Stuff: the gaining and the losing of it

01 Aug 2011, Posted by Maxine Sheppard in Travel, 2 Comments

Stuff: the gaining and the losing of it

Regaining some space after months (or even just a couple of weeks) of living out of a bag is a luxury that cannot be denied, but it has its drawbacks. On a backpack for example, there are few flat surfaces upon which to lay out the detritus of day-to-day life, and there’s something strangely comforting about knowing that everything must have its place or it’s lost forever.

Small Things

Inside my flat though, smooth surfaces act as a curious magnet to the seemingly perpetual stream of newspapers, magazines, relentless junkmail, chinese takeaway flyers, photos, books, dvds and soul-destroying bits of small paper and other things (a screwed up bus ticket, a receipt for some milk, a tissue, a small tinny silver ball of foil that once extended itself around a piece of gum, a hairband, a couple of 5p coins) that somehow find their way in, with the simple aim of taking over my life and consuming me. Stuff , it’s fair to say, is getting me down. When all I want to do is lie on the sofa and read, it is there, crowding the edges of my peripheral vision, screaming “TIDY ME UP!” But of course, when I need to find the unpaid bill, or scribbled down phone number or birthday card that I bought three days ago and still haven’t sent, then without fail, it will have vanished. Disappeared into the Bermuda quadrangle of table, desk, windowsill and kitchen worktop. Stuff is becoming a bit of an issue, truth be told, and I seem to be lacking the will or the ability to do anything about it, other than stare blankly as it multiplies before my eyes like mould on a mushroom.

Be ruthless

First of all, I need more bookshelves. Books are now sprouting from the floor like miniature Gehry-esque skyscrapers. And if space can be described as a three-dimensional region in which all matter exists, then surely bookshelves are the ultimate embodiment of this definition. Following closely behind shelves, are files. The plain truth of why I have not yet tackled the pile of unopened and untouched mail from the last three months of on-and-off travel is simply because lots of pieces of paper in envelopes is preferable to lots of pieces of paper not in envelopes, and probably all over the floor. Big, grey, sturdy files are what’s needed here. And finally, the ability to de-sentimentalize myself from thinking that I need to preserve for posterity all manner of travel-related ephemera; the fraying boarding passes, the triangular coin, the piles of restauarant and hotel cards, the train tickets, the business cards of people I will never see again, the museum entry passes, the phonecards, the tattered maps and postcards I never sent. Anything that isn’t beautiful and memorable must go. Most of it is memorable, in one way or another. But not much of it is beautiful [Hokusai design Japan Rail Pass notwithstanding]. Ruthlessness is what’s needed now.

But then…

A quick re-read of the first few chapters of one of my all-time favourite books, Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, convinces me, however, that the answer lies in learning to love stuff. On describing his bedside table, served by a simple plank of wood, it is clear that Georges clearly does. Dilgently, he chronicles the contents, ascribing them a life and a history which reveals a contented fondness for their place in his world.

“…a bottle of mineral water, a glass, a pair of nail scissors [chipped unfortunately]…a packet of paper handkerchiefs, a hard brush that enabled me to give my [female as it happens] cat’s fur a sheen that was the admiration of all… a few dozen books [some that I had intended to read and didn't read, others that I re-read constantly], albums of strip cartoons, piles of newspapers, a complete smoker’s kit, various diaries, notebooks, exercise books and loose sheets of paper, an alarm clock, naturally, a tube of Alka Seltzer [empty], another of apirins [half full, or if you prefer, half empty], yet another of cequinyl [an anti-flu treatment, more or less untouched], a torch, of course, numerous handouts I had neglected to throw away, letters, felt-pens, ballpoints [both these last often dry], pencils, a pencil sharpener, an eraser… a pebble picked up on the beach at Dieppe, a few other small mementoes and a post office calendar.”

Maybe I won’t be so hasty after all.


August 28, 2011 10:14

lara dunston

Don’t be hasty. You may regret throwing out those airline stubs one day – when you’re 95 and unable to remember that trip any other way ;) – I find the detritus of travel to be a fabulous memory-trigger. Look for a funky retro tin or a charming old wooden box and throw it all in there – it will be like a treasure chest for your little kid one day.

I love that you mentioned Georges Perec. I loved his ‘Life, A User’s Manual’, and read it several times, the last time before we packed up our apartment in Potts Point, Sydney, when we moved to Abu Dhabi in 1998. You’ve brought back some nice memories. Not of the move – I’m reminded of all my stuff in storage. Ugh. But of living in a lovely art deco flat overlooking Sydney’s sparkling harbour. Sigh…

August 28, 2011 23:02

Maxine Sheppard

Am getting there, slowly. Am storing everything inside a large wooden Russian doll that I bought in a market in Lviv, seems appropriate :)

Life, A User’s Manual: I went to an excruciating book club event about that book once. You’ve just given me an idea for a future post…

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