The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Some thoughts on history, prompted by a scrap of wallpaper


Standing on the top rung of a ladder, peering behind a boxed away fuse box, I felt that kind of giddy nervous thrill I usually associate with being in an archive. A small square of wallpaper – an incongruous flash of crimson rose petals and leaves now faded to blue tucked away behind chipboard and electrical cable. This prompted the same visceral excitement as finding an impossible historical subject in a court register. The historian’s pleasures always come covered with a layer of a dust.

This is the first time I have been confronted by the history of this house. I know that it was built in 1910 – part of a planned development around a Birmingham factory. Our relationship has been confined to the here and now for the last few weeks, however. There are boxes to unpack, jobs to do, problems to sort. Looking back has gone no further than the recent past. The previous occupants with a tendency towards garish feature wallpaper, using pallets instead of kitchen tiles, and splashing paint over everything other than the door it was meant for mark the line where I stop.

White painted walls and recent-laid floors do not give up their secrets easily. Plaster covers the traces of lives lived here before. New patterns and colours accumulate. The neat edges of carpets and coving make the present both shallow in its time and seamless in its fabric. There is little of the past to feel in this.

A fragment of yellowing wallpaper, though – this is something different. Frayed and peeling edges give us something to grasp hold of. Crimson roses suggest the choices made by someone long gone, just as the residual traces of paste and brush marks point towards the process of their labour. In the layers of rough plaster, flowery print, and chipboard we see the accretion of lives, choices, moments – histories, now boxed away and hidden.

Take away the box, and I prefer my histories this way, Edges, layers, threads that unravel as you pull on them – each gives us a way into the past. More than this, perhaps, they invite us to explore and think for ourselves. The historian who leaves behind the traces of their archival and intellectual labour offers a similar kind of invitation. Working the decisions we have made and the desires we have pursued into the texture of our writing, leaving gaps where our knowledge can go no further is both more intellectually honest and, I think, more compelling.

Histories that are seamless and pristine, confident and certain – such histories draw a line that works as a boundary, rather than as a thread that draws us further in. A hidden scrap of wallpaper that is slowly turning to dust feels more like the kind of history I hope to make.

14 comments on “Some thoughts on history, prompted by a scrap of wallpaper

  1. conviction19c
    May 19, 2015

    frayed. how I like history & historians! you must find a way of incorporating this faded fragment into your home. photograph?

    • drvickyholmes
      May 19, 2015

      I’m uncovering similar wallpaper when decorating my 1915 house – previous occupants have just papered and painted over existing wallpaper.

      • The Trickster Prince
        May 19, 2015

        Now I’m wondering if there’s more under the later wallpaper — must resist getting all archeological on the walls though!

    • The Trickster Prince
      May 19, 2015

      Frayed suits how I feel most of the time! And yes that’s a great idea on getting the wallpaper back into the house some time. Will have to see if I can get a decent image of it (the fusebox is right above the front door in the corner).

  2. menysnoweballes
    May 19, 2015

    “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
    Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
    You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
    A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
    And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
    And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
    There is shadow under this red rock,
    (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
    And I will show you something different from either
    Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

    Fear – or love, or joy, or the mundane grind; so many human experiences left in the stony rubbish. The best sort of scholars know how to knit worlds back together out of a heap of broken images and a handful of dust. Thank you for a beautiful post!

    • The Trickster Prince
      May 19, 2015

      Thank you! And thank you also of reminding me of Eliot — I always use that passage in lectures to talk about the nervousness and desolation of the 1920s, but perhaps there’s a more interesting reading that draws out the roots that *do* grow in the stony rubbish.

      • menysnoweballes
        May 19, 2015

        One of the best things about the inscrutability of The Waste Land is that (for me at least!) it can mean many different things at different times 🙂

  3. M-H
    May 21, 2015

    Our house in Sydney is of a similar age. All the houses in our little street were built by one man, and there were factories and a tannery around them (we have a canal over the road that flows to a bay of the harbour, and waste was simply channeled into it until the 1950s). Now that the industry has gone, or been replaced by cleaner businesses like architects and events organisers, the houses have come back to lovely life. When the builder pulled down the ceiling in our kitchen he discovered no less than three layers of older higher ceilings, the gaps between which had made great places for rats’ nests. They had all been broken through at some point, and another one simply layered below. Our previously low-ceilinged kitchen is now much higher and lighter. What reminded me was that we too had scraps of wallpaper on the walls between some layers. There’s something about old wallpaper that really speaks to me.

    • The Trickster Prince
      May 22, 2015

      I love the idea of the ceilings getting higher and higher as you work your way up through them — it’s like a kind of reverse archeology with the layers going up rather than down! The wallpaper is amazing and in my misguided moments I wonder if it’s worth taking the lining paper off other walls to see what else is hidden underneath. Perhaps not…

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  5. whimsycat2015
    May 26, 2015

    I love your descriptions! I own a house built in 1901 and found similar wallpaper behind layers of other wallpaper. Intriguing!

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  7. historytiglet
    July 8, 2015

    How exciting. Has it prompted you to do any research into the history of the house and the people or lived there? Or will that ruin the magic?

  8. linda
    February 10, 2016

    I loved this. Found when searching on line for a resource for some stunning wallpaper scraps found in our old cottage. I thought I was the only one who got so moved and intrigued by the layers! Our cottage is part of an old manor house, much abused over time. Thanks for cheering me up.

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