Oh, for the freedom of the begging-bowl - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Oh, for the freedom of the begging-bowl

You know beggars? You know what it is about beggars? It's their lack of elegance. They're such losers, such schlumps. All that matted hair, those horrible, deliberate clothes, the filthy dogs on string, the scrawled notices on cardboard like an NHS hospital. If Tony and the Blairenes ("A Song, A Smile and a Nolle Prosequi") ever want to make a real difference to our quality of public life, they might take a break from forming human pyramids in the Cabinet room, and commission Terence Conran to redesign our beggars.

Elegant minimalism is the line to take. A simple unisex robe in some becoming earth shade (saffron, perhaps, or a delicious ochre the precise shade of caramelised garlic), padded for winter, and a lightweight, loose slub-weave linen for summer. A functional but harmonious futon-style sleeping mat. A rough-hewn but perfectly ovoid begging-bowl. The whole speaking of an alluring and timeless mendicancy offering a daily glimpse of freedom and asceticism to us all.

I have just moved house, and the begging-bowl is in the forefront of my mind. You look at all your stuff, and you think, "This stuff has got to go," and you spend days filling black plastic bags with Stuff, black plastic bags which are then rifled by passing fools who steal your unwanted Stuff and take it home to sit and stare at it for a while, before they, too, throw it away. It circulates, this Stuff, like a filthy Mediterranean tide, washing up on the pavements, eddying round lamp-posts, never disappearing, just getting ranker and sadder.

As for the books... dear God, the books. Dreadful books, airport books, books where there's a second body behind the sofa, books where the aliens did it, books where the aliens were suspected of doing it but didn't, books where the heroine left her husband for a woman, books where the heroine left her husband for a horse, books of sociology, of dreams, of diseases, reminiscences, pornographic pictures, screenplay formats, software instructions, suicide instructions, guides to a better life, guides to staying in your relationship, guides to getting out of your relationship, guides to getting out of your relationship without feeling guilty, guides to dealing with guilt. Books you don't want, never read, or read on a desperate wet Sunday or long-haul flight and never, ever want to read again.

But you can't throw them away because you can't throw books away. Not books. Books are special. They are the fruit of men's minds, because they contain the distillation of years of mental labour; but men labour all their lives for the Inland Revenue or the collections department of American Express, and when they die we smile and dance on their graves; why should books be any different?

Why should anything be any different? I crawl to my bed each night through canyons of black plastic bags, past up-ended chests- of-drawers, toppling cataracts of shoes, stubbing my toe on piles of old first drafts, dead floppy disks, out-of-date airfield approach plates which would kill you if you actually tried to fly by them, nasty ugly chipped old mugs, at least one of every new revolutionary razor ever marketed (Blades Not Available), a lifetime's supply of Erasmic shaving foam, a lifetime's supply of Shavex shaving cream, a lifetime's supply of Kiehl's shaving cream, two lifetimes' supply of pen-nibs and box upon box of really nice notebooks, unused and always will be unused because they're just too nice to, you know... use.

And the clothes. The clothes. Too tight, too small, too nasty, too outmoded. All those mistakes; all those hopes dashed. Here are the five Jean-Paul Gaultier suits I bought in 1988 when A-- S---- gave me the elbow and cast me into such a terrible despond that I would literally spit at lovers in the street; these suits would make me a better man, a desirable man, a man whom nobody would ever leave, ever again; and I put the suits on, and fell in love with S-- D--- and, guess what? It didn't work, although she had three other lovers followed by a husband and a child and it wasn't until the second child that I realised that perhaps she wasn't playing hard-to-get. So why have I kept these suits? Why, when they make me look foolish and fill my heart with suet duff every time I contemplate their provenance, have I allowed them to follow me here, mute in their black plastic bags, humming with muted malevolence like the undead? Why did I keep the nasty jacket in the exact shade of a postpartum haemorrhage, or the hairy tweed suit with Herman Munster shoulders, or the snakeskin cowboy boots with chased silver toecaps?

Why did I keep anything? I have been here a week now, and I have looked for - actually sought out - three items. (1) My Parker 51. (2) The drawer with my pants and socks in. (3) My tape recorder. The rest could vanish tomorrow and I wish it would. The only thing I can think is that I keep this stuff, the terrible three-dimensional drivelling of a life devoted to displacement behaviour, because either I have paid for it or it has some sort of totemic significance. But the stuff I have paid for, I am paying for over and over again, every time I move it, every time I see it and wonder why it's still there. And the totemic stuff; well, that's nonsense. But beneath it all I am an unreconstructed animist. When I was little my mother would take me shopping and say, for example, "Do you want the green socks or the red ones?" And I would say, "The red ones," and then spend the next hour weeping because I felt so sorry for the green socks, whose life I had ruined by not choosing them.

It's time for it to stop, but I can't do it bit by bit. I throw out my black plastic bags but there's still just as much stuff left behind. It's strangling me, which is why I need Sir Terence. Matted hair and a filthy dog? No thank you. But give me a curry-coloured robe and one perfect bowl, and I'll be down on the street by sunset, my hand outstretched and freedom and tranquillity in my clear blue gaze.

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