Caravans, Prayer Cushions and Idle Hands

The labor was the labor of the hand, of the body, and the product, in its uniqueness, was a stay against repetition and inauthenticity.[1]



I grew up in a 1950’s built semi-detached 3-bedroom council house in a small village in Hertfordshire. Number 13 House Lane looked like the sort of house that all children seem to draw, no matter the circumstances of their actual home – a pointed roof, four windows and a square front garden with a small fence. It looked like a dolls house, for all the world the perfect home. Perfect, at least, if you ignored its semi-attached Siamese twin – number 15. Most of our village was economically deprived and very few of the residents owned their own home, so the majority of the village belonged to the council, except for a small smattering of houses bought under the right to buy scheme. Number 15 was one of these. Initially, number 15 was inhabited solely by Mrs Smith, a rather unfriendly, hairy, pensioner, but as she became increasingly infirm (and increasingly hairy), her grown up son moved in to take care of her. When she died her house passed into the hands of the loving son and his brother, who no one had seen for some time, on account of him spending the last few years pleasing her Majesty. When brother Perry next came up for parole, he was released, the board happy and satisfied that that he now had a stable home awaiting his return. Perry’s brother was less happy about the new arrangement and promptly set about splitting the house into two – rapidly building makeshift walls from breezeblocks. So it happened that Perry’s side of the newly divided number 15 was the side that adjoined our family home. His bedroom and my parent’s bedroom were akin to the band of flesh that bound those original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng together, forever stuck in an enforced embrace.

This close proximity, coupled with an air vent, enabled us to hear him going about his business, talking to the teenage boys he lured home with promises of contraband, John Player Specials, Party Sevens and miniature Bells. There was alcohol in out house too, a liquor cabinet full of Advocaat and Ouzo and a bottle of sickly sweet liqueur that had been gifted to my parents by my great aunt Ivy on return from her unlikely travels to a desperately exotic sunnier clime (Tunisia? Barbados?) accompanied by my mother’s camp younger cousin, Keith. The bottle was as tacky as its syrupy contents and came adorned with a tiny set of ornamental cymbals, which my sister and I would play loudly in my mother’s bedroom. Surely if Percy could hear us, he would know that we could hear him? It appeared that he was oblivious.

The rest of the village were clearly not oblivious. In a small community like Sandridge, there really are not that many secrets, thus most of the villagers avoided Perry, except my Great Aunt Ivy. Already a strange fish, as illustrated by the fact that her marriage had lasted for only six heady weeks of 1942, Ivy did not quite fit in either. A fact she tried to disguise by approaching all she met with great disdain, followed quickly by loudly expressed disapproval. Her scornful ways suggested that she alone was the arbitrator of social decency in the community. She was a chain smoking Mary Whitehouse with an inexplicable fondness for the otherwise ostracised Perry. Every Wednesday she would come to visit us, delivering things that my mother did not approve of: Pepsi, Hula Hoops, Spacedust and sherbet, Mandy and Judy, Bunty and Diana. With my sister and I firmly distracted by our comics and candy, Ivy would take the chance to pop next door to deliver a couple of home-baked fruit cakes to Perry. Considering she lived off Marks and Spencer's fish dinners for one and Regal Superkings, this was unusual, to say the least.

In time, Perry went back to prison (the teenagers in his bedroom soon realised that the bottles of miniature Bells weren’t free after all) and his brother scraped the funds together to buy out Perry’s share of number 15. Like many divided cities, the wall eventually fell. We never saw Perry again, but Ivy did get a present from him in the post, hand made, just like the fruitcakes. An overly large-scale model of a gypsy caravan, fashioned from thousands and thousands of matchsticks. It sat on a side table next to a souvenir camel (Tunisia? Barbados?) made from real animal skin.

Much of the best prison art comes out of long-standing inmate craft traditions rather than exceptional personal vision. The clever horsehair belts and other weavings at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge reflect logistical exigencies that have shaped prison creativity for decades. Similarly, folded cigarette-wrappers, tooled leather and matchstick constructions seem to relate more to time-bending activities like whittling or knitting then to the idiosyncratic ideas of their creators.[2]

The devil makes work for idle hands, so keeping hands busy and thus beyond the reach of temptation has always been a motivator for craft. In St. Leonard’s parish church, Sandridge, every single prayer cushion is completely enveloped with the prim, ordered, mechanisms of cross-stitch. Cross stitch is a chaste activity, the perfect distraction for a lady like Ivy – dying to break bad but never really doing so (apart from the incident with the Italian soldier that should never be mentioned) and hiding even the desire for rebellion behind a fa├žade of prim disapproval of pretty much everything. Ivy did not do cross-stitch though. Her pass-time was knitting. She knitted ugly dolls for church bazaars, baby jumpers for the local hospital and endless squares for some Blue Peter or Girl Guide appeal. Her needles clicked furiously and I often wondered what she was so afraid her idle hands might do without the constant clack-clack-clack of activity. Ivy did not attend church, did not kneel on the cross-stitch cushions that left tiny little imprints on your skin. Instead, she did take it upon herself to escort my sister and I to Sunday school every week. I didn’t know that we only attended at her insistence until many years later when I somewhat unfairly accused my mother of packing us off to colour in endless pictures of the Stations of the Cross and sing unfathomable metaphors featuring oil in lamps solely and simply due to the free babysitting aspect. I was rather surprised when I was told it was all Ivy’s idea. I expect she was trying to ensure our souls remained pure, either through Jesus Christ Our Saviour or through the repetitive and pointless labour of colouring in. I suppose it was better than knitting, anyway,

As well as taking responsibility for our spiritual welfare, Ivy also took it upon herself to furnish our “Bottom Drawers” a kind of Home Counties version of a dowry. Each Christmas we would be presented with something distinctly adult and thoroughly uninteresting, a recipe book, a set of napkins or a box of stainless steel fish knives. Undeterred by our bewildered faces, Ivy continued, year on year to build a future home for my sister and I, whether we wished for it or not. Occasionally we would be presented with something handmade, or at least hand embellished, by a previous generation. Something with so much labour invested into its making that the resulting object would be decreed as to be “saved for best” and thus fated to languish in a dusty airing cupboard for evermore, waiting for the very concept of what might constitute “best” to be decided. All this wistful, saving, hoarding and preserving of objects for some potential unspecified momentous occasion had an adverse affect on a teenaged me. Not content to labour towards my handcrafted, doily-spangled destiny of a stable home and stationary future I sought movement. Or at the very least the illusion of movement, even if it were poorly constructed from matchsticks and cigarette wrappers like Perry’s caravan


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[1] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing : Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Durham, Duke University Press. P 39.

[2] From http://www.interestingideas.com/out/prison/prison.htm [accessed August 2008]

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