Show me his pockets and I'll show you the man

Michael Bywater
Saturday 12 September 1998 23:02

' "IT WAS THE body of a man in early middle age," said Inspector Flubbalub. "Well-built, athletic, dressed in immaculately cut tweeds from which the tailor's name had been deliberately removed. In the pockets we found a latchkey, a clean handkerchief, a pocketbook containing pounds 10 in banknotes, and a few odd coppers in change. Nothing to tell us." '

Shut up! Shut up, Inspector Flubbalub! Shut up, mute testimony of unknown dead person! You make me sick, you and your genre! Where's the reality? Where the little stuff? Bang me on the head and shove me in the river and you'd have a different tale on your hands, Inspector so-called Flubbalub.

"It was the body of a man of uncertain age," you bastard. "Rather hard to tell, actually, since he clearly never took care of himself at all. Athletic? Nuts to that. More a question of running to seed faster than a rip-tide, dressed in immaculately cut tweeds in which the tailor's name was still clearly visible, next to the tailor's final demand, still unopened in the breast pocket. A search of the pockets also revealed the following:

"A Sony ICD-70 digital recorder containing 15 minutes of vituperation, complaint, missed appointments, ill-formed grudges, fatuous observations of life, and the telephone numbers of houses of ill-fame.

"A 'Sensa' ballpoint pen in an effeminate shade of bronze-'n'-champagne, with a squidgy membranous finger-grip like an ill-used breast implant. Part of a mobile telephone belt-clip, a packet of Dunhill International filter cigarettes, a packet of cheap Turkish cigarettes, Rizla liquor-ice papers, a tin of snuff, a Zippo lighter and a pipe-cleaner. From this we deduce the man was, or may at some time have been, a smoker.

"A silk handkerchief, reeking of old scent. An electric-storm-in-a-bottle, a cylindrical balloon-like object, some four inches long and filled with indeterminate fluid, presumably for rolling along the desk-top in order to relieve stress. An inch-high white plastic Scottie on a string lead. A cuff-link. A piece of fudge. A rubber-frog key-ring. A yellow pocket torch in the shape of a trout. A pencil-sharpener. A green fluorescent highlighter pen. A pink fluorescent highlighter pen. An empty fluorescent highlighter pen.

"Brochures. Brochures for Canon autofocus cameras, Leica cameras, high- speed modem cards, antiquarian booksellers, coffee-blenders, perfumery suppliers, telephone answering machines, health clubs, language schools and suppliers of dirty videos. A blue plastic clockwork penguin. A garishly coloured pottery Mexican ashtray, also in the form of a fish.

"Unopened mail (threatening) from the Inland Revenue, all the relevant utilities, various solicitors, disgruntled women, outraged men, postulants, duns, stalkers and nuff-nuffs.

"A single surgical glove. A half-eaten tube of Rennies. Codeine tablets. A nose-hair trimmer. A small notebook containing remarks such as 'He is not, of course, a dwarf' and 'Apologise' and 'Bog roll, light bulbs, shaving cream, dual time-zone Swiss chronometer, green snakeskin Gucci shoes, check why cash-card rejected by machine' and 'Column about irritating proliferation of little stuff'.

"Other little stuff, too pointless to enumerate."

So: is it me? Or is everyone like this? Are you like this, your life gradually overwhelmed by Little Stuff? How is your house, the pockets of your clothes, the interior of the fancy Texier leather sac homme you bought because French-men look so elegant with them but you just look like a poof? And how does it get there? How does one end up with 23 pairs of spectacles, 17 jackets, six drawers devoted to T-shirts, enough un- dealt-with paperwork to keep an entire army of clerks busy for six months, key-rings, cables, floppy disks, pickle-grabbers, Action Men, stuffed bison, disintegrating books, unwearable shoes, Mason jars, novelty egg cups, cappuccino machines, six-hole industrial paper-punches, do I need to go on? Do I?

What bothers me, perplexes me, is where it all came from, and why. I had a letter from a trusted intimate the other day, denouncing me as a hollow materialist, and of course I rang up and bellowed down the telephone about the sheer bloody injustice of the accusation. And, once I had put the telephone down, I turned back with a sigh of relief to wondering whether what I really wanted was the commemorative marine-style wrist chronometer or the less butch, more subtly rugged silver-cased one, and which would say more about me, and indeed which would say more of the things I want to be said about me, if you see what I mean. Does that make me a materialist? Does the fact that, whenever things go wrong, I go shopping, make me a materialist? Is there the slightest hint of materialism in the fact that, until I have got dressed in the morning, I really haven't the faintest idea what I am like?

Well of course there is. There must be. And it's appalling. All this Little Stuff, all these idiot things which I can't imagine doing without and yet which I long to be rid of: they must serve some deep purpose of which I am unaware, as though somehow, one day, when there are enough of them and when I can no longer get into my house, I will suddenly emerge as a coherent, well-rounded, recognisable Grown Man.

It was not always like this. There was a time - I can remember it, just - when thrift was the thing. But now I cannot imagine it; the notion of not buying something because it is entirely necessary and does one no good at all just seems preposterous. The very fact that I want something (a new Prince of Wales tweed suit, a satellite-based messaging system) seems reason enough to buy one; and the fact that I neither need nor can afford it seems, equally, no impediment at all.

It's all very peculiar and I propose to think it out. I'll need some non-materialist thinking-it-out stuff - a negligently rumpled corduroy jacket, an antique fountain pen, a free-standing ashtray, a rolltop desk and a Gothic house in Highgate - but just as soon as I've got them, I'll let you know the answer.

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