New rooms, old tat, and the Law of Diminishing Merit

For two and a half years the upstairs section of our house was like a Lego set with several key pieces missing. Absent windows, six-inch gaps under the eaves, and a side wall with a hole big enough to admit a small Zeppelin. When, at last, we sealed the gaps and separated the more ruinous section from the rest of the building via internal walls, it made a huge difference to the house’s ability to retain heat.

That’s stating the stupefyingly obvious, but it just shows how you can become accustomed to grim environments. When there are holes in the building and it’s minus 10 outside, you gather firewood and thermals. When you’ve done that a few times, it becomes normal. It’s like not bothering to replace horrors such as 1970s’ fireplaces, broken toilet seats and crazy paving. Once you get used to them, you ignore them. It’s only when guests notice these things – or, in our case, say “F-k me, it’s freezing in here!” – that the anomalies nudge at your consciousness again.

Saffy surprised by the newly warm winter

For us there has been a definite upside to this acclimatization, as we’re now as toughened and weatherproof as Bear Grylls’ leotard. The merest tweak of the central heating has us reaching for shorts and sun loungers. Our guests wryly comment on our parsimonious approach to heating bills, or our impressive commitment to cutting our carbon footprint. But those are merely consequences of the fact that three layers instead of two pretty much conquers winter indoors. Cold guests are the collateral damage.

Anyway, with the house sealed from the elements upstairs, we’ve finally plunged in with more building work. In the space of a single afternoon in the second week of December three new rooms took shape, pink blushing plasterboards staking claim to what had previously been nothing but potential. A big upstairs bathroom, a bolt hole for Magda, and a space that will no doubt become Saffy the dog’s bedroom until we turf her out on the pretext of a better plan. As a byproduct of this we also have a dark corridor, currently lacking a back wall and thus allowing a plummet to certain death down the stairwell, should anyone misplace their footing when venturing out for a midnight wee. This led to the hopefully unique note in the work diary: “Do something about corridor death trap”.

It’s oddly reassuring to have the building noise and dust back. The vibrato-roar of drill and saw, the shouting of workmen over the din, the tin can rattle of the radio, the frustrated scuffling of the dogs, (who are itching to get involved in the building work – particularly the poorly-guarded workmen’s lunch of beer, bread and salami – but have been banished to the garden). When I open my laptop there’s a patina of dust inside, enabling me to finger-write inspirational words such as ‘bollocks’ in the space between keyboard and screen. Dust-choked guitars have the ring and clarity you would expect from strings unearthed at Pompeii. Handkerchiefs bear silent witness to the untiring efforts of the human nasal cavities in the face of fine particulates. Sandwiches taste of plaster (but that might just be the rubbery dairy product that passes for cheese in these parts).

We’re having a new stove built this week, too. Two and a half years after the stove builder first said “I’ve got a gap in my diary next week”. On the far side of a couple of beers I like to talk about impressive delays, and this is already one of my favourites (although it doesn’t come close to the ongoing delay in refurbishing my old Appalachian dulcimer. My friend Pod Pearson took on the job with the words “It’ll be ready Thursday”. That was in 1991).

Christmas comes early

We had an early Christmas on the weekend, unpacking several of our Oxford boxes that had spent the last two and a half years getting damp in an abandoned pub on the other side of the village. Old treasures came to light, but many of them went straight into the boxes destined for the junk shop. It was so surprising how much of this old stuff we simply didn’t need/want/like any more, that I’ve invented a Law of Diminishing Merit. Anyone moving premises would do well to observe this law (and I should know – this last move was my 28th).

The joy of old gravy boats

In brief, anything placed in a box begins to lose its merit, and the longer it’s boxed, the more merit it sheds. The contents of the first boxes you open after moving house caress your fingers like old friends. That’s why kettles, mugs and tea – usually the first things to emerge – remain so popular. Less essential items such as books may languish for a few days before being allowed onto the new shelves. You’ll notice that those prized tomes seem somehow less essential than you remembered. The box that stays sealed until you find somewhere for its contents to go will lose much of its merit during the interlude, and it’s always wise to have the junkshop box in the vicinity.

When the delay has lasted a couple of years, there’s hardly any merit left in those boxes at all. DVDs? Nah. CDs? What’s the point when you can stream? Old festival programmes and stray magazines? Not even worth putting in the junkshop box. And so it goes on – kitchenware, hangings, ornaments, books. Who needs these merit-free fripperies? And it was even more extreme for poor Jan – those books he’d stashed away as a just-turned-13-year old are anathema to someone pushing 16, so we ran them past 11-year-old Theo, en route to the junkshop box.

There is, however, in inverse law at play too. If you pack utilitarian things in a box and then leave them for someone else to sort out, the merit will actually have grown in inverse proportion to the lost merit from your own opened boxes. If you see what I mean.

So, Magda and I spent our early Christmas opening boxes abandoned by our predecessors between the 1950s and 80s; and we unwrapped some wonderful and meritorious presents. A swirly gravy boat stamped ‘Made in Silesia’? Yes please. Plain white mugs with that timeless Communist look? The more the merrier. Gnarled old forks that were looking a bit old-fashioned at the last gasp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Can’t get enough. And so it went on… old vinyl 78s of Hungarian brass bands; 70s Wild West graphic novels in which cowboys drawl in colloquial Czech; a faded portrait of Mary of the Immaculate Heart – yes, yes, and yes again.

Our Lady of the Immaculate Pineapple and 50s' Tinware

There aren’t any junk shops – or even antique shops – nearby. So, perhaps our own Items of Diminished Merit will become someone else’s treasure, in some distant age after the cold, dust and debt have driven us from gravy boat to grave.

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