Discover more from Them Fatale
A long read, make a cuppa.
My Mother nearly died last week. After 30 something hours of investigative dead-ends the doctors deduced, at the last salvageable second, that her appendix had ruptured. Being that this is a complaint which generally afflicts adolescents, it wasn’t anything they thought to check my 59 year old mother for, until really the very last moment. An hour or so later and, well, I’d be writing something very different today.
Dutiful daughter that I am, I have been visiting her this week, delivering florentines and poached salmon and all those anachronistic sick room treats which make the convalescent feel cared for, indulged, and at least a little like Princess Margaret. My mother lives in a place, undoubtedly once magnificent, a nineteenth-century townhouse with rooms of palatial dimensions, which has for the past century and a quarter fallen into almost uninhabitable degradation. When it was first build the gardens ran all the way down to the sea, today it sags opposite a Lidl, next door to an Esso, hemmed in by retirement flats and a disused bowling green. Grey Gardens is too kind of a comparison, it’s a sight you would more fittingly describe as Social Security Gothic.
Amidst it all sits my mother, propped up on her pillows like a Bourbon monarch after a particularly thorough bleeding, with several dogs, and several more children at the foot of the bed. She has been self-soothing watching a Marvel universe mini-series and insisting we all get started writing up our Christmas wish lists. As such I have had plenty of opportunity to slip away and amuse myself, in between jaunts to Marksies and trips up and down the stairs with cups of peppermint tea, if very few places to go. The town my mother lives in is sandwiched between two of Europe’s most deprived areas, skag crusted coastal towns which were once bustling ports and lively resorts. The full length of the seafront there grins like a gap-toothed skull, its grand hotels became care homes, then flop houses, then fell derelict, it is in all senses, the end of the line. The poverty is scary, the town somehow a Tory stronghold, a panic sets in whenever I’m home for more than twenty-four hours.
To distract myself, maybe, I decided that a good use of my time would be to sort through the boxes of charity shop frocks and Madonna memorabilia I left behind when I headed to the big smoke twenty-years ago. The presence of all this junk had begun to weigh heavy on my mind, like an overdue tax return, like a nagging irritation in one’s urethra, and the longer I left it the more paralayzing a problem it seemed to become. The volume and contents of what I left behind had morphed and multiplied in my imagination, until it became some El Dorado in the attic, one that I would have to complete untold challenges to ever reach again. Since the turn of the millennium it has lingered untroubled because I had never been able to muster up the strength of will to tackle it until this week. I can’t say whether it was the shock of the situation, or just a general maudlin streak in my own nature, my mother’s near miss with mortality, or her recent frequent threats to sell up and moving to Scotland (in all likelihood it was some meal deal combo of it all) but I was seized by a high-functioning nostalgic urge, a peppy rush, a feeling of it’s time, and so I set to it.
Though I had pictured unnavigable mountains of childhood treasure, troves of love letters, bank vaults full of fine Parisian silks and trunks of antique silver, what came out of the loft was altogether more prosaic. Several large stacks of queer theory textbooks, a carry-on full of vintage neck ties, and a modest selection of synth pop vinyls, the whole lot liberally dusted in two-decades worth of cobwebs and mouse poop (which also liberally dusted my youngest sibling and I as we sifted through).
“There’s much less than I thought,” I said, quizzical though admittedly relieved.
“There’s more,” my sibling said, off-hand, “Downstairs.”
Downstairs caught me like a chill, because, like an abandoned Venetian palazzo, the dilapidated family home is rotting from lo fondare up. Downstairs is rarely visited, the upper two floors are inhabited but Downstairs functions only as a Raucherraum for underage smokers, who puff away in the belief that they’re sufficiently concealed by the smell of damp and dogs, and as a repository for old bathroom suites, unused exercise equipment, and detritus permanently headed for a car boot sale. To realise my precious belongings had been relegated Downstairs was a little like being offered a preview of my own grave. I was extremely unhappy to hear it, but boldly descended all the same, sibling in hand, to see what time had done to my riches.
One suitcase had sealed itself completely shut, against the affronts of the world; the zipper resisted my sibling and I, putting up a very good fight only to finally give way with a groan, and a gust of the most noxious funk experienced since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. What might have once been clothes had rotted, what might have been papers or paintings had congealed into a poisonous dry mass, occasional sprouts of rusted jewellery and tarnished ephemera, studding the filthy cadaver of my adolescence.
There were also several cardboard boxes, beautifully packed I remember, full of magazines which I had collected, hundreds of them. Vogue, Elle, Rolling Stone, Harpers’ and MixMag, the cover of each and every one graced by Madonna, though the damp had turned my neat columns of fandom into yellowed concertinas, with each magazine fused by fungus to the next.
I also found thirty of forty VHS tapes labelled Madonna on Wogan, Madonna CD:UK 1999, Grammys 2001, hours and hours, days and days of news clips and chat show appearances that I had stayed up late to video tape for posterity, so my future self would be guaranteed 24/7 access to every media appearance Madge made on British TV in the dying days of the 20th Century. We also dug up two more suitcases of newspapers, yellowed and largely shredded by mice, whose surviving cover stories told of Madonna’s pregnancies, marriage and divorce, her late period movie flops and disco hits, and which crumbled as we handled them. (I really was fixated with Madonna, I don’t think I need to underscore that, though maybe there’s a whole ‘nother piece in this fixation).
It was an archive of a sort, not of my own life, but yes of my own life, and I think I kept it all these years because I laboured under the egregious belief that one day it would be useful, meaningful, illuminating. That maybe scholars would say, “Ah yes, when we consult the archives we can see what made them the artist and writer they were! Really it’s all here, the wit, the pathos, the megalomania, all clearly seen on Tape 32: Jonathan Ross 1998.”
The hubris of it all.
This recognised arrogance, as much as the corrupted state of the material, prompted me to toss the whole lot into the trash, before any new impulse to preserve overcame me, and the cinematheque worth of teenage dreams was in a wheelie bin before I could even explain to my sibling what a VHS tape was. I have to admit that I felt quite awash with despair, looking through it all, carrying bin bag after bin bag to the recycling, thinking, “Is this the sum total of my life?” Heaving my body weight in tabloid newspapers out onto the street, I felt a little like my own grandchild, my own great-niece, tossing out all the remaining garbage before the estate agent came over to value the property, and nodding to herself with a smile, “Well they always were a funny old thing, God bless their soul.”
My mother had come close to dying, but she was now happily medicated upstairs, scarfing fruit salad and talking to the television, whilst I found myself knee-deep in mildewed despondence asking, “Is that all there is?” To call it an existential crisis might seem a little pretentious, but I think by now you know with whom you are dealing, and besides I can’t think of a better way to express the void of meaninglessness that opened up before me. This is what a week spent in death’s waiting room will do to one.
I myself can hardly bear to throw away Christmas cards from casual acquaintances, Boopie has to make trips undercover of darkness to bin countless old chocolate boxes and cinema tickets which, left to my own devices, I would clutter every corner of the house with, so to see the gold I had left in my mother’s care reduced to this fetid, sodden mangle was something close to heartbreaking. It didn't seem that this is how you would take care of the belongings of someone you loved, it seemed like wilful neglect.
Every nana who spends her life crocheting floral knick-knacks for her coffee tables, every collector of erotic art, every amateur ceramicist and hoarder of Cliff Richard collectables dies, perhaps feeling they have lived a full life, only to be dumped into the ground along with all the love, the genuine love, they poured out on the objects of their affection. Because nobody can love what you love with the love you have loved with, everything that delighted and obsessed you will seem pointless, and even a little grotesque to those who survive you, and there is nothing to be done to prevent this. Your children will not want this trash, charity shops won’t be able to shift it, and the V&A certainly do not have the inclination to accept it, best to pulp it all now, best to never start up with it to begin with.
I came close to losing my mother, no pristine copy of Vogue Italia or still box fresh Pat Fields pumps would have consoled me for that. If anything their survival would have mocked me, looking at the putrescent residues of my teenage obsessions, in light of my mother’s semi-miraculous recovery, was akin to unveiling the portrait of Dorian Gray, only executed in decayed leather and corroded videotape, a gruesome opportunity to reflect.
Something of the joy of record collecting did swell up as I picked through the remains, and some wordless feeling of having laid a loved one to rest descended. It was a little like putting my affairs in order, relieving those who survived me of this particularly odious task, and at the same time it offered an unexpected chance to see myself at sixteen and say, “Well kid, I guess it all worked out.” I was sorry to consign so much to landfill, but glad to have overcome this particular delusion that any of this could be upcycled into an fine art installation - I knew full well I would only ever delay that trip to the tip. I felt a strange calm joy in finally accepting that this all belonged to the past, and that the past is long gone, I felt I had severed a restrictive bond with times bygone which had kept me more fettered than I knew. I felt able to laugh at my own ego and folly. Looking at that heap of junk which I had hoarded for so long I could’ve been a jollier Callas at the close of Pasolini’s Medea, chuckling rather than cursing, "It is useless! Nothing is possible anymore!” and meaning it.
Truly nothing survives, but some quarter century old pleasure did flutter about my head as I remembered skipping school and running out to buy Ray of Light, some echo of a giggle heard leafing through the Rolling Stone Summer ’98 Double Issue (with full colour portfolio by David LaChapelle). Kicking through the dust and the tattered, desiccated waste, I almost felt reassured that ultimately this is where everything and everyone is headed, everything sort of came into focus, and into perspective, and I acknowledged that truly, nothing survives but hey, at least my mother made it home from hospital.