“What are days for?”, asks the curmudgeonly poet, Philip Larkin, is his poem, Days, questioning the very point of living. He is unable to offer any real comfort, concluding, “Ah, solving that question / brings the priest and the doctor / in their long coats / running over the fields.” For Larkin, the idea of Days, and what to do with them, represents the problem of existence boiled down to its barest essentials. I have a similar relationship with shelves, and The Observer have invited me to solve it, at your expense.
I love shelves, and if only I could work out exactly which of the many books, comics, records and compact discs that I own I should fill them with, and how many shelves I require to do this, I have always imagined my life would be complete. At the age of 43, I am finally in a solid looking house, with my solid looking family, where I imagine, uncharacteristically, I will stay for some time. I am well on the way, through my own efforts and those of contracted shelving professionals, to having the shelving system I have dreamed of since childhood, most of it concealed in nooks, cellars and the designated shelf room, so as not to destroy the internal integrity of our long dreamed of living space. But even as the shelves approach their final configuration, it seems the same doubts and fears about life and its purpose linger on, as if the answer to everything did not lie in the construction of shelving systems after all. I had truly imaged it would. I wonder where this profound faith in shelving began.
When I was about 5 years old, I bought a copy of an American comic book called Captain Marvel, off the lower rung off a revolving rack of True Detective, Soft Porn and pulpy thriller magazines, in a newsagents on the A34 just outside Birmingham. I was snagged. Not only did the tale of Captain Marvel, virtually crucified by aliens in a shiny chrome cyber-cross, blow my toddling mind, it also appeared to be part of a much wider cosmology, – the Marvel universe, where thousands of colourfully clad characters wended in and out of the plots of each other’s interlinked monthly comics, creating a vast multi-layered epic storyline which I now ached to understand.
But it was 1973. Spider-man was not the all-conquering global brand he is today. American comic books, regarded mainly as valueless filth, weren’t regularly distributed. They made their way, usually to seaside towns and motorway service stations, as ballast in ships or bundles of worthlessly discounted rubbish. The dedicated comics stores were few and far between. I scouted the newsagents in far flung estates on the borders of the suburbs, for goldmine trash at marked down prices, in cardboard boxes by the door, as did so many comics fans of my age. Then I took my finds home, and filed them, in a complex system of boxes in my wardrobe, trying to match up the fragmented and incomplete runs of broken storylines, gaps in the action looming out like broken teeth where perfunctory newsagent distribution systems had broken down. And one Summer, a doctor my mother worked for, came round while convalescing, and hammered me up a set of shelves, upon which my comics then sat, near complete runs of Marvel Two In One, Ghost Rider and Deathlok standing proud in line as evidence of my tenacity.
Like most comic book fans I had little to show for my life – no sports trophies, no prizes, and I never achieved anything much until I suddenly and unexpectedly passed my eleven plus – but I had scrimped and scouted to assemble this four colour archive, and there it was, shelved. The world was a mess – war and power cuts and three days weeks, and teeth smashed out by bullies and tussles over weekend access – but here was chaos co-ordinated.
Like most comics readers, I briefly betrayed myself in my early adolescence, abandoning comics until I was eighteen or so, and finding similar absolutes, and maxims to match Peter Parker’s uncle’s peerless advice, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, in literature and music. My first musical love was The Fall, who even in 1982 had a back catalogue that was uncharacteristically convoluted, and stirred the same Linnean impulse Captain Marvel had, with Saturday afternoons spent scouting the record stores, of the pre-internet age, to plug the gaps.
Since then, I’ve always been attracted to artists and genres which are ultimately unknowable and undefinable, because of the musicians’ unstoppably prolific tendencies, and because of the many tributaries that feed in and out of their work, that must all be explored and understood in the quest for completion. By my late twenties my record collection had to be measured in feet rather than counted in terms of individual items. I have to stress, it wasn’t an especially expensive acquisition. I’ve been getting review copies since I started doing radio and reviewing in the mid-90s, and I spent vast swathes of my twenties and thirties hanging around far-flung provincial towns waiting to do stand-up gigs, passing the afternoons in second hand book shops and record shops. During the nineties, cd’s rendered vinyl largely worthless, and I’d return from Northern treks laden with discs. During the noughties, mp3 technology inflicted the same body blow to the value of cd’s, and everything you might ever have wanted is out there somewhere at 99p, easily traced through Amazon marketplace.
In the last decades, the long empty afternoons also yielded cut-price books by the dozen, which I acquired for an imaged alcoholic retirement. I pictured myself old and bearded and blubbery, lying on the floor drinking malt whisky and expanding my mind, a self-indulgent vision now sidelined by fatherhood. At the late great Book Barn in Bristol, in closing down sales across the land, and in back rooms in Hay On Wye and Alnwick and Sedbergh, we thrifty readers picked over the carcass of the publishing industry for hours on end, turning up forgotten fifty pence fiction by the plastic bag full. My only real expense was my comics habit, but I was always on hand to write features and articles on the form for newspapers and radio, I had my weekly music reviews column in a Sunday paper, I was a writer and sometime novelist myself, and so everything was professionally relevant. But gradually, over twenty years of acquisition, I was swamped. My shelving capacity could not keep up.
In a shared house in Tooting I cannibalised wine boxes and fruit crates into vinyl shaped storage mechanisms. In an attic room in Balham, I used bricks and planks dragged from a demolished building to go floor to ceiling, in CD sized strips. In a failed relationship in Finsbury Park I sawed poisonous MDF into a bespoke system filling a spare room, and breathed the dust for three years in a mausoleum of recorded music. At my two bedroom Stoke Newington bachelor pad, I inherited three alcoves’ worth of chunky wooden slats, already in place, and a friendly set carpenter turned one wall into an edifice of clunky jewel cases and vinyl spines. By the time my wife moved in with me in 2006, she was required to edge around stacks of unread fiction, garish comic books, curling vinyl and clattering cd boxes. No-one could live like this. And when our son was born, most of my painstakingly assembled archive went into storage, so that our child had room to live and a space to sleep.
A friend of mine, Andy, has devoted his life to literature, his enormous cranium swollen with learning. His shelves always impressed me. Books only made it on to the main section when they had been fully digested, and yet still it was crammed and carefully alphabetised. What an achievement. And yet, last Christmas at the Gay Hussar in Soho, he told me he had given away all his books. He had two children. “They need places to play,” he said, “a home should be a home, not a monument to my victories over books.” I was crestfallen. Andy made me question myself. We were in limbo, my little tribe. The unconfirmed promise of a TV series was keeping us hanging on for the possibility of affording a family home in Hackey, otherwise we would downsize and head West towards our spiritual homelands near the Severn. But when I finally did get the finances to stay in the city, I struggled with what do with the dead weight of cultural information I had imprisoned in its Dalston lock-up.
I calculated the scale of the problem. Those prolific genius artists were just the start of it – I had six feet of Fall CDs, five feet eight of Miles Davis, five foot six of Sonic Youth and its solo spin-offs, five foot two of John Coltrane, four foot eleven of the free improviser Derek Bailey, four foot four of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices, three feet of Bob Dylan, two foot eight of The Byrds and various tributaries, two foot six of the Texan outsider artist Jandek, and two foot four of the saxophonist Evan Parker; I had twenty feet of European improvised music, twenty feet of jazz, fourteen feet a piece of British folk music, reggae, and blues, seven feet of Japanese psychedelia, and six foot each of music from Tucson Arizona, New Zealand and 1970s Germany. Even after a massive cull, I reckon I still had three hundred and fifty feet of recorded sound which I imagined I needed to keep. And don’t talk to me about i-pods. They haven’t built the i-pod that can cope with that. And I want inlay cards, and accompanying essays and the physical contact with the physical objects and the memories they evoke.
On the print media front I had about one hundred feet of fiction, much of it unread, eighteen feet of poetry which improves my soul, six feet of books about stone circles, twelve feet of folklore, religion and the occult, and three feet of the forgotten Welsh mystic Arthur Machen. I’ve got ten feet of inky specialist music fanzines from the 80s and 90s, Bucketful of Brains and No Depression, that I needed for journalistic fact checking before Wiipedia. And I’m dragging probably seventy feet of comics, which I am now saving for my son, who will come to despise them, and me for loving them.
And all this stuff, in the digital age, is literally worthless financially, and losing any value it had daily. There’s nothing here a burglar would even bother with. I’m aware I’m a social relic, from an age when you walked through the shopping centre with an un-bagged album under your arm to show like-minded souls who you were, and when the book as an object was quietly fetishised. Now kids stake out their personal space with knives and guns and gadgets, and working stiffs flip falsified pages of virtual books on kindles. I’m like a character in a dystopian science fiction novel, holed up in a cave full of cultural artefacts, waiting for the young Jenny Agutter to arrive in a tinfoil mini-skirt, fleeing a poisonous cloud on the surface, to check out my stash, and ask me, ‘Who exactly were the Quicksilver Messenger Service? Who was this Virginia Wolf? What kind of man was Jonah Hex?”
Negotiating my friend Andy’s abandonment of his lifetime of books, and my own deranged tendency to keep everything, as if to prove that I existed, I have set myself a limit to my shelf space, a generous one by the average person’s standards, but a limit nonetheless. Each month I carve out a little more length, and unbox a few more treasures. It’s a slow process. But there is a finite point. And the rest must go. Cool stuff rears up out of the cardboard. I had forgotten, for example, that I had every album The Volcano Suns ever made, reprints of all Barry Windsor Smith’s Conan comics, and over a dozen hardback copies of Francis Brett Young’s Shropshire novels that I have never read. These finds thrill me still, just like when I was a boy. I know I will never absorb all my archive, but it’s enough to bask in its glow. But philosophically, I remain none the wiser than I did when I first racked my Marvel comics on the wall of my bedroom, age eight or nine. To paraphrase Larkin, ‘What are shelves for? Ah, solving that question / brings the priest and the doctor / in their long coats / running over the fields.”