What would you save …?

WHEN we have friends for supper, Sunday lunch or the occasional Sunday tea, the table we sit at is about 400 years old, and came from Gay’s family home in Christchurch.

If we are being very traditional, the pretty china cups and saucers for tea come from both our family homes, and live in an Edwardian corner cabinet from my maternal grandmother’s Bristol house.

The office is now home (albeit temporarily) to a beautiful longcase clock, which was my father’s pride and joy, and will be going to my daughter in California.

It is not only these much-loved items inherited from parents or grandparents – so many pieces of pottery, pictures, Christmas Tree decorations, even ear-rings come with their own stories, and we hope they will in time find homes with our children or even grandchildren. With antiques, reminders of family, friends and travels, and yards of bookshelves, our house is undoubtedly cluttered.

Neither of us has ever felt the slightest urge to do a Marie Kondo – indeed, we were rather pleased to read that she too has finally realised that a minimalist house or apartment, with everything colour-coded and geometrically folded, is not the same as a lived-in home with animals and children and piles of clothes and even unmade beds.

I don’t know what we would try to save from a flood, or a fire, let alone an earthquake like the one which has just caused such tragic devastation in Turkey. I suspect if we could save our dog and cat, that would be enough, although there are a few precious memories that we would hope to grab.

But this “What if … what would you save … ” has been a reality for so many, over the troubled, war-torn 20th century and now into the 21st, with the horrible ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

One of my current books is Penelope Lively’s beautiful and touching memoir, A House Unlocked. It is the story of her grandmother’s home, Golsoncott, in West Somerset, and is not only the history of her family but of country life in the 20th century.

In the chapter called The Woman in the White Dress and The Boy on the Beach, Lively recalls visiting Russia in 1984 (an eerily appropriate year), when it was still the Soviet Union. She was there as part of a six-member delegation of British writers sent by the Great Britain-USSR Association to meet members of the Soviet Writers’ Union.

There were six days of formal meetings, with wining and dining in the evenings. On one occasion they were invited to the home of a prominent Russian writer. Although luxurious by Soviet standards, it seemed small and utilitarian to the British visitors. Penelope Lively recalls the one thing that stood out – a small, flowered bone china coffee cup. The writer’s wife told her that the cup had belonged to her mother. It was all that she had left from her home after the war. One cup.

I find myself thinking about this poignant memory as I look at our colourful dresser and cupboards – and as we watch the nightly news from Ukraine. You look in horror at the shattered remains of village homes, the stark, broken skeletons of apartment blocks, the piles of concrete, stone and twisted steel, grim symbols of loss, destruction and the lengths to which a tyrant will go to obliterate a people and their country.

Sometimes, foreign correspondents and cameramen capture film of widows, survivors, even children, desperately searching, trying to salvage something from the wreckage of their homes …

You can draw simplistic morals about appreciating what you have and not taking your good fortune for granted. But there is a deeper meaning here, a recognition of the importance of cultural identity and of our connection to our place and our people – those essential components of who we are and where we fit in. That little coffee cup was a tenuous but essential link for the Russian woman to her lost family.

Looking from the battered and uncertain 2020s, with war in Europe, a cost of living crisis and climate change threatening environmental disaster, we are beset with insecurity. We fear that the tidal waves of consumerism, social media and financial trauma will sever us from these connections that give meaning to our existence.

So it is more important than ever to value those things that give meaning to our lives – friends, family, our pets and those special objects that speak to us about who we are and where we come from.

Fanny Charles