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Anna Parker: 'Life Below Ground Level'

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Kavárna Obecní dům, Prague, Czech Republic. Photograph courtesy of Anna Parker.

 A basement is the ‘lowest storey of a building…sunk partially or wholly below the general ground level’. Perhaps reflecting its lowly physical status, the basement has received little attention. It must, however, be brought to light. Looking downwards reveals a sunken cultural world that provides a unique perspective on the way we live.

Disappointingly for a writer, as the most functional space in the house, the basement offers little by way of ornament. In mainland Europe, where living in flats is common, the basement often provides storage for those who live in the compressed apartments in the upper storeys. Every time I leave Prague after a stay at my mother’s flat, I take the silver key from under the sink and go down into the communal basement to retrieve my suitcase. I turn on the harsh strip lighting and walk down the corridor, along which individual storage rooms are lined up like monastic cells. Each white-painted metal door is stamped with a number that corresponds to a flat above, securing the things of neighbours I meet only in the lift.

Behind the cellar doors, we keep the overflow of our possessions: what we have discarded, but not yet thrown away. The tennis racket bought in a zeal of momentary sporting enthusiasm, or the broken lamp that will never be fixed. Outside of the home, poor-quality or shoddy goods, undesired by others, can be bought at knock-off prices in the local ‘bargain basement’. Like the space they occupy, many of the things housed in the basement are also functional. Before electricity, basements held coal or preserves in the cool dark. Now, the washing machine, tumble drier, hoover and other household tools might sit alongside bottles of half-used cleaning products. Like a makeup bag at the bottom of a handbag, the basement mystifies the house, secreting the practical things that make the floors above attractive. 

 Given this function, the basement is particularly useful for those most concerned with maintaining appearances: the super-rich. As London’s population grows, the wealthy are boring underneath their houses. In the most affluent areas, enormous, multi-windowed houses sit iceberg-like, calm atop a world carved out underneath. The complexity of such building work has generated new neighbourly conflicts, disrupting the peace between those who live side-by-side. In 2016, the City of Westminster announced a super squad tasked with monitoring basement digs, an attempt to mediate arguments between the city’s richest, who seethe with anger about drilling, detritus and dust coming from next door – all the while merrily adding value to their own homes by extending them into the ground.

 Not just a status symbol, a well-constructed façade also provides a surface behind which to hide. Basements are a place to go to ground, just like the refuges Londoners sought out underground during the Blitz. In 2006, Hackney Council ordered ‘Mole Man’ of 121 Mortimer Road, Hackney to stop tunnelling underneath his house, after sink holes began to appear up and down his quiet residential street. Over the course of forty years, ‘Mole Man’ had been using a shovel and pulley to create a labyrinth of burrows. Forty tonnes of excavated soil were piled in his back garden, kicked up behind him as he went like a dog burying a bone. If we could pan like prospectors through this pile, we might unearth layers of London’s history. In cities like Florence, there are very strict rules on declaring finds accidently discovered when digging. These are often ignored by contractors unmoved as they unearth yet another historically significant pot shard. By bringing soil to the surface, basement digging creates new urban archaeologies. When space is carved out of old soil, new things are left behind. The diggers used to create London’s mega-basements are very difficult to get back out again. Luxury developers have found a way around this difficulty: they simply create a sub-basement where they abandon the digger to rest, thousands of pounds' worth of machinery in a sunken grave.

 The prosperous choosing to burrow downwards is an anomaly in the basement’s history. The domain of servants who laboured in the scullery or kitchen, basements traditionally reverse our understanding of urban history, telling the story from the bottom up. In horror films, basements are home to the underclasses. In Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), an American family are hunted down by their subaltern döpplegangers, who lead inverted lives to their surface-level counterparts, consigned to walk with empty expressions through a network of underground tunnels. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) charts the rise and fall of a struggling Korean family through their movement from a semi-basement (banjiha) to a beautifully lit and spacious house in which, following great subterfuge, they all gain service jobs from a wealthy family. Their fall is precipitous: as their elaborately woven plot collapses around them, the family run from the house in pouring rain, which, flooding down the steps, floods their banjiha. After killing his employer, the father imprisons himself in a deep basement, a hell, like the Christian underworld, in which he pays his punishment.

 Part of our fear of the underground comes from the fact that, in the basement, the underclass can exist out of sight of surveillance. The basement is the perfect site to plot revolution. Punk emerged from the underground in the 1970s. Responding to mainstream rock, punk bands rebelled against the establishment with lyrics that frankly addressed history, politics, culture and sex. In Anarchy in the U.K. (1979), the Sex Pistols debuted with ‘…And I want to be an anarchist/(I get pissed, destroy!)’, a declaration set to a fast tempo and sung with a shouted, nasal vocalisation. The punk scene centred around gigs held in the basements of residential homes or pubs, these small, intimate spaces creating a DIY ethic and aesthetic that was vital to sustaining a sense of a community bound together by a resistance to commercialisation. Of course, exactly what is rebellious depends on time and space. Prague is a city well-equipped with underground cellars and with a recent revolutionary history of its own. My mother recalls her experience as a student activist against the communist regime in the 1980s: “we used to meet in a basement for Bible study, as a small, illegal Christian group”.

 While shut off from the everyday gaze, the basement nonetheless draws the inner eye. We have an innate curiosity about private spaces into which we cannot see. What is buried away, like the make-up in the bottom of a handbag, is precisely what is of most interest to us. Features like ‘What’s in My Handbag’ have always been popular in gossipy women’s magazines. These articles offer a behind-the-scenes perspective, one that seems to present the real truth about some public figure’s daily life. For example, the lipstick that a celebrity carries with them to re-apply takes the reader as close as possible to the daily routine of an otherwise untouchable, perfect-looking body. Ulrich Seidel’s documentary film Im Keller (2014) gratifies our nosiness by presenting a series of Austrians talking about the hobbies that they pursued in the cellars. Inquisitive viewers are rewarded a tour of a sex dungeon outfitted for fetish play. Yet, the carousel spins easily from desire to revulsion. As the home of the terrifying underclasses, the basement is also place of unimaginable horror. Joseph Fritzl kept his daughter locked in his cellar for two decades. The relish with which the details of her captivity were reported in the tabloid press shows the strength of basements’ hold on the imagination.

A site of desire and disgust, the dark, underground space of the basement exerts a powerful push-and-pull. Freud likened the subconscious to a basement, where the ego places its repressed traumas, suppressed desires, and unresolved problems. Just as we might pack up and store away too-small clothes, a bucket and mop, or a collection of ancient CDs in a basement, we hold our most troublesome and unsightly secrets inside ourselves, just out of sight. Through psychoanalysis, believed Freud, we might excavate these recesses. Like a basement digger, we might throw up the soil behind us; like an archaeologist, we might pick through the remains. This experience is not comfortable. We do not know what secrets we hold in our depths. Like the subalterns in horror films, they can threaten to consume us. But we cannot evade them: what is in the basement is our foundation. We are held, but we do not know how this structure supports us. The history of the basement is in every one of us.

Anna Parker is a second-year PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge, researching Renaissance Prague.