On Saturday morning, I discovered that an art shop near Merton had a sale on posters. The walls of my beloved dorm room here are a bit lacking, so I thought that posters would be a nice addition. In my text to my parents about it, I even remarked that they’d make the room a bit more homely… but what does that mean? The posters I ended up buying are brand new, ones I’ve never seen before. One depicts the Bodleian Library, which is an Oxford location not a place in Blackpool. Another refers to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ but that has no importance to home. The third poster is a cover for 1984 but, try as he might, not even Boris Johnson has made Orwell’s dystopia feel homely yet.
So what did I mean by that text?
On one hand, I suppose I could have been referring to my bedroom back in Blackpool. I have a lot of posters there, which have been amassed from many years of photocopying comic book pages and being subscribed to Doctor Who Magazine. The very existence of the ‘poster’ as an abstract symbol would perhaps, then, remind me of the room back in Blackpool. But… somehow this doesn’t seem satisfying. It doesn’t seem true. There’s something deeper.
It’s not even like it’s because I’m finally making my mark on the place- I had to ask the porters/maintenance team for permission to put up the posters because I’m not allowed blu-tack. A quick google search revealed that students across the country (or, at least, those using Student Room) were in a similar state. I’m not the only one buying posters, then. But why?
I’m not a particularly materialistic person, or at least, I’m not in the context of our society. But things still make me happy. My plants make me happy. My journal makes me happy. My lamp (which due to the restrictions of plug sockets isn’t overtly useful) makes me happy. I brought two toy Daleks and an 11th Doctor figure to Oxford with me for shelf decoration. Is that an effort to make my room more homely?
Earlier this year David Olusoga, who is generally fantastic but particularly useful for this conversation, produced a series for the BBC that has had a big impact on me. It’s called A House Through Time and is about tracing the history of a house and all the people who had lived in it, looking at their changing fortunes, lifestyles, families and experiences. I felt so inspired that, after A Levels, me and my girlfriend spent two lovely summer days bundled up in a library traipsing through electoral records trying to carry out the same task for our houses. And they say romance is dead.
In an article for BBC History Magazine around the launch of the second series, Olusoga wrote something that I find myself returning to quite a lot.
In order to make the empty frame of an old house into a new home, we attempt to disguise an unavoidable truth: that until recently it was the home of other people, and before them yet more people, a line of strangers stretching back decades and sometimes centuries.
David Olusoga, BBC History Magazine, April 2019
I’ve waxed lyrical about the history of Merton before (bonus fact: it’s older than the Aztec Empire), and about all the amazing people who have inhabited this space before me, but usually I refer to it on a college wide scale. I want to focus on the actual rooms themselves. Rose Lane 1.4 (my beloved room) has been around since the 1930s. Assuming a new student every year, this means that between 80 to 90 students have spent a year here, not including all of the conference makers and guests who’ve been here for up to a week between terms. Who’s worked here before? Who’s sat in one of the long line of armchairs which have occupied it? Who else has been irritated by the size of the pin board?
I notice from Wikipedia that between 1980 and 2007, Rose Lane was exclusively female accommodation, so that at least gives me an idea. Prior to 1980, all men. Between that period, all women. After 2007, a mix. I know the name of the guy who was in here last year (I also know he must have been storing something funky smelling in one of the desk drawers) but that’s where the line stops. I wonder if he had any posters, or any figurines on his book shelf. I wonder how many laughs he got out of his picturesque view of the bins; I doubt as many as me, because it was my go to line during Freshers Week.
But what has any of this tangent got to do with feeling homely? Well, quite a lot. Olusoga goes on to describe “the reality that we are merely the latest characters to appear on stage for an inevitably short cameo” in our homes. I feel that way not just about Rose Lane 1.4, but about Oxford as a whole. It’s week 2 now, of a total 72 weeks across my three years. In the blink of an eye, I’ll be on to the next thing, whatever that may be. Another two people will have called this room theirs and felt angry about the tiny pinboard, a third will be waiting to get the keys in trepidation. The wheel of time rolls on, and we keep running inside it.
And yet, I plan to hang posters. Why? Because for the time being, I am the only character on the stage, and so it’s important this room has the right set dressing.