In honour of the artefact

This story does not begin in a house, in a room, or on a boat. It begins in my head, unframed, uncertain, unplanned.

Weighed down by the conventional, by all the rules I have learned over the years about what I can say and must not say, about how to put one word in front of another, I cannot find my way into this story other than to say I had planned to write a paper on feminine desire, one based on other people’s ideas.

In it I would draw on the thoughts of people like Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, French feminists and philosophers. I would draw on the psychoanalysts, the upcoming thinkers from the relational field.

But as I sat with my screen open and my thoughts on the verge of tipping in, I felt exhausted. The very thought paralysed me.

I could not connect with these words. Feminine desire. Women’s sexuality. It was all too hard.

I went back to bed just now, at nine o’clock on Saturday morning, hoping to shift my state of mind from one of inertia into one of action, but it didn’t work.

In bed, I pulled on an eye patch to block out the light. I rolled onto my side and began to count the number of times my husband snored, snorted or snuffled, and the more he failed to fall silent, the more infuriated I became and the less I could sleep.

And so I considered the next best thing to shake me out of this paralysis: a walk. To get my muscles moving, left right, left right, across the Fritsch Holzer Park; sticking to the grass because whenever I walked on the gravel little stones caught inside the webbing of my sandals.

There were the usual folks up early on a Saturday morning, most with at least two dogs in tow; all dogs off leads, because this is a leash free park.

How I wished there was not a leash on my mind, one that constrains me and keeps me walking at someone else’s pace.

I went to a conference in the middle of last week, one on autobiography and biography, the theory thereof, though most of the people were also life writing scholars, people who have a story to tell.

This is not entirely true. The group divided roughly into three types, those who write their own stories, whether in prose or poetry, traditional memoir or experimental; and others who write about other people, the biographers; and still others who write about the theory of life writing, the use of objects, the nature of the texts themselves, whether online or in material form.

One woman is checking out Google Books’ plans to develop an online encyclopaedia of every book in existence with the intention of scanning as many as possible.

They take old books like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and scan each page one after the other. It’s a laborious process and Google employs desperate folks of an indeterminate nature, probably half-starved students, my guess, or out of work administrative assistants, who know how to scan page after page, hour after hour.

The job is so tedious and boring these scanners make mistakes. They inadvertently scan in the content of a letter that somehow found its way into the scanning room, for instance. There are library stamps from the libraries that once housed the books, and any amount of marginalia. There are places where the scanner’s glove covered thumb and fingers appear. All of this scanned for posterity.

The researchers then wonder about the meaning of these unintended aspects of the book’s life.

I have a trunk under my writing desk that is filled with bits and pieces, the memorabilia of my life going right back to when I was a teenager and first found myself wanting to hold onto my past in material form.


In those days not only did I keep this stuff – holy pictures from school, an autograph book, hand written letters, bits of ribbon that I had collected at some event or another, a twig of palm from Palm Sunday forty or more years ago, the torn out pages of books that once meant things to me, poems filled out on scraps of paper.  All these things I collected and once pored over for long periods in idle moments.

There were plenty of those moments when I was young and loved nothing but to look back over my then short life and reflect on how far I had come.

By the time I entered adulthood, and began to branch out with teenagers of my own, I had little time for poring over artefacts.

One day when my oldest daughter was studying for her final school year she came upon the idea of life capsules and wanted to explore my treasure trove.

I unearthed the trunk and spread its contents though the room. In so doing, I turned what was once a vaguely ordered chest of bits and pieces into a mess.

I had no time to sort it out then, over fifteen years ago. Instead, I threw it all back inside the trunk.

The trunk is full to the brim now, along with the collected Christmas cards and birthday cards I’ve kept over the years, and I dread the thought that one day soon, I will go back inside the mess of my life to see what’s there and consider whether any of it is worth retaining.

I will not leave 600 boxes, as did Any Warhol on his death, knowing that his fame would not stop curators and the curious from throwing out a thing. Another topic under discussion at the conference.

These boxes are fast deteriorating, given Warhol kept such things as food scraps and toothpicks, all of which must be tagged and identified.

You’d need more than a ten-storey museum to house the stuff.

No wonder we have to be careful about what we leave behind. Only the objects of the famous will escape becoming landfill.


4 thoughts on “In honour of the artefact”

  1. When I first sat down to write the novel ‘Left’ I had a clear plan but after 10,000 words I stopped writing and began again. That was hard for me but the right thing. The book wanted to be something else and so that was the book I ended up writing. The basic idea is still there—after her father’s death his only daughter (as far as she’s aware) tasks herself with clearing out his flat—but that’s it. The book I wanted to write was something similar to Paul Auster’s ‘The Invention of Solitude’ in which Auster reconstructs his father’s life from artefacts he has left behind. I had intended to do that with my own life and to play the part of my daughter too which I’ve done a couple of times in poems but it wasn’t working.

    As I say in the new book: “[Jim’s] possessions, things that said more about him than he ever said about himself. He thought about the place, especially the things he’d filled it with—books and LPs, tacky ornaments, scrap and junk: impedimenta that had stuck to him as he trudged through life—and he tried to weigh their cost against how much life he’d had to expend to get them; there was always a shortfall.” My flat is full of things—I’m fifty-six so you would imagine I would’ve accumulated a fair bit by now—but what’s shocking (to me at least) is how much I’ve tossed over the years. I think of myself as a hoarder but I think the only thing that exists from my childhood that was mine alone—I have a few of my dad’s books and his old reel-to-reel tapes—is a Matchbox toy, a horsebox sans horses. (–%5B2%5D-1555-p.jpg). I found it in the loft the day I cleared my mum’s house.

    I have thought recently of starting a memory box. Not so much for my daughter as for me. In case I get Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. As it is I forget practically everything now anyway. I was digging through an old folder on my computer a few days ago and came across the start of another novel entitled ‘A Well-Crafted Novel’ and I could remember absolutely nothing about it; didn’t even know I’d written it. Schopenhauer was supposed to have said, that at some point you should be able to look back on your life and it should read like a well-crafted novel. That’s where the title comes from. (I had to look it up.)

    Either way, whether boxed up or not, one day my daughter will have the job of going through all my stuff and having to decide how much to keep and what to do with the rest. She was a hoarder when she lived with me. She kept everything. Not sure what she’s like now. She’s just bought a house with her new… I have no idea what to call him… bloke will have to do. It’s pretty Spartan-looking at the moment. The only thing I recognised from her old life was a soft toy I bought her, an anteater of all things that I only bought because people kept picking the thing up in the shop, petting it (as if it was alive) and then putting it back. You wouldn’t know that and that’s the problem we have with things; we have no idea what they’ve come to mean.

    My daughter is thirty-five so she’s got a few years left, maybe another fifty, but then what? What will happen to my things then? Again, another quote from the book: “At her leisure the Widow Time will methodically locate every scrap of paper you’ve ever written or typed on, every tape you’ve ever been recorded on (both video and audio), each and every hard drive, flash drive, zip drive, DVD, CD and even floppy disk if you’re old enough and reduce them to dust and all copies will be ground to dust and all those who remember hearing any of your words or seeing your face will be expunged from history and one day—one day or another, one day much like any other but most likely a Tuesday—a generation will awaken that has never heard of you and is none the worse off; it is the nature of things, built-in obsolescence.”

    I’m trying to remember how many boxes it took to bring all our stuff from the Gorbals here. It wasn’t 600. I have a few things boxed up now. I have three boxes of cassette tapes (about a thousand tapes), a box of comics, a box of old SFX’s and a box of bibles believe it or not. I’m pretty sure my entire room’s contents (discounting furniture and hardware) could fit into a couple of dozen boxes, maybe less. When I left my mum and dad’s to come to Glasgow I carried everything in a single suitcase over three or four trips and I wonder how much of that stuff is left? Probably not much.

    1. There’s many a book written on the legacies of dealing with a parent’s stuff, Jim . It usually makes for a fascinating read. Something about the ways in which objects and memories coalesce is powerful. Take an object, any object and start a story. I reckon we all have it in us, even with other people’s stuff. Thanks, Jim.

  2. I have more than a trunk’s worth of memorabilia and even more of my parent’s ‘stuff”. I know I will never sort through all my dad’s writings and scrapbooks and I can’t even imagine my children will be interested in my ramblings.

    I think it’s up to us to make sense of all this, perhaps come up with a concise history…leave what we want each child to have and know and take with with them to add to their accumulating stacks.

    1. It’s true, Kass, we each need to make sense of our own. If others do it after we’ve gone, if they try to make some sense of our stuff in some ways it will really be there own take, their own stuff they’re dealing with. Thanks, Kass. Happy sorting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *