The Secret Life Of Objects

Reading & Writing


Objects. You only have to use them. We writers have to describe them, over and over again.

After a while you start to run out of ways to describe a table or a coat or a drink or rain. Weather conditions crop up in every book, and colours are so frequently required that you end up rummaging through old Pantone volumes looking for new ways of describing certain shades. Like playwrights, we only give our characters cigarettes, pipes, forks and pencils because they’re something they can do with their hands. But by setting books in London I never run out of odd new objects or locations.

We have a similar problem with locations. Most crime novels consist of a series of meetings, so where do you set all these confrontations? In cafes, pubs, shops, parks, streets – and then what? In fairgrounds, derelict concentration camps, abandoned zoos? Almost every noir cop film I’ve ever seen has a scene set at the docks, or at an abandoned factory site, or in a car park, or in a field with a single straight road.

Barbara Broccoli once told me; ‘You know what we hate in 007 scripts? Corridors. The writers put them in so that a chunk of exposition can take place while Bond walks, and we have to build it. We put in working lights and wall panels and we tile the floors and add doors, and corridors are the first thing directors always cut.’

Of course, if you only keep in essential details you can end up losing any sense of reality in your story, so we add the kind of observations you make when you enter someone’s home. Take cushions. What the hell are they for? Most furniture is designed to function without one, but cushions are among the first things everyone adds to a home. They’re colourful, affordable, bright. Objects are great for signifying something about your character. Objects will tell you a lot about a person, whether they’re sloppy or fastidious, lonely or desperate for some peace and quiet. By displaying your taste you reveal yourself; an ugly object on display may hold a memory or merely show that you have unusual taste.


When I was looking for a home in France, I kept going into a certain type of house owned by an older woman. Beautifully furnished, but not for five years, with odd additions; a handrail over the bath, sometimes a stairlift. They told me that a married couple had moved here to be in their French dream home after retirement, then the husband had became infirm and finally died, and now the wife was selling. All this without anyone speaking.

The plays of Harold Pinter are identifiable by their objects. If there are teacups it’s ‘The Birthday Party’, if there are glasses of scotch it’s ‘No-Man’s Land’. I have trouble identifying character traits from kitchens in American films because to me they all look identical. There was a terrific little film around recently called ‘Freehold’, about a young estate agent living in a cramped flat. He can all he’s a fastidious Londoner from his daily routine., plucking his eyebrows and going through complex hygiene rituals, but he stacks his dirty crockery into ever-higher pyramids beside the sink, and he has a La-Z-boy set before a video screen. His life’s in trouble.

So the next time you consider buying a cushion, think what it says about you.

9 comments on “The Secret Life Of Objects”

  1. Brooke says:

    Objects…the digital age may relieve you of the necessity of describing most objects; they are, as one industrial designer I know says, disappearing. And the traditional demarcation of living space, e.g. kitchens, has changed (developer profit economics, demographics, etc.). It’s all the same–back to medieval times. Home and “co-working” environments are now almost identical.
    But some objects have a life of their own beyond us, such as these by British artists. M. Odundo’s work always knocks me for a loop.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Bond films and corridors: could ‘Last Year at/in Marienbad’ have been made entirely of outtakes from ‘Dr No’? If not, would the former have benefitted from the latter’s editors?

  3. Vivienne says:

    Don,t go round editing Last Year in Marienbad! Ambiguity and confusion- let’s have more.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I think that ‘objects’ are what transform a house into a home. Things that are unique to you, and, often, seemingly in the wrong place. Take a classic: Sherlock Holmes’ fireplace – the correspondence pinned to the mantelpiece with a Jack-knife; the single exotic slipper containing tobacco. It’s odd touches like this that define a home. Our bathroom, for example: do we have a toilet-roll holder? We do not. We DO have a beautiful stainless steel valve from a marine engine, huge and shiny, which holds our Andrex. On our patio, we have a cast-iron railway sign, which always gives me immense pleasure every time I look at it, because (a) it was a surprising and thoughtful birthday present from my brother and his partner, and (b) the sheer incongruity of it’s location. My Rowan (sorbus aucuparia) tree in the garden – it looked like a sickly twig when purchased 20-odd years ago, but now is a healthy 25 footer. I always pat it’s trunk when I go in the garden. It seems rude not to.

  5. admin says:

    A friend of mine planted a tree and photographed his children against it for twenty five years, lining the photos up along a hall. Eventually there was one person less in the pictures, and he took them all down.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    That’s rather sad. I’ve also planted an Oak (quercus robur) in our garden, in the full knowledge that I’ll never see it at it’s best. Why do we do these things, eh?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    How about the planting of oak trees which were thoroughly mature when the time came to replace the oak roof beams made from the original stand of trees? It’s continuity.
    A question: I have recently heard about metal stretchers made in advance of need for WWII. They weren’t all used and the metal frames were made into street fencing after the war. Some of this fencing is to be removed and a group is agitating for the preservation of some of the stretchers. Apparently you can recognize the frames by the knobs for the legs. Does anyone know anything about this subject? Jan?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Helen, I have heard about the roof timbers in a London building of great antiquity, possibly Westminster Hall, where they discovered, in Victorian times, that when the Oaks that provided the timber for it’s roof were felled, new trees were planted, and were now mature and ready to be cut down to allow the renovation of the beams to take place. 500 year forward planning. No, mine is just a selfish desire to see my little sapling become a creaking giant with a huge bole, and to be able to point at it, and say: “I planted that”. Not happening. I’m a bit stupid with trees – I wept like a baby when a storm in 1996 literally twisted the top off of my brother’s conker tree. It felt like a beloved relative had died. Is that odd? I’m not, in any shape or form, a ‘Tree hugger’, I just love trees. When I was at school, you could see trees on the skyline if you looked from a first floor window. There was one, on it’s own, shaped by the prevailing wind. It was several miles away, but using an O.S. (Ordnance Survey) map, and some (extremely) crude triangulation, I found it, and stood under it. A few months later, it had gone, grubbed up by the farmer to extend his field. The gap where it had been on the skyline bothered me every time I gawped out of the window for ages afterwards.

  9. snowy says:

    H, have a peek at ‘The Stretcher Railing Society’.

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