Is there a saint to help you move house? It has to be St Joseph – the Carpenter – to whom all domestic and homely matters are entrusted. (In America, people trying to sell their homes, or even seeking a new one, bury a statue of St Joseph in the garden.) But, as I am in the throes of house-moving right now, I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t St Jude (patron of hopeless cases) or St Dympna (patroness of the mentally disturbed) to whom I should be entrusting my case.
It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that I am tearing my hair out as I write, surrounded by a jumble of boxes, suitcases, half-labelled bags and bookcases half-cleared. It is total chaos. And I’m not normally one to be upset by a bit of chaos.
Then the words, so often reiterated at my convent school, return to me: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” I found obsessive tidiness a rather small-minded virtue when young, but now I see the point of having a place for everything, and each thing in its place. (Teachers, don’t despair: something always remains of what you impart.) But the place-for-everything principle is a much deeper idea than it seems. For it is not just about petty tidiness: it is about the essence of category.
It was my son Patrick who explained to me the work of the French structuralist writer Michel Foucault. It is all about category. Everything in life is about category.
As I pack up the boxes and label the bags I try to put this idea into practice: what is the category of this object? Where is its place? If books and papers can go into boxes marked with their own categories, then, surely I’ll know where everything is when it comes to unpacking and disassembling?
The principle of “a place for everything, and everything in its place” is actually a Foucaultian principle of category. A car key belongs on the rack for keys. Your reading glasses belong on the special ledge for specs. The aspirin belong in the pill drawer. Your bag should always be hung up on the same hook. If you place everything in its place, you will always be able to find it, and you won’t be going around the house lamenting “I’ve lost the car keys!” and “What did I do with my bag?” This becomes even more important with age. Think category.
All filing systems and index cards (or their electronic equivalent) are based on category. All archives are built up on references and categories. Because, if you can’t remember where you put your tax papers, you might as well not have them. If they are not in the right category it’s the proverbial needle in a haystack. That’s the point of “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. (And by the way, it is fatal to change category: leave something where it was always placed.) I try to repeat all this wisdom to myself, as I pack and label, wondering whether I will need St Joseph or St Dympna at the end of the day.
Kind friends and neighbours advise, as the pandemonium mounts, that this is a good time to throw out a lot of stuff. I couldn’t agree less. I think it hugely regrettable that people throw away old family letters, and indeed, old garments which may one day become antiques.
Family letters and papers are the very stuff of social history. Nothing brings the past alive like a letter: it is not rubbish to be chucked out – it is an archive.
Don’t bin it, categorise it.
But I still may need the minis trations of St Dympna to stop me going demented.
PS The Catholic Church and the Catholic media PS The Catholic Church and the Catholic media thoroughly condemned and denounced the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago, in August 1945.
It was described as a totally unjustifiable attack on human life, and quite outside the rules of the just war. Nagasaki was the centre of Catholicism in Japan, so perhaps it was particularly keenly felt.
One cannot but agree that it was a terrible event. And yet I have to report that, when I worked for the Daily Express and referred to the Japanese, I received boxloads of letters telling me that I did not understand how cruel and pitiless the Japanese had been towards their prisoners of war; and how those POWs rejoiced at the dropping of the A-bomb – rejoiced to see Japan punished at last.
In this, I do not judge: I merely report.