Wandering out at nightfall from a village pub on holiday, I looked in at a cottage window. I didn’t really mean to. A man had gone in through the front door, unleashing a sudden rectangle of light and, glancing to his right through small panes of glass, I saw a picture of rural felicity: armchairs drawn up in a nest to the fire and two women in them, reading. A vase of garden roses stood on a side table; hunting prints adorned the walls. All was bathed, through lampshades, in a warm pink glow.
Yet I also felt I should not have looked. Windows always raise the old conundrum: are they for gazing out from or in through? Admitting light is surely only the second of their duties. Skylights, or even open doors, can do that job just as well. Windows, usually preferred large and obsessively cleaned, are there first of all to satisfy human curiosity.
I was taught early that they are occasions of sin. At primary school, where the windows were tall Victorian sashes, I spent much of my time dreamily gazing over lawns and walls to the road. These reveries would be interrupted by the crack of a ruler on my knuckles and the high Dublin cry of Miss Mallon: “Windows are not for looking out of!” This caught my attention but also raised the question: what were they for, then? Another day brought the answer: windows were a means of punishment. “For two pins, I’d throw you out of the window!” came the same wild cry. A fearful threat, since a holly bush lay below.
Certainly windows can be dangerous. They are the weak points in a house, letting in cats and burglars, rattling dangerously, admitting wind and rain. During the Cuban missile crisis I stood gripping my bedroom window shut all night, in case the Bomb came through. In my Brighton flat the windows open so expansively onto sea and sky that it is often hard to write, rather than simply sigh. Even in the London office the river tempts, the trees seduce and I wonder where those park-wanderers are walking to, five storeys down. Some writers swear by the utter non-distraction of a plain wall in front of them. Yet I like to think that my thoughts are struck off what I see, like a match off a box, and fret when views are obscured, or windows are high, northerly or dark.
Perhaps the greater risk lies in looking in rather than out. Sometimes, when buses pass too close to each other, we passengers on the top deck start with alarm at the sudden revelation of hidden and insulated worlds, ours and theirs. Top decks pass by first-floor windows. Through one I once saw a young woman sit up in bed, stretch out her arm and put on bangles; she saw me and has kept the blinds down ever since. Looking through a window can seem an intrusion almost as great as staring directly into someone’s eyes, the windows of the soul, as the Romantic poets constantly remind us.
Yet it may also seem demanded of us. When I caught the eye of one of the women in that cottage that night, ensconced in her perfect Country Life interior, she made no move to draw the curtains. Look, she said. Gaze in. Admire.•