I have spent the last several weeks helping my daughter settle into her new school, while finding my own way through the changed structure of the days, and I am tired of words. What better time to browse lazily through Sibella Court’s Etcetera etc., with its pages upon pages of images? Even as a physical object the book is a treat; despite being a recent volume it has that delicious smell of library stacks, and the paper is thick and heavy, with occasional translucent sheets used to good effect. Inside it is mostly pictures, of rooms Court has styled, filled with objects she finds beautiful, fabrics and tarnished silver and wooden pencils and straw hats — the gathering of a self-confessed “bowerbird” who loves to collect things which catch her gaze and create new ways to use them as decor. I do not share Court’s aesthetic, which is very textural, objects piled in layers upon layers, and to my eye unpleasantly cluttered, but some of the individual objects she features are quite beautiful, and I like several of her colour palettes.
As for the words — well, it is like reading a document from an alien world. I cannot imagine bestowing so much time and attention upon objects. Finding them, arranging them, changing them — when would I read, or cook, or garden? Court loves her objects, she loves display, believing that “a home is like a museum without the signs saying ‘Please Don’t Touch’” and so she styles rooms with a multitude of things for visitors to investigate and examine. After all, she asks, “what’s the point of possessing beautiful and meaningful things if you can’t show them off for the world to see?” This theatrical approach extends through the book; she suggests that readers should imagine their “interiors as sets where objects, art and furniture can be moved or interchanged, and old objects easily moved to make way for new pieces of a different mood.” It is, I think, the precise opposite of what I wish; I want my home to be stable ground from which I may launch myself out to explore, rather than a place “forever changing and evolving” to enhance my “mood, lifestyle, and current obsessions.” My moods and obsessions satisfy me as they are; I cannot imagine trying to make the rooms I live in reflect them.
I find it curious and fascinating, this living focused upon the external gaze, this sense of the home as a place which is on display. Home as stage set, the opposite of home as sanctuary. I would find it deeply uncomfortable to live in, but as an author I am captivated by trying to imagine the people who would choose such a way of living, what stories I might tell about them, how they would move, speak, think, feel — and what, also, these spaces would be like, to move through, to live in. How would I wake up, if my bed was on the floor and my shelving provided by a ladder? What kind of work would I settle to do, if the walls were covered with stamped linen and my shelves overflowing with boxes and fabric and old playing cards? A book like this is a feast for my imagination, and the perfect antidote to hours spent tracking down school uniforms and filling out volunteer paperwork.