I recently visited some neighbours down on the second floor of Drinker’s Towers for some tips on the management of space. (The flats are nice but they aren’t huge.) This particular couple are a pair of architects and whilst the layout of their flat is in almost all respects identical to mine, the effect on entering is totally different. For a start, every time of furniture, every objet, has obviously been the subject of considerable thought and discussion, as opposed to being rescued at the last minute from a skip. My £5.99 bottle of Aldi Pinot Grigio seemed to shrivel in my hand as I surveyed a pristine vision of luxe living in an unlikely south London postcode, like a meticulously styled spread in The Modern House brochure sprung to life (fortunately without the pretentious, soft-sell copy). Why doesn’t my flat look like this?, I asked myself, then immediately provided the answer: because my flat is stuffed full of crap. Nick Drake’s evocative phrase about the illusory security of ‘all the books and all the records of your lifetime‘ sounds more resonant and mournful as the years wear on. I have over a thousand books and at least as many LPs, CDs, cassettes, minidiscs, DVDs and VHS videos. I even have some 8mm home movies, not to mention my personal archive of a lifetime’s photography (a trunk in my living room contains the corpse of my photographic career). The other night I watched a video tape of Double indemnity that I had taped off BBC2 in 1990; before the film started I glimpsed a youthful Jeremy Paxman wrapping up Newsnight with a characteristically trenchant analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s position following the challenge to her leadership of the Tory party. Nostalgia, eh?
My sister correctly diagnosed the problem: ‘You are trying to recreate the certainties of adolescence.’ She’s right, of course. And whilst I am well aware of the problem, I still perpetuate it. The other day I treated myself to a new turntable and promptly dug out records that I bought when I was young and culturally ambitious. It was a terrible mistake. Do I really derive any pleasure, any enjoyment at all, from listening to that (unaccountably worn) LP of Le Marteau Sans Maitre? Can I really be arsed to clear those 1970s photographic magazines off the armchair and sit through an entire Mahler symphony, or, for that matter, John Coltrane’s Ascension: is that really something I want to sample over a glass of corner shop red wine? Wouldn’t I rather watch Dr. Pimple Popper instead? Yet still I hang on to these things. An even bigger problem is all the stuff that I have inherited: an African tribal shield fashioned from a giraffe’s neck, something my father picked up in Africa in the late fifties. An entire cabinet of decorative glassware; a prop sword; my mother’s set of willow-pattern serving platters and unidentifiable kitchen equipment; a variety of imposing Thames And Hudson coffee table volumes (e.g. Great Cities, The Cradle of Civilisation, The Renaissance, etc., with introductions by the ubiquitous Arnold Toynbee and ‘tipped-in’ colour plates that have all since tipped out) … the list goes on and on. The problem is that my flat is like the inside of my head: crammed with partially-digested cultural influences, too many ties to the past, and a style of presentation which is as au courant as the House And Garden Annual, 1963.
I suppose that the psychology of collecting or, God help me, hoarding, is connected in some sense to the need to build a bulwark against death. In that sense, my flat is a bit like a Roman general’s campaign tent, pitched in some wet field in Provincia Britannia but arrayed with reminders of Rome and the spoils of victory: tokens of luck against a nasty fate at the hands of some gnarly Pict or Celt. And when the time comes to move house, I suspect that many of these things will simply be abandoned, like the family heirlooms jettisoned by desperate 19th century American settlers heading west across the Sierras. Seeing treasured (or just familiar) family possessions out in the street is genuinely disturbing; but, ultimately, it is all just stuff. Yet there are few things more depressing than walking into someone’s home (especially if the occasion happens to be a date) and encountering a default modern interior. Plantation shutters, recessed downlighters, beech laminate flooring, a flat screen TV over a cold function-free fireplace, repro posters from IKEA, ‘inspirational’ quotes plastered over lemon/beige walls in peel-off acrylic letters (‘Live, love, laugh’, ‘No dancing – except on tables’, etc.), an occasional, unsurprising book – a Booker Prize winner or a Nigella tome – and an overall sensation that life’s essentials have been carefully subtracted from the space. It isn’t just a question of taste; it seems to me that it is a fear of introspection, an aggressive wish to live a modern life as a modern person, which is just as much a denial of mortality as, say, owning the complete Laurel and Hardy on DVD. (I have it, I never watch it.) The socially approved, tastefully furnished yet numbing interiors on show in Francois Truffaut’s underrated 1968 film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in Britain) seem prophetic: comfortable spaces where thought and memory are prohibited.
As it happens, I am currently away from Drinker’s Towers, dog-sitting in distant Metro-Land whilst a friend is out of the country. Here, where the Metropolitan Line trains still toot their toy-like horns as they pass, it is sad to see Deco houses being made-over into identikit modern homes, with front gardens grubbed up to make way for dual car ports with recessed floor lighting, sashes replaced with steel black-framed windows, and fitted with those weird front doors that look like entrances to public toilets in small hotels. But I can’t worry too much about that, I am faced with yet another stash of things, as I promised my absent friend that I would try to straighten out her place whilst she was away. This has proved to be a daunting task. The volume of her possessions has grown, exponentially, to fill the available space, which happens to be a three-storey Edwardian house. Impressive collections of books, furniture, china, paintings and drawings, photographs, shoes, etc., fight a losing battle against five cats, two dogs of excitable temperament, dead Amazon packages, out-of-date food, chewed slippers, and a sea of laundry, paperwork, turds, and balls of fluff. The gardeners are due soon and I have to clear the lawn of dozens of doggy jobbies before they arrive. Pets, like small children, are a great leveller when it comes to aspirational decor. That Eames recliner looked great before the French bulldog pup sank its chops into the plywood shell (which now looks like a chunk of reclaimed driftwood). The carved apron on that astral glazed bookcase was exquisite until he bit right through it. And I’m not going to touch that lumpy yellow stain on the rug, I don’t know what it is or how long it’s been there. I haven’t spilled anything; but if I stick to white wine and spill that, she will think it was cat piss, so I’m in the clear either way. Cheers.