MORE BOOKS REVIEWED: Alan Cumming, Judith Flanders

I will never, ever, get to the bottom of my “To Be Read” pile of books, but I’m having a go. Here are two I’ve recently finished and heartily recommend.

Not My Father's Son

Not My Father’s Son, A Family Memoir, comes from the very talented Alan Cumming (Canongate, £16.99, http://crv.li/zyjil9). [Aside: I interviewed him once. Here’s that link: http://www.scotsman.com/news/more-than-wine-and-hedonism-1-912567]

They might as well have subtitled this: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Cumming grew up on an estate in the north east of Scotland — a vast, beautiful place — where his father was the head forester. But Alex Cumming was a troubled, cruel man, prone to emotional and physical violence. He cheated flagrantly on his wife, Mary Darling, and brutalised his sons Alan, and six-years-older Tom. Even years after losing contact with his children, he found ways to torture them. In 2010, as Cumming prepared to become the subject of a BBC Who Do You Think You Are documentary, Alex dropped a bombshell:

“I’m not your father.”

As it happened, that wasn’t the mystery Cumming had set out to explore courtesy of the broadcasting behemoth. He wanted to know more about his mother’s father, Tommy Darling, who died out in Malay when his daughter was 13, having not seen his British family in five years. Darling had gone off to fight in World War II and then never returned, instead joining the Malayan police force. The family was informed of his death by post. Cause of death was the ambiguous phrase: “shooting accident”. What had really happened and why, wondered Cumming?

Narrated in Then / Now alternating chapters (I’m counting the sections taking place in 2010 as Now), Cumming spins out his story like a strand of the DNA that bedevils him, turning and twisting the twin tales with the ease of an experienced storyteller, occasionally throwing out bridges to show how these separate stories link to form his story.

It’s not always easy reading, but in between the harrowing accounts of violence and mental abuse there are bits of celebrity gossip and moments of joy serving as counterweights to the sad core of this story. Ultimately there’s a happy ending — but as Neil Gaiman says in a blurb quote, this is equal parts memoir and whodunnit. It’s not for me to spoil the surprises.

Entirely different but no less absorbing is The Making of Home by Judith Flanders (Atlantic Books, £20, http://crv.li/g2q341).

If, like me, you have an Edifice Complex, and you’re a fan of social history, to boot, then this well-researched, fascinating exploration of why we live as we do is guaranteed to provide enlightenment, food for thought, and plenty of entertainment. Flanders’ thesis is that the notion of “home” is a relatively new concept, and her book traces its evolution across the ages, focusing on Western Europe and the British colonies that became the United States.

A house is not a home, as the song reminds us. Flanders draws distinctions between “Home” countries and “House” countries: “There are societies where the community space. . . is the canvas on which life is painted, and where an individual house is only a more private area within that primary space. Then there are societies where the house is the focal point, while the town. . . functions mainly as the route through which one passes in order to reach the essential privacies of the houses.”

Her mission is to “make invisible patterns visible” and she does so in two sections, the first devoted to tracking the political, religious, economic and social changes that engendered the idea of “home”, and the second, looking at technological innovations that created the infrastructure inherent in our notions of “home,” including plumbing, furniture, and cooking methods. Using contemporary literature, linguistics, art, and historical records, Flanders not only explores what people did inside their homes, but how they thought about these activities and spaces.

This is the perfect gift for your favourite historical novelist or trivia buff, for it’s chock a block with small, telling details. In the first chapter alone we learn that women who killed their spouses in England and Scotland were not charged with murder, but with petty treason, for acting against the “government” of their husbands. We discover that Dutch households displayed lace-edged wooden placards on their doorknobs to announce the arrival of a new baby, and announced a stillbirth via a black silk cover.

We also discover that much of what we believe is true about historic homes is outright fabrication. Those pristine Dutch interiors — curated by the artist’s eye — are no more realistic than a CGI backdrop. Actual Tudors would not recognise the exposed beams and white-washed walls of what we call Tudor-style homes. And on and on.

The lavish draped bedsteads we associate with stately homes were luxury items, and as such, little used, often displayed in the family’s main room, as a sign of status. It was not a given that there would be chairs for every member of the family; often only the father, as head of the household, sat to eat his meals. And after centuries in which furniture was traditionally placed flush against the walls, Louis XV startled everyone by having chairs and tables arranged in convivial groups around the room. This, in turn, altered the design of chairs themselves, which became more comfortable thanks to the introduction of upholstery.

The idea of style, and identifying with our possessions, flourished from the late sixteenth century, writes Flanders. “With urbanisation and the anonymity an increasingly mobile population created, appearances had more value than they had had when everyone’s family history was known. The question now was, what do people who may not know me at all, make of me based on what they learn as they pass my house? What do relative strangers think when they call on me?”

Flanders excels at extrapolating norms from what’s not said or written. For example, she describes the Dutch Golden Age as a time when human waste was regularly flung out of windows (and passers-by were so often besmirched that there existed set compensation fees depending on the level of destruction done to one’s clothes). “These were the very streets that the English admired as ‘wonderfull Nett and cleane’, but it was where they expected to see waste, and so it was effectively invisible to them.”

Throughout, there’s attention paid to how our perceptions of women’s “duties” changed — usually for the worse — in tandem with our notion of home, describing how the home became a moral battleground.

All in all, a wonderful book, full of ideas and revelations that have deepened my understanding of the past more than any standard history of kings, queens, and politicians.

 

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