This is proving a rich period for those of us who can’t resist snooping into the interiors of other people’s houses. You might call us nosey Parkers, and you’d be right; but we would protest that we’re simply deeply curious about humanity, and that one of the best ways of gleaning the essence of people’s characters is by snooping into the domestic hinterland of their daily lives.
This snooping habit is not to be confused with the darker side of noseyness: curtain-twitching. Not that there are many curtains in the part of London where I live. Shutter-adjusting would be a more accurate term. While curtain-twitchers secretly gaze out, we snoopers secretly gaze in. On walks we peer into every basement, craving data on the occupants’ tastes in kitchen draining-boards and thus on their whole attitude to life’s challenges.
I’ve been doing that kind of snooping for years, and it has become even more fulfilling recently, as houses are being properly lived in once again, and the curtainlessness seems like a positive invitation to look in. But the New Snooping is the screen kind: squinting upwards over the shoulder of the person who’s broadcasting from home on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or the news. Since the lockdown began, I’ve been calling this game ‘Whose Cornices do you Covet?’, because due to the unflattering upward-diagonal angle that laptop cameras give, you see in the foreground the double chin or scraggy neck of the speaker (and his Adam’s apple if it’s a T-shirted Robert Peston), and in the background the confluence of right-angles where wall colour changes to ceiling colour. Often there’s some kind of pipework up there, plus a burglar-alarm sensor and a carbon-monoxide alarm.
In the photograph of the first-ever Zoom Cabinet meeting earlier this month, we saw a patchwork quilt of 23 human beings doing their best to work from home, just as we all are. It was the first time we’ve ever seen 23 Cabinet ministers at home in one frame. I found it moving to get a half-glimpse of their private, domestic personas. They looked more human, more likeable than they do seated round a Cabinet table in their suits craning their necks to agree with the Prime Minister.
There was something refreshingly unvarnished about the bad camera angles, which showed us far too much ceiling. The whole top half of Michael Gove’s screen consisted of his ceiling with its Victorian mouldings, like a large Constable sky. In the bottom half was his mess of horizontal books thrown onto the top of his shelves, along with a framed photograph askew. Ditto Chris Whitty, for ceiling-scape, but in his case the bottom half consisted entirely of the upper part of his half-drawn red curtains that didn’t meet in the middle. We saw Robert Jenrick’s too-short top shelf in his white break-fronted bookcase, so the books had to go in horizontally (always visually unpleasing in a top shelf). These were contrasted with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s perfectly fitted library. We saw Matt Hancock’s man-study with his trophy photographs on one wall and floor-to-ceiling books on the other. Suella Braverman looked like a swotty post-graduate, with a studenty bookshelf behind her.
The heartening thing was, you didn’t get the impression that these backgrounds were staged. Only Liz Truss sat grandly in front of a Union flag. Maybe she always sits in front a flag, not just for filmed meetings, but I doubted it. The only boring one was Amanda Milling, who sat in front of a plain white wall, giving not a single clue about herself apart from her taste for white walls. I felt she wasn’t quite playing the game.
MPs aren’t celebrities adept at background-management. They’re normal, stressed, overworked office people, probably scoffing too many comfort-biscuits from the home tin, which sometimes showed in their foreground double chins. As the weeks go on, we’ll see their hair getting longer, their fringes amateurishly home-trimmed, and their hair home-dyed from a packet at Boots, that came out a shade too dark.
I’ll welcome this imperfection. It’s far more likeable, far more of an insight into humanity’s loveable frailties, than Liz Hurley-style staged perfection. Last week we saw Hurley filming herself in self-isolation wearing luxury lingerie in her exquisite bathroom with a marble bust beside the basin, and we saw her (fully dressed) chain-sawing wood in her garden along with the ‘count-your-blessings-and-show-off’ gush (rather tactless to the city-imprisoned), ‘I feel incredibly lucky to live in the countryside and have so much outside space’. Yes, I did covet this, but it did not make me love her.
Prince Charles semi-staged his two recent videos from Birkhall. In the Nightingale-opening one, he leaned his laptop against his own book, Harmony, giving out a plaintive subtext that this book still needed to sell more copies. What I liked most in that background was the ordinary pale-brown upright piano, the kind you might find against the wall in any front parlour in Scotland. It was sad, though, to see his family photographs not only on the top of the piano but also on its closed lid, proclaiming ‘this piano is never, ever played.’
I used a magnifying glass to try to identify his books, but could still only make out Lord Hailsham and a hardback by Dick Francis. The latter proclaimed ‘I was such an addict that I was sent his novels the moment they came out.’ Again, sweet and humanising. Books are redolent of character. Ian Hislop, in the first episode ofHave I Got News For You broadcast from five separate dwellings, showed us his topographical and artistic erudition with his background of art books and travel guides, leading Paul Merton to ask him ‘Why has Ian broken into his local reference library in order to do this programme?’ Merton seemed to be speaking from the DVD section of his, while the chairman Helen Lewis showed us her swanky toaster and twin ovens.
It’s not only the famous whose homes we can snoop into, but anyone who posts their current status. The difference between Generation Declutter (or is it Generation can’t afford possessions?) and Generation Accumulate is startling. All over the country, young fitness instructors, actors, clergy and musicians are broadcasting their uplifting thoughts and inspiring performances against acres of plain magnolia walls. Only when they start having children do the plastic toy-crates start to accumulate against the radiator.
So much does an ostentatiously middle- or upper-middle-class background now positively hamper a young career person’s standing, that today’s millennial offspring, incarcerated with their parents in their book-filled and picture-lined childhood homes, are searching for a single patch of plain white wall so they can conduct their office Zoom meetings in front of a background that won’t betray their background. This, for all snoopers, is a pity.