I was down the charity shop, one time ago and I lit on what looked like the contents, the partial contents, of somebody's shed, some old bloke, probably dead and his relatives, if he had any, couldn't give a fuck about his things, just wanted them gone; maybe , unusually, his wife had predeceased him but even if not, these things would not appeal, immediately, as spousal keepsakes, mementoes; they represented the things men do, generally alone, a few old-fashioned screwdrivers, a punch or two, nothing of the master craftsman but one could sense his care and his skill; they were just little things you'd have on your workbench; some small, compartmentalised, open top boxes, made from re-used plywood, for nails and pins, trays, really. They were all precisely sawn, glued and pinned as if by machine, just fragments of flimsy junk, tiny but hand-sawn, butt-jointed as neatly as an oaken, mediaeval coffer.
I've been trying for twenty-five years, to find the time, invent the time to make some of these things for myself but have always been too driven by the real work, not the ju-ju; I know people of my age who do make such things, who sharpen their tools fastidiously, even make their own restoration agents - mustard and sugar and piss and Christ knows what else - but Rustins make a perfectly good product - lots of them - at three or four quid a bottle, and they and their workers have to make a living, too. So, though impatient as I have been with the Old Boys, who have the time to piss about I, nevertheless was wounded by the sight of these fragments of his life, discarded. Oh, fucking Woe, I thought, this is what happens to our lives, however carefully wrought, nobody gives a fuck. Down the charity shop with his rubbish. I bought them for ten or twenty pence.
I know this from before before, how, once you're dead, all your wine is water, all your pearls are clay.
I had a Victorian furniture business and every now and again somebody'd come in one of the shops. My mother or father is dead and there's a houseful of old furniture, it's really old, can you come and make me an offer? No, sorry, I don't do that. After a while, you see, you get tired of grasping for inoffensive words to tell the greedy, stupid bastard that the entire contents of their parent's home is worthless, worthless to me, worthless to anyone, and only of imaginary, greedybastard fantasy monetary value to them, theirs a grasping stupidity fuelled by the Antiques Roadshow and its myriad spin-offs. You'd turn up to find a houseful of dreadful 'fifties or 'sixties tat, not even any good as firewood, made of ply and varnish and cardboard, in their whole lives, aside from any savings they may have had, the deceased had acquired nothing of any value or quality or even interest. Christ, it was depressing. I am comfortable in Grey's short and simple annals of the poor, I am poor myself, and often, these deathhouses were spic and span, testament to, I don't know, industry, guilt, obedience, maybe, cleanliness being next to Godliness, it wasn't that the deceased had worked all their lives for nothing that bugged me, 'twas ever, until very recently, thus, and may well soon be again, it was the expectation of the relatives which was blood-curdling; that and them having chosen me to be part of their what....their hopeful, post mortem jamboree-that-never-was. Never gonna buy a Vauxhall Tigra on the proceeds of Mum's home. Or a holiday in Benidorm.
They'd enter my premises all iffy and suspicious, the would-be inheritors, as though my mission in life was to rob people, as though every morning I leapt from my bed rubbing my hands in anticipation of a day's larceny. One day I pulled some prick outside. He hadn't come to buy or sell anything, just come in to try and take the piss in front of his totty. You're like Lovejoy, he smirked, everybody knows what you people are like. He'll never do that again. You see that, that sign up there, I said, when I got him outside, Ishmael Turn Of The Century Furniture, that's my name, you see that lady standing there, that's my daughter, that's her name, too; you see my name of the invoices, and you see the VAT registration, you see where it says proprietor, you see my name there, you see my home phone number? Now, you think I'm gonna put my name over the door and behave badly, do you? My name is over three sets of premises and there'll all legitimate, I'm legitimate. Whaddayathink I am, a fucking lawyer. You're a cheeky fucking bastard, now fuck off and if you ever come here again you'll need some very expensive dentistry. Now, tell me again, what people like me are like.
It's necessary, once in a while, a mental hygiene factor. Most people are fine, treated with courtesy and interest and I never objected to the underying, social role of the shopkeeper; sometimes people just want to have a chat about the piece in the window, maybe just want some advice, who knows why people go into shops? I had a regular non-customer, Phil the Desk; he came in most Saturdays, looking for a desk and over a year or so I showed him mahogany partners desks, oak rolltop desks, just like the sherrifs have in the westerns, railway clerks' desks, teachers desks, 1920s oak office desks with single or twin pedestals, ladies' kneehole desks, bureaux, bureau bookcases, bonheurs de jour, leather-topped library tables - none of them was ever quite right, and one day I said to him, You, don't want a desk do you, Phil? You just wanna look at desks, the desk you want doesn't exist, can't exist; if you needed a desk you would have bought one of the ones I've shown you, because you've seen all the desks there are, there aren't any more, different desks, know what I mean, if somebody needs a bed, they buy a fucking bed, might not buy the first one they see but they're not gonna sleep on the fucking floor for a year, are they? You don't want a desk, you obviously don't need a desk, you just wanna be on the lookout for a desk. I think you might be right, Ishmael. OK, Phil, Iook in next week, might be a new desk in, one that's just right for you. Didn't matter to me that Phil didn't buy a desk, lots of other people bought the desks, couldn't ever have too many desks, everybody wanted one, for the studies that everybody all of a sudden had to have. To put their Amstrad word processors in. Sometimes I'd deliver a desk and people'd say, Oh, can you just put it in my study, pointing at the space under the stairs. Phil was just, I don't know, harmless, looking at stuff and doing desktalk. Even though he didn't want one. All sorts of people, came in the shops, some of the pieces, dressers, breakfront bookcases, compactum wardrobes, were stunning, like miniature cathedrals, made of ash and oak and mahogany, I would have wanted to go in and talk about them.
But sometimes, too, Ruin comes in a bad mannered arsehole, an alpha male bully, licensed, he thinks, by Whisky Maggie and her spivs, to strut the land, being rude, parking his BMW on yellow lines. I always explained to the daughter of the business that my little bits of theatre were attempts to make the world a better place, and I believe they did. This was all a long time ago, an early manifestation of Up against the wall, motherfuckerism.
There was one example of bereavement avarice which sticks in my mind, for the sheer, unavoidable pathos of it. It was a daughter and her own little daughter, single mum, I guess, and she was in a bit of a state, if she didn't get her late mum's property cleared-out - by this afternoon - the housing association or whoever it was would charge her for getting her mum's stuff removed, hard-nosed they are, in the caring sector, and she hadn't got a pot to piss in, herself. How can I put this, I said to her, it's really not worth anything. None of it? None of it. What about the sideboard, that's really old. It's just post-war, late forties, early fifties, look, it's only plywood, and it's all wormy, there isn't a proper piece of wood in it, it's called Beautility, it's a wartime idea, looks like furniture, works like furniture but it's made of rubbish. Don't get me wrong, I'd say, feeling her hurt, your mum probably paid all the money for it, it's just that, well, I'd say, desperate not to cause any more offence, it's sort of gone out of fashion, thinking to myself, it's not even worth burning, not worth the effort of breaking it up. The only way I can help you is I'll get my bloke and my van and I'll spend the afternoon taking it down the tip for you, OK? That way it's gone and you're off the hook and don't have to pay anything, I said, relishing the idea of piss-stained mattresses and greasy lino all over my new van. To this day, I don't know if she believed me or not, I guess, like the DSS and the absent Men, I became another on her list of villains; better that, I suppose, than the reality of her Mum's Poverty Unto Death. I had to pay a tenner at the tip. Trade waste.
So I stopped doing it, valuations of wortless house contents, and left it to Man With Van, House Clearances Undertaken, Rubbish Removed, No Job Too Small, No Insult Too Vile. But there was no escape from Life's casual indifference. Sometimes, in pieces bought at auction or through my trade suppliers, I'd find biscuit tins filled with photographs, somebody's entire life, you could sit and piece it all together, moments of fleeting nuptial grandeur and happiness, accomplishment, birthdays, sport, holidays, children - fifty, sixty years of images, junked, worthless; fuck me Jesus, there was a time I could have papered the walls with other people's memories.
I bought a lovely little late Georgian mahogany chest of drawers, two-over-two, not an inlaid serpentine-front masterpiece, just plain but beautifully made, nice proportions, gorgeous colour, Cuban mahogany, I think; it was in the window about five minutes, a screech of BMW brakes, Is that for sale, Ishmael, I'll have it. It'll be nice to put my stereo on. Just the thing. This guy was a regular client, lived in a bijou waterside apartment in Alcester, about as big as my verandah, playing Pavarotti at full blast and adoring himself, The Quartets and Arias guy, I called him, and he did put his stereo on the chest, with the CDs in the drawers below. Don't you do any rockandroll, I said to him, one time, young bloke like you. Nah, Opera's the thing, he said, flexing his red braces, a proper Thatcher lad, with his noisy, football opera. Vulgar rubbish, most of it, I thought, to the sound of some spics warbling a duet from Pearl Fishers, or some such. But before I sold him this little jewel - for a lousy six hundred quid, the rent must have been due or the VAT or the fucking accountant or some other parasite or else I'd have kept it for myself - before I sold it, I cleaned and polished it and replaced a couple of drawer stops and found, taped to a drawer bottom, a beautifully hand-written note, from an aunt, I think, vouchsaving this piece to her nephew, Anthony Howard, with affection and so on. Never having been left anything in my life, not even a curse, I thought that such a note would be a treasure in itself, discarded in error; could this be the Anthony Howard, prominent British journalist, Oxbridge, the Guardian and the BBC, one of our premier political groupies, one of those who explains to us, contextualises, the different fragrances of shit, cascading into our faces from his chums perched on the Great Latrine of State? It was the very same toothy, bibulous hack. And yes, he knew of the note but it didn't matter, thanks, no, no need to send it on.
I saw Howard, a couple of years later, one sunny morning in Ludlow, he was hangover made human, looked like he'd slept in his suit, grey and unshaven, all sweaty, staggering out of one of those fabulously over-priced, ancient, Ludlow townhouses, gulping orange juice from a carton like a man lost in the Sahara, he stunk of booze and guilt and fear and piss, you know what it's like. Judging by the number of hands which that chest went through before coming into mine, I guess he would have got a hundred quid for it, at the most. Maybe he needed the room. That's what they say on those awful daytime TeeVee shows - Oh, I need the room - even if the family heirloom being flogged-off for twenty quid, less commission, is a cup and saucer; Haven't got room for it any more, they lie. Don't talk to me about Ruin, that's Ruin, people throwing away their unique, family treasures, for the price of a meal and a few minutes on Losers' TeeVee. Maybe Howard needed the room. Or maybe he needed a drink. Whichever, he didn't give a fuck about his aunty's hand-written note. Might not have been an aunt, might have been a Godmother, doesn't matter. You see, if he was anywhere near as clever as he cracks-on to be, reminiscing about Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson, he would have thought, This bloke's taken the trouble to track me down, no harm in him forwarding me the note from the dreadful old biddy, no harm in being courteous in return, gracious, even....makes the world go round.
I was thinking about Howard, the other day, and the sentimentality, or in his case, not, of ownership, as I was moving these fucking nail boxes around my bench. I had been sawing and sanding and having no lids on, they were filled with sawdust, couldn't see what was in them, could be anything. Tip 'em out, I thought, one compartment at a time and pick up the nails, from the sawdust, with a magnet. And then I thought, Ah, fuck it; I have far better means of storage than those fucking things.
Like these, I have loads of these
What the fuck am I doing, anyway, recycling, cherishing these home-made things, which some other bloke home made? I never knew the old bastard, not as though he was my father or anything. And even if he was I wouldn't have got anything, my rotten brother and sister having stripped his dwelling before he was cold, not that he would have had any of these wee boxes, a rusty Quality Street tin was more like it, full of bent, rusty nails and nuts and bolts all rusted the fuck together, good for fuck all, and one of those fucking huge, wooden-handled hammers that you think the head is going to fall off of and launch itself straight into your eye, you know, the ones with little wedges in, which fall out, or shrink, late stone age technology. A qualified motor mechanic and a TT racer, my Dad, in his youth but somewhere something went wrong and when I knew him, although he still knew the stuff, tools were just a memory.
Maybe, hang about, maybe he's not even dead, this box-maker; maybe he just got pissed-off with a lifetime of getting sawdust in among his panel pins, like I have, after a year or so; maybe he didn't have a magnet, to sort them out from the dust and the shavings, maybe, every time they got fucked-up or he dropped them, he just picked them all out, one at a fucking time, like he was autistic, maybe he was autistic, maybe it's because I'm not autistic that I never made any of these fucking things. Do autistic people do woodwork? Or do they just sit around fuming, in a bad temper? I think they just need a punch in the gob, three times a day, until cured. Maybe, at long last, he bought himself some fancy new storage systems, with lids on, like mine, the sawdust doesn't get in and you can carry 'em around from project to project, like a briefcase and not like an altar offering, held out before you, gingerly, like a fucking supplicant, praying you don't drop the whole lot on the floor and have to spend all afternoon sorting them out, back into their compartments where they can get covered in sawdust again, or fall out again, all over the floor, all mixed up. And then I understood why I had never found the time to make any of these things, it's because they're shit.
They went in the Rayburn, anyway, lasted about forty five seconds.
And if I ever find out who he was, assuming he was dead, and find out who his relations are, assuming he had any and it wasn't just the housing association people junked his gear down the charity shop, I'll give 'em a good talking to.
Howard, unfortunately, well, for him unfortunately, has just died, just a moment before I was about to press this publish button; missed my chance with him, too; and I wonder if, carefully and thoughtfully, he has hand written notes, bequeathing his possessions as keepsakes, to nephews or Godchildren, who'll flog them on, regardless.
Both of the old boys, though, Howard and the unknown, autistic handyman, prompt and amplify the thought sic transit gloris mundi, which the scholars here would translate as, So passeth the glories of the world but which you and I might render as It's shit, all of it.