of Cambridge pub – run by Portuguese immigrants – then into my road.

As middle-age got its grip on me, and I became prey to genealogical speculations, I discovered a curious fact about my family. It transpired that the earliest known Self to have lived in London – one Adolphus Self, a coach painter – was entered in the 1841 census as having been resident at Kennington Cross, a mere half mile from here. So, it seems that while I may myself be one of the Modernists, with my half-Jewish, half-English blood, and while I may trot the globe, I still return to a strange kind of urban homeland: a quarter of a mighty world city in which six generations of the male line of my family have now resided. I don't begrudge anyone coming into this Self homeland – on the contrary, the burgeoning of London's immigrant population during my adult life has been a source of delight to me. I remember this city as far duller and blander when it was more homogeneous. But the biggest source of pleasure for me is to see how all of them have been impregnated with genus loci: black, brown, white – they look like Londoners, they all sound like Londoners. They're perfectly at home here. And so am I.

'UK at Home: A Celebration of Where We Live and Love', created by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, is published by Duncan Baird, £19.99. To order a copy at a special price, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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