March 13, 2006

My life in seventeen boxes

I am leaving the country shortly*: most of my stuff is in storage. I went and looked at it the other day, in its bleak metal box in a bleak industrial unit a short walk away from the middle of Croydon. I went and looked at it the other day: I went and looked at me.

A storage unit looks as bare when it is filled as it does when it is empty. The walls seem almost to come through the contents, to render them transparent, to render them absent. Their bareness says, this is a place where things are left, not kept. Whatever you leave here, is insignificant. It is not used, it has no place, it therefore has no meaning. There is nothing here. Your home is where you keep your things: yet here they are, your things. You call this home?

My life is in that unit. My tangible life. It is easily listed. A television, without remote control. A bike, neglected. A couple of chess sets. Four paintings. Six bookcases. And seventeen boxes. White packing boxes, of two different sizes, stacked like bricks in a corner. About fourteen of them are full of books, the rest with bits and pieces, bric-a-brac. It took me forty years to accumulate the contents of those seventeen boxes. Yet, when I look at them, especially when I look at them hunched together against the bare walls of a storage unit, how little they feel.

Well, a life is not composed of lists. A life is not composed of tangibles. Your life is the memories that you leave behind you, not the marks you make. And every life can be squeezed, can be reduced to the thinness of a notice, the carving on a headstone, the line in a newspaper, the numerals which denote the date of birth and death. All the matter in the universe might be compressed into a ball so small that it would fit inside my unit many times. They are nothing. Caesars, Christs and Stalins had statues erected of themselves in even the smallest towns and yet they were never satisfied because there were always places that remained unmarked. Often I have wished that I could cut myself free from my possessions and travel as I pleased. But there they are, piled small, and it hard not to look at them and think that they are all I have to show for forty years. To think that they are awfully little to have to show for all that time.

My books, mostly. My books. If those books that I have spent so long accumulating and protecting, if those books man nothing, what, then, do I mean? I am beginning again, another person, an unknown, in another country, one I do not know. That should be distance enough to allow a new beginning. But the strange thing is that it is hard to begin again without the sense that one is not beginning, that one is building on what is already there.

The past is always with you as you travel. You can only drop anchor: you cannot cut yourself adrift. Almost every night I dream. I dream of things gone past and yet not gone. I dream of fears both known and unknown. Last night I dreamed that I was living on a high cliff, and yet the waters had risen and were coming over the top. I am glad to be going and still I am afraid. Your life is in the memories that you do not leave behind you. Those memories make me afraid. Those memories make me stand in a cold box in Croydon looking at the boxes that it holds, and asking them what they tell me about me.

[* = hence the paucity of recent postings, for which my apologies]

12 Comments:

At March 13, 2006 1:35 pm, Anonymous Sean said...

Standing in a cold box in Croydon would make me want to leave the country. I stuck the place for all of six months before even Stoke-On-Trent became an attractive option. Now I'm in Hull and I think of Larkin's reply to Betjeman:

I don’t suppose that I’m unhappier there than I should be anywhere else.

 
At March 13, 2006 11:46 pm, Anonymous waterhot said...

Six years ago I took a sabbatical year (that became 15 months). I sold everything I owned, bar what would fit in the boot of my car - all my books (well, not quite all, I kept about thirty real favourites, but got rid of a couple of thuosand, including some that were very dear to me too), CDs (thousands), DVDs and videos (hundreds), furniture, paintings (except my two very favourite, which I stored at my parents). It was partly about getting as much money together as I possibly could, so that I could spend as long as possible working on the book I planned to write - but it was also about liberating myself. I can barely describe the twisting in my gut when the guy took my entire library away in the back of three battered Volvo estates, but I must say that when, a couple of weeks later, I got in my car, not a hundred miles away from Croydon, and drove south to the tunnel, then across France, Switzerland, a little bit of Germany and finally Austria, until I stopped in Vienna, I felt freer and better about myself than I had in many, many years.

I don't know where you're going, but I wish you that sense of liberation.

 
At March 14, 2006 12:08 am, Anonymous edt said...

18 months ago I moved home to look after my elderly mother, recovering from a stroke (she is progressing well by the way) Currently my 'life' is stacked in the garage in storage boxes, including boxes of books, accumulated over 44 years. I occasionally go and look at the 'pile' with similar thoughts.I'm sure your books will find a new home sooner or later. When your putting them into shelves somewhere in the future,I have found its like meeting old friends again,having put things in storage a couple of times over the years. Goodluck with your relocate. Regards from New Zealand.

 
At March 14, 2006 10:58 am, Anonymous ATP said...

And what happens to the unclaimed boxes?
The boxes that have been there for several years and the storage fee has expired?
Does the company make every effort to contact the next of kin?
Are the "memories" in the boxes lovingly stored in anticipation of the owner returning one day, or is it all bulldozed within 24 hours of the contract expiring?

 
At March 14, 2006 3:15 pm, Blogger ion said...

Bon voyage, good luck and may you meet many cats on the way. If you keep looking the horizon, I am told, the giddiness is soothed.

 
At March 14, 2006 6:47 pm, Blogger bat020 said...

How shortly is shortly? And where are you going? And any chance of a beer before you head off?

 
At March 14, 2006 7:25 pm, Blogger Ed said...

Hope you keep up the blogging after you've moved, Justin.

Best
Ed

 
At March 14, 2006 10:28 pm, Blogger Monkey Tennis said...

hear hear - hope we'll still be hearing from you. i love your blog.

all the best with your plans

T

 
At March 15, 2006 10:47 am, Blogger JPD said...

Very best wishes on your travels. Hope you find what you're looking for and leave behind what you want to...

Keep on blogging!

 
At March 15, 2006 1:44 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bon voyage Dude!!

 
At March 15, 2006 11:18 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget, you can't really run away from yourself...

 
At March 17, 2006 10:31 am, Anonymous CP said...

Was it Bryan Johnson who wrote "Things are going too well. I am expecting something to go wrong".
Here's hoping things go well for you...

 

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