As someone who’s spent the last three weeks packing up a house ready to move — and has another two weeks of it to go — I feel compelled to share some weary pieces of advice with you. 1. Throw everything away, immediately. The instant someone gives you something, or you buy it, or an object in any other way intersects with your life, get rid of it. By all means sell or re-cycle or hand on (the charity shops of North London should be letting off fireworks every night, given the cubic yards of stuff they’re getting from us), but GET RID OF IT.
2. Don’t stow something large, heavy and cumbersome in depths of the attic unless you’re prepared for yanking it back out again on a hot, humid day when you’re ten years older than when you put it there. Instead, see (1).
3. No, that [insert object name] will not ‘come in useful at some point’. It’s a piece of crap, otherwise you’d want it now. See (1). 4. Point (3) especially applies to computers or bits of technology being sidelined because you’ve bought a new one. That just-replaced laptop will not mellow with age. Get rid of it now, while it might conceivably still be of use to someone.
5. Any box you find which hasn’t been opened since the last move should be thrown into a skip immediately, without opening. (Unless, apparently, it contains a wedding dress. I’m never going to hear the end of that one).
6. The bloke who came to do a quote for our shipping spoke darkly of the tendency of hitherto-unnoticed objects to ‘come out of the walls’ during the packing process. He’s right. They do. Therefore...
7. Buy at least twice as many cardboard boxes as you think you can conceivably use, even if this requires going against the strident counsel of your partner. The same applies to bin bags, and you don’t want the rubbish flimsy ones.
8. If you have sets of things that are no longer mission critical — magazines, VHS videos, baby clothes — pick one symbolic item of each to keep, to ease the realisation that your life has moved on, and the rest... See (1).
9. The days when you could just ‘throw stuff away’ are long gone, my friend. Unless you want to spend all day, every day trolling back and forth to the dump and recycling centre, talk your neighbours into having major building work done, and make covert use of their skip.
10. You already have enough clothes, notepads, shoes and tins of sweetcorn. Never buy any of these ever again.
There are doubtless a thousand more, but I’m too knackered to remember them. Something else that has struck me forcibly, however, is that the next time I move (which will be NEVER EVER EVER), one type of object will not have increased in number, and that’s paper, in the form of letters, souvenirs and momentous of days gone by. A few examples:
For every novel since SPARES, I’ve presented the first laserprinted copy to my wife, my first reader. She has all of these, each in a file box, as presented. Taken together they’re really heavy and take up a non-negligible cubic footage of space, but she seems unwilling to let them go. With the novel I’ve just finished, however, I shot her a pdf and she read it on her iPad — so that’s the end of that.
Correspondence, too, whether it be to do with work or friendship — all that’s gone virtual. Yes, the emails I receive are filed (I’m dogged about this, and only feel relaxed when my inbox is empty apart from a couple of things left as To Do items or memory-joggers) — but that’s not the same, somehow. There’s also the issue of forward compatibility. For a long time I slogged along with Microsoft Entourage (mainly because I liked its PIM-like integration of email, diary and contacts, an approach Apple remains resistant to, for reasons I cannot fathom). My databases from those years are stowed on backups somewhere, I think, but I’m not sure I have a copy of the application any more, and there will come a time when re-accessing those old emails would be far more trouble than I or a descendent might wish to spend on the task. I’m certainly never going to simply happen upon them, in the way that last week I came across the very first letter I was sent by the woman who’d go on to be my wonderful editor for over fifteen years, in response to my enquiry as to whether she’d fancy publishing a short story collection (her letter was remarkably polite).
To Do lists are now stored in an ever-evolving personal ecosystem of apps. Notes and planning thoughts are most often now jotted straight into a computer... All these shards and leavings of a life of work have departed the concrete world of bits of paper, and are now digital. Reviews, too — no longer do I see these as hard copy, but as pdfs emailed by the publisher. If I attend a convention or other event, chances are most of the information will now be accessed via pdf or Web site or app. I file these digitally, of course. But neither I nor some vaguely-interested relative are going to come across them accidentally after I’ve gone, just as family photos sturdily filed away in iPhoto or Aperture libraries are not present in the world, there for idle perusal, in the way they would be in an old skool photo album on the shelf. They’re doubtless safer, as they can be backed up hither and yon, but they’re not as accessible. They’re not there: they’re somewhere.
It’s not just work stuff, either. I found a file box from our honeymoon, which contains everything from a cork popped at some point, to travel itineraries, receipts from restaurants and hotels, and airline tickets (sentimental, I know, but it was my bloody honeymoon). When we travel now I get hotel bills emailed to me. Airline and car bookings and just about everything else is stored up in the Cloud, courtesy of TripIt and allied/compatible iOS apps.
Rather than being simply there, even if ‘there’ means ‘in a dusty and damp box full of mouse poo, shoved way in back of the attic’, all these things are now invisibly sidelined into backup drives or thrown up into the Cloud. They will never be seen by accident or happenstance but only as a result of focussed effort, and who has time for that these days? The Cloud has a lot to live up to, if it’s truly going to replace the dusty shoeboxes of yesteryear.
We used to leave a physical trail as we wandered through life, something that others — and ourselves — could look back and witness, like the fossilised prints of dinosaurs on a long-vanished shore. It doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case for much longer. I’ve no idea what to take from this, except to think that maybe it’s even more important than ever that we’re fully aware of things as they’re actually happening.
In the shoebox of the soul paper never fades, and it’s always now.