Sitting in France writing about death and wallpaper, it is no surprise to find my walls orange: ‘that most morbid and irritating of colours’, as Huysmans described it, ‘with its acid glow and unnatural splendour’. The word ‘orange’ was a late addition to the language, before it we just had gold or ochre, and, like the colour, it throws up questions about the precious and the fake, the difference between what is natural and what is recent. Like the fruit, the walls are good in the morning and odd at night. Unlike the fruit the colour is strangely flat, very inedible: the blind colour of optimism, of airport furniture, of faith in the modern and the failure of that faith. Repeated, it is the colour of writer’s block. I look out the window and at the keyboard and try to avoid a Barton Fink. What is the difference between a pattern and a story, I wonder, as paragraphs repeat and strain for change, like the unsuccessful mutation zigzagging the walls; flowers held monstrous in stasis, trying to stop being flowers and start just being shapes – or is it the other way around? When it comes to writing, it is probably the other way around.
The paper looks like it’s from the early Sixties, but is probably later, going by the lack of wear and tear. There’s no getting away from it either: flowers as big as your face sprawled all over the living-room, neat floral rows in the kitchen, the petals owing more to Spirograph than to nature; and in the bathroom, a plump graphic sunflower that reproduces itself with psychotic symmetry over everything that is flat and much that is not, crawling over pipes and clinging to the sloped ceiling, until it meets itself on the other side, one flower out. Yes, there is wallpaper on the bathroom ceiling. I can see it when I look up in the shower, while my thigh is grabbed by the different, orange, flowers of the shower curtain, cold and wet and friendly, the way strange shower curtains always are.
I remember talking to a gobshite from Newcastle who complained that he did not know enough about the characters in my books: were they fat or thin, what sort of wallpaper did they have? I’ll tell you what sort of wallpaper they have. They have wallpaper that would have killed Oscar Wilde more quickly. I presume he wanted to know how much money they had, because the poor have different emotions from the rich, even with their eyes closed. This is what the Tories have done to English literature.
Wallpaper described is always hopeful, tacky, peeling, while the walls of the rich remain tastefully general, defying geometry. The implication is that the poor, like children, love patterns, are helpless before them, while the rich do not. This is not true: the rich have always patterned their walls, it is the unsettled middle that resorts to blankness, as if we were about to be found out.
‘The Irish treat their houses like they were trying to reproduce the Book of Kells,’ an American artist says to me. ‘Pattern is in your blood.’
‘You speak like the wallpaper,’ an English writer says, ‘the Baroque formality, the slight, subversive madness of all that repetition.’
‘Really?’ I say trying to hear what they are saying through the din of ‘white trash, white trash’ that their smiles imply. In my head is the cosy paranoia of an Irish sitting-room: Fifties curtains with an urn full of flowers woven into the net, Sixties leaves scattered over the carpet, wallpaper from the Seventies embossed in damasked lines, and Sanderson flowers on the Eighties sofa, all of them in different shades of green perhaps, or peach, variations on a theme. All over the country people are looking at their sitting-rooms and seeing, not what they mean, but what other people think they mean, and painting the walls Magnolia Matt painting over the pleasure and the trap, the fluid geometry that shifts and thickens from carpet to sofa to wall. The multiplication is pathological and easy, it spawns. The Irish sitting-room is reproduction itself, a new child added every few years, each different and each inescapably the same, or perhaps just inescapable.
Some people apologise for the truth and some people lie. I try to sort them into categories – the liars: Men, English People, the Ambitious – but this does not work. It was an Irish woman who said to me, ‘We had it in the box-room,’ when I saw the carpet her father had so carefully cut and laid on the floor of her Morris Minor, swirls of gick green on a brown smear with yellow specks. Box-room, my eye. She crawled over that carpet from the living-room into the hall when she was two and loved every dizzy bit of it. Now she has to drive around in it, give people lifts and lie, her clutch pedal pressed into the template and fit of her father’s mortifying love.
I am paying my debt in full, with characters that live in the rooms that we lived in in the Seventies, boxed in the hilarity of pattern and repeat. Two things about wallpaper: it is very social and it is very hard to describe; once you take away the words ‘Laura Ashley’ or ‘William Morris’ you are left with – um – flowers. There is nothing about pattern that is essentially itself, nothing you can describe with recourse to a date: ‘early Fifties’ with its lozenges and doodles, its amoebas and wave shapes; ‘early Sixties’ with in stylised flowers. When did those metallic highlights come in? How do you date those Tyrolean mountain scenes with goatherd and milkmaid on either side of a distant mountain, five hundred goatherds in every room, five hundred milkmaids – and they don’t look at each other once?
Women in Bucharest cannot afford bras or contraceptives. Bucharest is full of untrammelled, pregnant women, in swirly tights, cross-hatched skirts and floral tops, like an Irish sitting-room; the same colours, different graphic worlds. Laces are popular, criss-crossing the sides of the bodice. A Seventies touch, you would think, but it is not: it is a Nineties touch in Romania. In the parallel universe of Eastern European design, you have to respect their chronology.
I ask an expat whether the people mix patterns because they have nothing else to wear and she says: ‘No, it is because they are too stupid, they like it that way.’ Her politics are leaking all over the place. One thing a liberal cannot stand is a good sprinkling of things that might be taupe chrysanthemums on a deep purple ground with a trellis of lurex thread. Especially when it is topped by some purple irises with brown leaves and a machine lace collar with roses woven cream into cream. Especially when you are worried about earthquakes and the water is cut off. Unless, of course, you are in Africa – where I was once, not quite believing I was there at all.
In Dakar the tame fugal elaboration of pattern and colour turns the street like a kaleidoscope. I look for the same pattern twice and cannot find it. Instead I am abruptly moved by a man’s shirt, recognising a fabric from my Granny’s sample books of cloth, designed in the late Forties – blue and white stripes with toy soldiers arranged along the rows. I wonder if there is a holding warehouse somewhere, where all the pleasure I had flopping the cloth pages over and back, is repeated in bales. I wonder how many factories there are churning out the sinister and happy simplicity of patterned cloth. Hello Hello Hello Hello, say the flowers, one after the other and all the same. I cannot tell the difference between the women’s prints and the men’s: straw huts, lime seersucker, plain yellow, a dress of huge orange and black spiders weaving their Webs into the black creases of the blue batik ground. The clothes are illegible, riddled with signs: I cannot tell how you choose between them.
‘And do the rich wear plain fabrics or patterned ones?’ I ask a woman who finds the question irrelevant, hilarious.
‘They wear whatever they like,’ she says.
The hotel is decorated in brown and orange, looped in thick sine waves around the lobby where the prostitutes wear Laura Ashley. It is an African orange from an African Sixties, the pigments richer and less acid. I go to sleep and dream of upholstered sex.
In Bucharest Westerners can admire the clashing oranges, yellows and reds layered in the Gypsies’ skirts: the Romanians cannot. They stick to duller colours and explain in reasonable voices: ‘You don’t understand: the Gypsies are murderers. They murder small children.’
Romania is covered in net curtains: the shops, the post offices, the ticket offices have them, all dirtied by the pollution, the smell of which makes me think I should be in Dublin in 1979, snogging before the last bus. The truckers have net curtains in their cabs and the soldiers have net curtains on the windows of their sentry-boxes. They stand beside them, as trains pass by, and salute. The Ceausescus divided Romania into his ’n’ hers, like bath towels, his nuclear power plant, her petrochemicals factory – they treated it like their living-room. In an interior decoration jag, Elena Ceausescu ordered that all the net curtains in Romania be taken down. She said it was because she wanted ‘a transparent society’.
It is hard to place the wallpaper in Romania, where the Sixties happened differently again. The hotel in Bucharest costs a hundred dollars a night, for carpet you wouldn’t walk across in bare feet, wheeling brown on (of course) orange, the walls a gentler, more buttery shade with lightly embossed oblongs in cream and brown. They are not quite the citrus slices and speckled slabs of the West of my past. They are familiar, but unsettling, like cousins you have never met before, who have your eyes.
In a hotel back in tasteful France they have seen me coming and covered the floors with wallpaper, a heavy-duty damask flock in teal blue. They have extended this wallpaper up the walls to ankle height, then covered the rest in a thin carpet of dark green. I should get drunk, but reserve that pleasure for London, in a room of white walls and white-limed floorboards and a white (joke) shag rug. The wine is white. Everyone in the room is wearing stone blue, stone grey, stone brown or stone cream. I am in a nostalgia print c. 1953 with abstracted butterflies doodled in black over lozenges of blue and umber. Maddened by design, I am like a tourist on a beach. Roaring drunk, that’s what I am, and loud without even opening my mouth.
I have just come from the V&A, where in the print room, the staff are very helpful. The woman I speak to is wearing a (plain) russet silk dress and she tells me about the Wallpaper Society. There is a society dedicated to wallpaper. Home? Have I come home? Not yet. The books she gives me are full of antique scraps and tasteful designs, but tasteful isn’t exactly what I want, and neither is tasteless. Still, the books have useful distinctions, trends and developments and many of the terms I have needed for months, but would not allow: ‘Pop Art’, ‘Screen-Printed’, ‘Psychedelic’. Description becomes possible, but somehow wrong. If you know how to describe your wallpaper, you haven’t put it up in good faith. If you know the term ‘Pop Art’ then your ‘Pop Art’ paper is only a joke. The people in my book chose the wallpaper because they liked the squiggly bits, or because the flowers looked nice in their vases, which nowadays just means that they were stupid (which they were not) or poor (which they did not feel themselves to be).
Back in Dublin, I open my mouth and a roll of wallpaper falls out of it, blue flowers with spiky petals block-printed on a white ground, while friends describe the carpet they lost their virginity on; the contact paper on their maths books; and the flat, glorious papers of their childhood, patterns emerging and subsiding in diagonals, then verticals, and finally in diamond shapes, shooting out in all directions on the bedroom wall. We are excited as we describe them, though our adult walls are white, all choice and no children: the flat abandon of octagons and intersections, horses, fake picture-frames and flowers, flowers, flowers that sheered up the walls, all the way to the top, where they stopped in a line.
I remember the wallpaper in the room my aunt died in when I was a child; a rich maroon with a faint trellis of gold, the bad taste of death – the bad taste of lives that leak and repeat and take pleasure. And there is my last chapter, like the room I wrote it in, all pattern and no story. It looks like I will have to strip the walls, stay away from tasteful London and start again.