Saga, February 2016

As I write this, I have just returned from Manchester to London, and have deposited a small piece of luggage in the hall. This piece of luggage contains what we shall call my “Manchester requirements” and I know I should have unpacked it at once, but I have merely ransacked it for make-up and hairbrush, because this is what I do. In a couple of days, I will think, “Where’s the iPod?” and I’ll remember that I last had it on the train to Manchester, and I’m sure I will know which untidy bag to look in, so in a way it’s a system that works. But why do I say “which untidy bag”? Because, if I look around me right now, there are about eight unzipped and untidy bags in the vicinity, all representing different trips, which have been partially ransacked for toothpaste and phone charger, but not unpacked. As I say, the system works, because I do know where things are. My passport is still in a flight bag from a week ago; my wellingtons are in the suitcase I recently took to Venice; my best jacket is still in a bag I packed for a trip three months ago that actually never took place. But naturally I ask myself: why don’t I just unpack? Why are you living out of suitcases when there is no earthly need to do so?

In a novel I wrote a couple of years ago, my narrator was a chap whose wife had recently died. He is naturally demoralised. He comes home from a trip to the coast, with a suitcase and a number of boxes, and it pains him to recollect how good his wife used to be at unpacking. They had a routine: his own job was to make himself scarce; his wife’s was to empty the bags, load the washing machine, replace books on shelves, put passports back in the drawer, and finally stow the empty suitcases in a cupboard under the stairs. Under this system, by the time he emerged from checking his emails, it was as though midnight pixies had worked their magic: the floor of the hall was clear, and normality had been totally restored. Left to his own devices, however, he is completely helpless. He hasn’t the heart; he also can’t even imagine how it’s done. So he opens a couple of boxes to retrieve some essentials (dog-food and dog-bowl), and then, after a bit of mental tussle, closes them up again, as it’s nearly time for University Challenge on the telly. Days later, he shoves the boxes to the side of the hall, as they are slightly getting in the way. As you may have deduced, I based this character pretty closely on myself.

As it happens, the trip to Manchester I mentioned was actually to record an episode of University Challenge, which was a big brave thing to do, in my opinion. By the time you read this, the results will be known: my team of “graduates” (all excellent people) got us to the semi-finals of the Christmas series, so it wasn’t too bad, but of course I remember only the moments when I thought, “Ooh, that’s Breughel!” at precisely the moment the other team buzzed in and got the points. But it was only when I dumped my bag in the hall on my return (and extracted only the book I was reading), that it occurred to me that this habit of mine was a) getting a bit out of hand, and b) directly (and shamefully) analogous to the disorderly way I also store knowledge. Basically, I accumulate info all the time, but do I carefully file it away, for ease of retrieval? No, I just leave it lying around in suitcases! “Wait, wait, I know I’ve got the answer to this somewhere!” I wanted to plead all the time, on University Challenge. “I just have to remember where I was going when I last used it!”

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