We’re about to launch into a small reno at our house. Nothing too serious: move a wall, add a door, a few new cupboards etc. It’s all part of the great Aussie tradition. In fact, home renovation is close to a national obsession. According to a recent study, more than 90% of us are actively engaged in it at some level, from the simplest paint job to the more radical rebuild. On average, they say, the Australian household has five improvement projects on the go at any one time. And if we’re not doing it ourselves, we’re probably watching it on TV.
It’s this phenomenon that Fiona Allon explores in her fascinating book Renovation Nation: Our Obsession with Home. As I continue identifying books that have made an impact over the last couple of years, this is certainly one of them.
It’s not just the domestic obsession that Allon is concerned with. For her the narratives of the domestic home and the nation are connected. In each context, she argues, we’ve become infatuated with security, investing our primary energy and resources into guarding our prosperity and padding our own cacoons. In the process we’ve cemented the idea of home as an island of refuge and retreat. Allon reflects on the consequences of this compulsion, for ‘our obsession with home not only transforms the houses we live in and the cities, places and communities around us, but has profound consequences for how we understand our sense of identity (who we are) and our place in the world (where we belong).’
Allon acknowledges that the instinct to feather the nest is a human one, hardwired into the psyche. Shelter, security and identity are basic human needs tied irrevocably to the notion of home. To make home is to be human. What rings the alarm bells for Allon is that this legitimate human need has morphed into a obsession built on the ‘logic of avoidance and fortification.’ Our drive to raise the domestic drawbridge is only heightened by the commentary on the potential threats to domestic and national security, ‘from indigenous Australians seeking Native Title rights threatening our backyards, illegal immigrants coming in the back door, terrorists on our doorstep and, most recently, interest rate rises menacing our mortgages.’
According to Allon, the ‘psychological retreatism’ of 1950s suburbia has made a dramatic come back. Her concern, both domestically and nationally, is that our idea of the home as ‘a haven in a heartless world’ is unsustainable and ultimately destructive to our individual and communal wellbeing. While it’s true–in an increasingly globalized world–neighbourhood and locality have never been more important, words like home, place and belonging all infer relationship with what lies beyond. Each one speaks deeply of who we are, where we fit and how we relate to others. They are not words of withdrawal and exclusion, but words of relationship and community.
Allon: ‘In the end, our home should provide us with a fundamental feeling of security and belonging. It should be a place where we not only learn to look after ourselves but also learn to care for others; a place where we discover the meaning of obligation and test our limits of commitment; a place where we find out about the nature of responsibility, not just to family but also to strangers. The home is, of course, our main means of shelter. It’s a place we need for our security, safety, identity and attachment. It’s something we need for our wellbeing. But it’s also a place we sometimes need to declare open, a place where we invite others in, and offer them hospitality.’
Though it’s been out for a few years now, this really is an excellent and provocative book. What I find most compelling is Allon’s conclusion that what is most needed in suburban Australia is ‘a new ethics of connection, a new understanding of home and our neighbours.’ Though not motivated by any religious conviction, Allon’s words have a surprising resonance for those who are. This ‘new ethics of connection’ is so closely aligned with that ancient commandment Jesus identified as central to the life of faith: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Perhaps it’s time for a rebirthing of that principle with the folks next door.