Revolutions come and revolutions go, but storage boxes are here to stay

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The Independent Culture
Whatever depths this column may have plumbed, it has never yet descended to the minutiae of the domestic life. No builders, babies' birthday parties or bed-wetting in this column. Lips sealed as to the nursery and the hearth, that's our motto. We make no meal of the pleasures or perils of breast-feeding in this space, no sir.

That said, I do need to report that I spent an entire afternoon in the new Paperchase megastore on Tottenham Court Road last weekend, rolling in stationery so whisperingly seductive I was able to imagine no material use for it other than as wallpaper for a bordello. Which particular bordello I am not prepared to say, as that would infringe the self-imposed code of practice outlined above. Besides, I have noticed before that I have only to endorse a store or a restaurant and the place is immediately packed to the rafters. And I wouldn't want that to happen to my favou- rite bordello.

As for whether I bought anything at Paperchase, the answer is yes. Two watery plastic storage boxes each big enough to hold 100 Rexel No. 56 staplers, three million drawing pins, 14 rolls of fax paper, or a single sliced-loaf, depending on your office needs. But I will come back to those.

Wishing to put my feet up after these exertions - for it can take hours on end to decide upon the right storage box once you have a mind to acquire one - I turned to Timothy Garton Ash's programme about the Czech Republic on BBC television. Half way through, it came to me in a flash the colour of the phosphorescent notebook I had also bought earlier, that both activities - shopping for stationery and Czech history - were in some deep and unexpected way related. Translucent pencil cases and Vaclav Havel? Prague and Paperchase? I know, but if you can't yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together, what kind of metaphysician are you?

Futility, that was what the two experiences had in common. I don't mean that Timothy Garton Ash's programme was futile in itself, but futility, or something like futility - let's say the impossibility of human happiness - was its subject. The story it told was of what happens when an extravagantly literate, theatre-loving, deeply serious society wins that political freedom to which all its creative endeavours have been bent. Crap - that's what happens. Crap telly. Crap music. Crappy Kafka tours for crappy tourists. A crappy hunger for crappy entertainment where once there had been a rage for enlightenment. Crap.

One strike of the freedom bells and the country goes from smart to stupid over night. Not much different from us, really, except that we don't have dramatic film footage of the very moment when the nation opened like a single flower, to make the crappy aftermath the more poignant. VE day, celebrating a land fit for heroes, is the best we can do; or that lovely May morning two and a half years ago when we woke to a world without Portillo, the sky roseate with promise of a new Blair dawn. Same outcome. There is no land fit for heroes, and there is no new dawn.

There are those who are mad enough to hanker for the return of despots, so that the world can once again recover its intelligence in the struggle to overthrow them. But that's as self-punishing as arguing for the sexual life to stop at foreplay in order to forestall tristesse. We must do what we must do and expect to be sorry afterwards, that's the only conclusion to be drawn. We are a perverse species who can imagine the freedom to be happy but don't know what to do with it when we get it.

And that's stationery's lesson too. If we could only find the right diary, the right address book, the right ring binder, the right suspension file, the right in-tray, the right out-tray, the right paper-clip dispenser, the right message pad, the right storage box, all our troubles would be over. What stands in the way of our felicity? The wrong diary, the wrong address book, the wrong ring binder, the wrong suspension file, the wrong in-tray, the wrong out-tray, the wrong paper-clip dispenser, the wrong message pad, no storage box. Fix those and we are loosed from the despotism of chaos, citizens of order at last.

We know it doesn't work. We know it from school. How many pencil case and geometry sets did you buy between the ages of nine and 17? My count is 48. On the first day of every full term, and again on the first day of every half-term, I turned up with a new ruler, a new compass and a new set square. For what? The ruler I used to launch ink bombs at Mr Cotteril. The compass was for jabbing Morris Cohen underneath his desk. And the set square? Well there you have me. Not once in however many years was I called upon to use a set square. To this day I do not know what a set square is for. But I had to go on buying them. My set square was my Prague Spring, my Velvet Revolution, my tool of transition from servant to master.

I found no set square in Paperchase. Revolutions come and revolutions go. Storage boxes are the thing now. If we could just pile all our crap into storage boxes we'd be emancipated, wouldn't we? To trawl the Internet for porn, read a novel by a gardener with no bra, visit the Millennium Dome...

Ah, liberty!

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