The officer’s mess

Mack and Luka have a novel way of tidying up. The two free-lance journalists – Mack for Mackenzie Bowie (no relative), who has written for numerous French periodicals under various pseudonyms since she realised back in the nineties that her talent for frivolous, piquant but never spiteful gossip could be made to pay rather well and Luka Bonetti, a financial analyst turned ‘insider’ journalist for several B2B publications as well as the money pages of a major French daily – live in what was once a 16th century farmhouse in that district known as the Marais, which the city of Paris has gradually choked, swallowed and digested over a period of some four-hundred years, rather like a boa-constrictor, until all the juice is gone. The area, once a suburban home to the flower of France’s aristocracy who built their hôtels particuliers there, has passed though prosperity and poverty, opulence and dilapidation before its current, well-preserved role as museum district and haven of the arts was ushered in during the Presidency of de Gaulle by his culture minister at the time, André Malraux.

The Bonetti-Bowie house is an odd building, though not untypical for France. The bel étage (yes even a farmhouse occasionally had one of those when living almost cheek to jowl with palaces) and upper floor are domestic, the ground floor is strictly for storage and utilities. The sprawling old place also has a most commodious attic, or series of attics, of differing degrees of gloom. Why am I telling you all this? Well, Mack and Luka have birthdays which are only a few days apart. They generally use this fortunate proximity as an excuse to throw but one party a year … a rather large one, to which friends and colleagues and family are liberally invited on the “bring-a-bottle-or-plate-of-quiche-or-preferably-both” model.

The week prior to this annual party, which tradition has fixed on the first Saturday in April, regardless of when Easter may or may not be, is the setting for a ferocious bout of house cleaning and tidying. Because, like many of their ilk, and I’m referring to journalists, not their loving families, Mack and Luka are almost as pathologically untidy without as their minds are ordered within. And so, for seven days, regardless of whatever other deadlines have to be met, the two of them rush around with dusters and brooms and those feathery things for spiders’ webs, and the song of the vacuum cleaner is heard in the land. But ‘stage one’ of the Great Tidy, before nary a mop can be wielded in anger, is rather classic. I witnessed it myself one year and was struck by its efficacy and ruthlessness.

Each of them emerges from some part of the two domestic floors they occupy, carrying a pile of papers, magazines, brochures, bills, letters and general what-have-you that has been allowed to accumulate like driftwood on any available surface (all of which are required for the party) to place it on a small temporary, folding table on the landing. Picking up the first item from the pile and holding it for the other to see will elicit a lightning response of “up”, “down” or “file”; where “up” means relegate to the attic (old Xerox paper boxes stand ready) “down” means banish definitively for recycling (diverse bulging bags and boxes are stored downstairs in the ‘inutility’ room and taken to a city facility once a year), while “file” means stuff into a cupboard, out of sight out of mind, until enquired after, or most probably not.

I quizzed Luka on the good sense of this method, and he assured me that they have never once been seriously bothered by the loss of something vital, never once needed to retrieve an item from the attic or regretted throwing something out that might have been important and very seldom even looked into the various stuffed cupboards and compartments until they physically burst open and have to be subjected to another process of “up/down/file” triage just to slim them down.

The terrible, or sustaining and benevolent, moral behind this tale is that nothing that comes though your letter box or out of your printer or is thrust into your hand on the street or that you pick up at a gallery or a show-room, at a conference or a trade fair really matters very much. Don’t worry; bills, if mislaid, will always be re-sent. Upon that you can rely. Almost everything else is simply flotsam and jetsam, the wood pulp-based dross of life. And yet we gather and hoard and stack and file and box and archive and index and stock and shelve and log a staggering quantity of this stuff through which our descendants must at some future date wade for days.

Much of this bumph is unique in its kind, which defies its being indexed with anything else, and yet is somehow insufficient to qualify for its own category: an A5 booklet on Scandinavian wood-burning stoves, a brochure about earth-sinks and heat pumps, a twenty page monograph on black olives, an item on the etymology of the fools-cap paper format, how to restore a clay pizza oven, a description of the lead drain-spouts around Durham cathedral, an article on the origins of the hot-cross bun etc… All frightfully interesting, but life’s too short.

The late Lord Inchcape, who sat on the boards of numerous city companies and was fabulously wealthy in his own right, which is unusual among the gentry, had a novel way of dealing with paperwork, deadlines, unwelcome information, red-tape, verbose contracts, restraining clauses, the minutes of steering committees and suchlike: he would simply wait until his in-tray got unbearably full and then set fire to it. Apparently this in no wise affected his business success and nothing of any real import was ever delayed, mislaid or derailed by this alarming habit. He had unwittingly stumbled upon a truth no self-respecting civil servant wants us to unearth: paper is not as all-powerful and life-threatening as we are given to think.

While I was still a boy, uncle Haviland once took me to his officers’ mess. I found it scarily tidy. “These officers have SIMPLY NO IDEA of what constitutes a mess”, I thought, comparing it in my mind with my sisters’ bedrooms … Yet an acquaintance of mine is an officer of another kind; Public Relations Officer for a large institution. Her desk resembles a mountain range. There are surely many thousands of things upon it of which she can know absolutely nothing. The papers and brochures and CD-ROMS and presentation folders lie 50 centimetres deep across the entire surface. All communication has to be routed by the switchboard to her cell phone, even when she’s in her office, because her fixed-line telephone is so well-buried as to be inaudible. Yet she is a paragon of efficiency, never drops the ball, juggles half a dozen PR campaigns at once and always remembers people’s interests, birthdays, names of spouses and children etc. A colleague once put “restricted zone” striped tape around her desk, together with a sign saying that since the recent discovery of an Etruscan village, access was now exclusively reserved to archaeologists.

A few days ago I happened to drop by for a chance at lunch. She told me she now had a new office on the third floor. They’d installed an architectural draughtsman’s desk, the kind that slopes. It wasn’t a solution. Piles of stuff were beginning to climb the walls in the corners of the room instead. But at least the phone was available. I asked what had happened to the old mess. It all went into a skip and got carted off for recycling, she told me. It couldn’t have been important. Life still went on. No one had ever openly wondered whether she’d looked at, evaluated, considered, listened to or watched any of it. Yet budgets are drawn up and people are hired to create all this printed stuff; entire PR departments, just like her own. How hollow and frustrating such lives must be.

Mack and Luka’s party will be fantastic, as always. But up above, the ancient floors must creak under the strain of all that paper that is valued just enough not to be thrown out, but not enough to be referred to, not enough to be read, not enough to provoke any thought or action other than “up”, “down” or “file”: sad, but nonetheless … somehow liberating!

Edwin Drood

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