The trials of moving house

Kevin Fong tries to find a little order among the chaos

September 11, 2014

So I just moved house. My life is in a sea of poorly labelled cardboard boxes filled with random contents. Everything is packed that way. From clothes and camping gear to hard drives and reprints. I’ve done pretty well to find the box that contained this laptop. Less well in locating the power cord that goes with it, so forgive the haste with which this has to be written.

Moving house is an understudied phenomenon worthy of more academic analysis. It has occurred to me that the three packaging symbols that adorn the side of every single box – the umbrella, the “This Way Up” arrow and the picture of the broken glass – probably have a more ancient origin and purpose. I bet that if archaeologists had a really good dig around they’d find them on the walls of our most primitive prehistoric dwellings. They are, I suspect, a primordial, perennially unheeded warning that translates roughly to: “Don’t Leave the Cave You Idiot. There’s Nothing Wrong With The House You Live In Now.”

Psychologists tell us that moving house is among the most stressful life events a person might ever have to endure. I remember wondering how that could be so. Surely, I thought, it is only a scaled-up version of that trick you used to pull off as an undergraduate at the end of term, when the accumulated detritus of 12 weeks of student living had to magically disappear into bin liners that got shoved into the boot of your dad’s car.

There must be a mathematical expression for the state of entropy that describes the way your house looks after you’ve just moved in

That was the strategy I operated. One that left me on the eve of our move gazing with Zen-like calm at the contents of my old house, with no clue how they might disappear into the removals lorry but knowing that somehow they would. For once, my student existence appeared to have prepared me for this life event. I had seen this movie several times before, and it always had a happy ending. Unfortunately, I had mixed up my movie genres; I’d done the equivalent of mistaking Black Hawk Down for a slightly scaled-up version of Watership Down.

There must be a mathematical expression for the state of entropy that describes the way your house looks after you’ve just moved in. One that defines the lowest state of order that your life can adopt. That is the state I have reached. Admittedly, I didn’t start from a particularly high level of organisation. Let’s say that the Dewey decimal system and my home office library were not well acquainted. But I used to know where things were, at least.

I did invest a little time trying to superimpose some structure ahead of the move. I sat for the best part of a day, in the room that doubled as my home office, trying to get it straightened out. I failed miserably.

It’s safe to say that if you haven’t read a particular book or a paper in the past 10 years, then the probability that you’re going to read it in the next 10 is at best marginal. There are shelves of that stuff at home that surely should have gone into the recycling box. Only none of it did.

I did stop briefly to ask myself what I was hoping to achieve with all that accumulated academic material. Perhaps in the recesses of my mind I imagined that if, at the end of the world, the British Library should fail to survive then perhaps folks might have a go at restarting civilisation from the contents of my shelves. No doubt it would be an abbreviated and slightly odd version of civilisation, with the works of Isaac Asimov providing the central dogma for all organised religion and with the entire canon of classical music being replaced by my dusty Thompson Twins Greatest Hits CD.

And then the penny dropped. This was no longer a home library. I have a laptop and hard drive for that. This had become the museum of my life. Not a great museum (definitely go to the V&A and the Science Museum first before coming here) but nevertheless a place where artefacts of significance were being kept for posterity. There was stuff in there that I could no more throw away than the curator at the Natural History Museum could junk the skeleton of Dippy the Diplodocus for taking up so much space in its reception hall.

I was, I suddenly realised, standing in the Museum of Natural Kev, a venue in which disorder was the central exhibit. Calm descended. When the removals guy came to stick the contents of the shelves into random boxes, I reassured myself that when they finally emerged to fill the shelves in my new house, no matter how randomly they came out, or in what order, they would look pretty much the same as they had done before they went in.

In retrospect, it would have been better if I hadn’t applied that philosophy to my entire house, but you live and learn. And it’s kind of exciting really. Embracing the anarchy has been good for me. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, I never know from day to day what I’m going to get. And that is surprisingly OK.

You’ll have to excuse me at this point – I’m on deadline and I need to file this column before the battery runs out. Now, where the hell did I put the broadband router?

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