The Great Indoors by Ben Highmore

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Reviewed by Simon

If, like me, you have spent many hours of your life watching TV programmes about how to build, renovate, sell, or buy a house, you will probably be fascinated by The Great Indoors (the first book, indeed, that I’ve read that mentions Sarah Beeny). Putting a slightly more scholarly hat on, anybody with an interest in 20th-century cultural history will also find a great deal to love and fascinate here – as Highmore takes us, room by room, through the past hundred or so years.

It is an ingenious idea. I’ve heard that a similar thing was down in Bill Bryson’s Home but, having not read that, I can’t comment. Either way, it works really well as a technique of exploring the home – rather than a chronological approach, we feel as though Highmore is guiding us through the house. And, somehow, he manages to do so with almost no repetition. The importance of central heating appears a few times, as does the amount of space one family was expected to share (did you know that five people could share two rooms before they were considered overcrowded?), but otherwise we are constantly provided with new tid-bits of information.

Highmore’s sources are always thorough. Mass Observation makes many appearances, either through individual diaries or broader statistics (half of people preferred green paint in the 1950s, fact fans). Contemporary newspapers, magazines, and reports are frequently referred to. Alongside this, delightfully, are many snippets from fiction of the 20th century, from W. Somerset Maugham to Jilly Cooper, E.M. Delafield to George Orwell. How many books do you know that could comfortably encompass, on consecutive pages, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and The Chronicles of Narnia? Loving both, I was enchanted.

No domestic topic is too small or seemingly insignificant for Highmore’s eye. I got thoroughly immersed in the topic of duvets (which may not be news to some of our readers, but anybody born after 1960 will probably be surprised and amused):

In the 1960s duvets were sold to the British as a modern novelty item, a sort of ‘you won’t believe your eyes’ phenomenon. Thus the ‘Puffin Downlette’ starts out with the practical ‘no more dreary, dusty bed-making!’ but soon opts for the you’re-not-going-to-believe-this: ‘The Puffin Downlette, designed and made in Denmark, is used with just sheets – even in Winter! Filled with softest duck’s down, light as air, it keeps you gloriously warm. The Scandinavians enjoy this luxury – now they send it to you.’ Good old Scandinavians and good old Puffin Downlette.

That excerpt also gives a little taste of Highmore’s style, which is often (delightfully) to end a paragraph with a wry joke or a raise of the eyebrows. His tone is never dry or even particularly reverential – rather, it is witty and dry, while still being impeccably researched.

I always find myself drawn to discussions of what literary theorists (and probably others) describe as ‘liminal space’ – the hallways, landings, and staircases. Who’d have thought a section on the effects of the front hall would be so interesting?

I wish I’d made more notes about what I learned as I read The Great Indoors, but I suppose that is part of Highmore’s mastery of the topic. Somehow the book feels almost like a multi-layered family saga, rather than a list of facts. It is a truism of reviewing to say that the house is itself a character; in The Great Indoors it is not merely an individual house that becomes the character – it is THE house in general. Seeing it change and evolve through the 20th century, making housework easier and yet less frequent, allowing the children downstairs and then giving them more reasons not to bother leaving their room, bringing the bathroom indoors and extending upwards and downwards, we see a character whose change over a hundred years is nothing short of phenomenal. Highmore is to be warmly congratulated on condensing such a vast topic without seeming to short-change the reader, and to keep the momentum going continually in this pacy, illuminating joy of a book.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and has long believed that watching Grand Designs and Location, Location, Location was essentially a period of lengthy research for something.

Ben Highmore, The Great Indoors (London, Profile Books, 2014), ISBN 978-1846681912, paperback, 291pp.

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