The Mirror Over the Fireplace

Am I a bit of a voyeur if I like looking in people's windows? There's a row of very posh houses that I pass on my way home from the supermarket, and I peer like the little match girl into the very proper homes of the well-heeled, their Jaguars parked out in front. In the living-rooms the bookcases are stacked high against a pale-hued wall, and I am as amazed by their conspicuous display of good taste as I am by the immaculate neatness of the scene compared to the chaos of my own flat. I always blame it on having too little space, but I know that even if I were to be bequeathed a manor house (by that relative I've never heard of who lives in it, of course) I would probably have fifteen Georgian rooms of mess rather than my current (non-Georgian) one.

The living-rooms follow a common pattern, dictated by the layout of the main space around a central hearth, which, because it is central London, is not used but is focal point of the room, adorned sometimes with the traditional grate and screen. Above it is the mantel, almost never with the usual triumvirate of clock and candelabra, but with something like an rough-hewn sculpture to demonstrate both cosmopolitanism and vaguely leftist liberal leanings. But above the fireplace is traditionally where either a prized work of art is hung, or, more significantly, a mirror, so that as the family was gathered around the hearth, they would simultaneously see a framed portrait of themselves as a family unit.

But more and more these days, it is becoming the most logical place to put a flatscreen television set. It's about the same size as the mirror used to be, you don't have to use up another wall for it, and it allows the living-room to retain its function as the primary living space in the house, since after dinner everyone inevitably ends up watching television, after all. But replacing the reflexive nature and significance of a mirror with something that by its nature requires one to be passive (this is not an indictment of television: I am in love with the medium) gives a primacy to the television set that almost requires it to be on; otherwise there is just a grey lump above the mantel. And interestingly this layout is replicated in new housing that is built without wood-burning fireplaces. I haven't invaded enough living-rooms in tropical countries but my general observation is that they are radial in focus, concentrated around a space defined by a sofa and armchairs, in the centre of which may be a coffee-table or rug.

I am obsessing over this not just because I'm mourning the death of the mirror over the mantelpiece, but because I'm wondering how to insert a 40-inch flatscreen television into the carefully-ordered chaos of my living-room. And because I would die several times over rather than have the sound anything but centred correctly, this means that speakers and cables have to be positioned accordingly. The only place that makes sense is to have it clustered around the fireplace, and that would means that the screen would go where the mirror is now: and the Girl in the Mirror would never let that happen.

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