Possessions are nine-tenths of the floor-space: certainly in this house. I blame eBay. Since the arrival of eBay (which piggy-backed the proliferation of car boot sales, interestingly so, because car boot sales were originally thought of as a sign of growing destitution in the Thatcher years), this is probably true of more and more houses. Nor is it just eBay: it’s also the effect of there being so many programmes (Bargain Hunt, Cash In The Attic, Flog It) about turning antiques aka junk into money. There are now so many of them, that people are emptying their attics into their houses, then swapping the rubbish for other people’s rubbish. It didn’t happen when the only ‘auction’ programme was Antiques Roadshow, in which the extremely rich came along to find out how much (or, sometimes, to comic shame, how little) their ‘items’ were worth ‘for insurance purposes’.
Well, that’s my excuse. The fact is, and if you work online like me, this is pathetically easy, you can get almost anything you want now, with just a few clicks of the mouse. For instance: I had an abiding memory of a short story called ‘The Purple Cincture’, which was read to me at school. It was about a man who had contracted a disease which caused a band to appear around, in the first instance, a wrist. It went throught a variety of colours. When it got to purple, the hand fell off. And after a while, it went for the ankle. And, eventually, the neck. I found the story in an anthology in a bookshop in Oregon. Result!
The result was less floorspace. The house overflows with criminal records, criminal books, and criminal plunder of one sort or another. eBay is supposed to help you declutter, but actually, it’s about acquisition. My latest foray on to eBay (I have actually stayed away for a few months) was in a bored and frustrated moment, when I couldn’t think of how to finish a line in a poem. I came away with a Carole King record which I didn’t know existed (her first, when she and her co-musicians went under the name of ‘The City’ – very good, too. I’ve always liked King). I also had a look to see if there was anything under the name of Greenwell.
I promise you, this wasn’t to check whether or not there is a thriving second-hand market in my publications – I would settle for a thriving first-hand market. It was one of those odd things: an instinct that, somewhere in the world, there is the box of family history bits and bobs which my great-great-great grandfather gave to his eldest daughter, Mary, and which was in turn, at her death, passed to her brother, William, who was a silversmith in Sunderland’s Holmeside (a street which still exists, and which is named after a family of farmers who used to bring their herds or flocks there in the eighteenth century, or earlier).
William did not outlive Mary very long. When he died in 1914, his second wife Ethel, generally thought of as unstable, and also the sister of William’s daughter May (work that out!), took the box. In it were objects and letters and artefacts which explained where the family had been in the seventeemth century. But Ethel, who really was unstable, and who died in an asylum in 1954, sold off all her possessions – or had them sold off for her – to meet the cost of the various places in which she lodged. So I half-hope that the lost box will magically turn up.
But what eBay threw up was a teapot.
It was in fact a teapot made by the silversmith I’ve just mentioned (there must be a fair number around, it was the kind of thing he sold). On the bottom of the teapot (silver plate) it says ‘W. Greenwell, Sunderland’. Which is my name, and place of birth. How could I resist that? I psyched myself up for the last minute bid – waiting for the last fifteen seconds to see off the other three bidders, who, it transpires, were not sitting glued to the screen in case the ‘You’ve been outbid’ message came up, but off enjoying themselves, or even asleep. All that tension for nothing! But now I have a cleap silver plated teapot to add to my possessions. I have nowhere to put it, but I am glad to own it.
‘What were you bidding on?’ asked my wife. I said it would be a surprise. She greeted its arrival with a desultory sigh, like air escaping from a camping mattress.