Saturday, 24 April 2010

The comfort of things

I’ve been reading and admiring Daniel Miller’s book The Comfort of Things. Miller is a UCL professor who, like Mass Observation’s Tom Harrison half a century before him, made the move from conventional anthropology – doing doctoral research in a North Indian village in the 1980s – to domestic anthropology. With his co-researcher Fiona Parrott, he spent a year and a half interviewing the inhabitants of an ungentrified but perfectly respectable street in south-east London, in an area resembling New Cross. There are some heart-rending accounts of lonely old single men, and a lovely portrait of a happy marriage. And I liked this description of one itinerant Australian: ‘Given his mobility, there is only one address that seems to have much by way of permanence; and that is not a place of bricks and mortar, but his email address. Because the email address has established itself as the place where everyone can always find him, and he is always at home.’

This is how Miller explained the project in an essay:

I have studied the community of a street because it isn’t a community. I studied a street because it represents no person and no group, or at least none in particular … I didn’t want some sink council estate that stood for poverty, or some mansions that stood for wealth. I didn’t want a black area or a white area. I wanted a “whatever” area … we live the discourse of the street, the fantasy of community, of neighbourhood, of history, of local identity, of street festivals, street complaints, street parking … Soon after we began a major crime occurred at one end of the street, one that involved a celebrity and reached the newspapers. Yet it never travelled as gossip to the other end of the street. Some community!

We all want to live on Festive Road with Mr Benn, but we can't go home again.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Ninety per cent of life is just turning up.’ – Woody Allen


  1. Sue Bourne's documentary My Street covered similar material and was fascinating and pretty sad at times. I imagine you've seen it but, if you haven't, I recommend it.

  2. "Hey, computer age--who needs a house when you've got a homepage?" -Datarock.

  3. Thank you both for these refs.