Books aren’t clutter and a cactus is just a plant

Picture of Liz Hoggard, a white woman in early middle age with brown hair wearing a bright yellow pleated skirt and a black high-necked top with black leaf or flower motifs on it, with her arms folded in front of her, in front of a wall with paper showing flowers, animals and other images on  a black background. Above her to the left is a portrait of her cradling a black cat, against the same wallpaper.

Today my social media was abuzz with people, mainly women, laughing uproariously at a picture sourced form the Daily Mail in which an “interiors therapist” with a background in feng shui, named Suzanne Roynon, gave advice to Liz Hoggard, a London-based arts writer whose columns have been published in the Guardian, the Independent and the Evening Standard as well as the Mail group, on how to make her flat less of a “man-repeller”. (The image was the one with the flat with Hoggard and Roynon with little bits of advice in patches around the picture.) Among other bits of advice were that a cactus was ‘unwelcoming’, that portraits of ‘single’ women (including one of herself cradling a cat, painted by a friend) gave the impression that she was quite content to be single, that she should not have too many books in her bedroom and few “gloomy titles”, and that a Buddha was a “sign of poverty and isolation”. She also declared one of her shelves to be ‘clutter’, which “increases irritability”, although it seems to be a shelf full of books to me.

My feeling about Roynon’s analysis was that it was too heavy on symbolism and on speculations about what a man might think about something, and too little of seeing things for what they are. To take the cactus: perhaps if someone has a prickly personality, someone might see a cactus in their house and be reminded of it. But if they don’t, it’s just a plant. She calls the women in the portraits on Hoggard’s wall “single women”, although there is no way of telling whether they are single or not; they are just pictures (or in some cases figures) of women (Roynon thinks she should hang pictures of couples instead of some of them). I’d have thought the cat symbolised contented singleness more than the women. She tells Hoggard to get rid of a piece of art she was given by a friend who is now no longer a friend because “every time you see it, it’s bringing you down subconsciously”. But it might be beautiful in itself, or she might be hoping to rekindle the friendship, or it might feel mean to get rid of something that the artist put a lot of effort into; there are all sorts of reasons. She tells her to get rid of a T-shirt with another woman’s face on it because “why would you wear another woman’s face?”. Well, maybe she bought it at a concert and the face belongs to the performer. You have something like that for a reason.

I have lots of books. My parents have lots of books. Anyone of intellect and culture who goes into someone else’s house expects to find books. I rarely read mine nowadays; I read very few novels, mostly non-fiction, and most of what I read is online or in magazines or newspapers rather than books. However, apart from some obsolete computer books (which are the most expensive books I’ve bought over the years) I would not dream of getting rid of them. Some of them I bought when at college and others because I had seen reviews or they were otherwise recommended to me. To simply throw them out just because someone deems them ‘clutter’ or thinks the subject matter ‘gloomy’ is to deprive oneself of the opportunity to learn something. And of course some books are gloomy; some things in life are. But really, someone reading books or listening to music of a gloomy nature is not that much of a turn-off as long as they do not force it down their partner’s throat. My mum likes Leonard Cohen and my dad can’t stand him, but he bought her one of his books early on in their relationship and they’ve not let it come between them all these years.

She is very confident in her knowledge of what men think or how they would react to a woman’s style or decor, but is often wide of the mark. She forgets that the thing most noticed by anyone who visits someone’s flat is the person who lives there. Unless the flat is particularly garish or otherwise weird, which this one is not, the visitor (especially a boyfriend or girlfriend) will have got some sense of the owner’s personality before they arrive. Liz Hoggard as seen in that picture is a nice-looking lady. She is well-dressed, feminine, colourful, has a pleasant expression on her face. Perhaps the pictures give her inspiration for her style, and adding Diego Rivera to one of Frida Kahlo would not really serve that purpose (and as for that boyfriend, what does it tell him?). It’s a single woman’s flat; it reflects the owner’s personality. If she were living with someone else, their flat or house would come to reflect both of their personalities over time.

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