Saturday 28 January 2012: In need of attention
A long walk today took me on paths through fields, and lanes through farms, across the valley in an area I don't often traverse. Heading homeward I descended past a small dwelling that must have lain empty for a few years, although I remember when an old man was still farming there. He and his wife are gone now and the place is shut up but not locked so I took a peep inside. I can never resist an empty house.
Some effort must have been made to clear it out and maybe make a start on renovating it but all had been abandoned at some point. In truth the fabric is too far gone with damp and rot to merit anything except a complete rebuild. It did not have much going for it in any case being, probably, a mid-20th century replacement of an older property. The structure was shoddy and the place had little charm, situated down in a damp shady hollow. All the remaining decorations and furnishings were meagre and sad and it seemed that the occupants' lives had been meagre and sad too. (This shot is of an upstairs room.)
Some possessions were piled on a table, damp, grimy and furred with mildew. There were a few framed certificates, one being a Certificate of Merit awarded at school in 1938 by the South Wales Temperance and Band of Hope Union to James Francis Evans for Excellence in Reproducing a Lecture on the Nature & Effects of Alcohol. There were pamphlets on the Diseases of Poultry and on Botanical Remedies. There were two books. One was a copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, identical to the one my mother (and all mothers) owned. Inserted was a single handwritten recipe for egg flip (6 eggs, 4 lemons and half a bottle of rum...I bet young Jimmy didn't mention that in his temperance essay!) The other book was a huge leather-bound Welsh bible with colour plates and metal clasps. In the front were records of Evans family births and deaths from 1889 to 1965, including Edgar Evans who "died of wounds in France, in the German War, May 25th 1917, buried at Mendinghem" [one of the huge Belgian war grave cemeteries.]
Otherwise there was nothing to tell me any more about this family except they farmed the land, read the bible and sent sons to fight in foreign lands. There was nothing to suggest they played games, read magazines, wrote letters or had any hobbies. Their lives seemed impoverished, not so much by lack of money as by lack of imagination or lack of opportunity.
This chimes in with a book I am reading called The Comfort of Things by an anthropologist, Daniel Miller. In an attempt to understand the ordinary lives of ordinary people living today he spent many months getting to know 30 inhabitants of one random London street. He talked to them about what mattered most to them and found that it was often material things, their possessions: pets, clothes, collections, books, music, decorations, adornments, in fact all the things that make us what we are. So often we bewail our clutter or deplore the materialism of modern society, assuming that acquisition of 'stuff' impedes our social and emotional functioning. From his study the anthropologist concluded that the opposite was true. Our possessions define us and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people. Those interviewees who possessed very little and whose living quarters were bare, had emptier lives while those who had accrued 'stuff' (not in terms of wealth) had richer lives in every way. Far from being mere consumers they were able to imbue their lives with meaning via their material possessions. As if the ability, or sense of permission, to explore, create or acquire such things and make them personal goes hand in hand with the same impulse to embrace ideas and relationships.
I get the feeling that the heavy weight of the Bible pressed the life out of the Evans family and there was not enough egg flip to rescue it.