Monday, December 17, 2018

Attic Thoughts

Yesterday, I was inside an attic for the first time in my forty-one years of life. (Although I have to be honest and admit that I was once inside an attic converted into a bedroom. It hardly seems the same thing, though.)

I can't claim it was a life-changing experience. It was a fairly standard attic, with nothing in it except a water tank and some boxes of clothes.

All the same, it got me thinking about attics, and my life-long fascination with them.

My experience of attics so far has been confined to literature, films and TV. In these media, attics are always dusty, musty spaces full of memories; boxes full of old letters, photograph albums, magazines, toys and so forth. Characters are often confronted with their past or with their former or true self in them; for instance, through re-reading an old school essay which reminds them how idealistic they used to be.

I'm fascinated by many sorts of spaces; lobbies, corridors, foyers, store-rooms, bathrooms, and so forth. Common to these is the fact that people generally pass through them on the way to somewhere else, or don't linger in for long.

My interest in attics is quite specific, though. Attics are unique.

Attics are often places where people keep things they don't want to throw away but don't have any current use for, either. For instance, when I said there was nothing in the attic I went into except some boxes full of clothes, I may have made them seem more mundane than they are. The clothes belong to a dead person. Presumably this is why they were never thrown out, and yet put in a place where they will never be accessed.

Putting something in the attic signals closure, or giving up (the exercise bike in the attic), or losing interest, or even repression.

This is interesting to me for many reasons; but one reason is that it reminds me of the many different ways we relate to the past, another question that fascinates me. (Hey, lots of things fascinate me.)

You can be sure that, in the same house where there is an old poker table or fishing rods in the attic, there are framed photographs on the wall, or letters carefully kept in a biscuit tin in a chest of drawers, or some kind of memorabilia that are lovingly displayed or preserved, rather than shoved into storage.

In the same way, there are the memories we linger over, the ones we present to the world, and the ones we simply put away-- that we keep in the attic of the mind.

I've written several posts about the concept of the recent past on this blog. It's a concept that-- yes-- fascinates me, even if nobody else seems to share the fascination. This poem is probably the best of my musings on the subject.

The recent past is that period of time that has been simply put away. It's no longer the present, nor yet fully the past. There is something ghostly about it. There is no definite time limit for it, but I would generally place it at about ten to twenty years. I think this holds good for both societies and individuals. (For younger people, of course, there are differences of scale.) Nostalgia has not yet taken hold, nor has reassessment, but "the carnival has moved on", to draw on a deliciously poetic book title.

But that's almost incidental. The attic usually doesn't contain memories from the recent past, but from the more distant past. However, they share this characteristic with the recent past-- they are unregarded. They are not carefully put away, but rather unthinkingly put out of sight. Nearly every attic scene I've ever encountered involves a character rediscovering something in the attic which they were not looking for, which they come upon by accident. The encounter is not always welcome.

This seems quite symbolic of how we interact with our past-- again, both our individual past and our societal past. The memories we strive to preserve are not necessarily the memories that turn out to be the most important. The repressed returns. The forgotten is remembered. Memories and souvenirs we treasured turn out be less important than we expected them to be, or even inaccurate. The ones we shoved into the attic, or perhaps preserved through complete accident, often turn out to be more meaningful. The past is an enigma.

(An example of this is when an author who was not considered important to his or her contemporaries turns out to be far more important to posterity than the more popular or well-regarded authors of the day. Or, perhaps, a particular work that was not well-regarded, compared to the author's other works, seems far more important to posterity.)

Attics are also fascinating as spaces in themselves, aside from whatever might be kept there. Some years ago, I wrote a blog post about a library store-room where I was doing a lot of work, and this was my closing paragraph:

I've only been working in this room for a few weeks but I find it's rather haunting my imagination. Out-of-the-way and unregarded and purely functional places like this have a certain soulfulness to them. Boiler rooms, cellars, attics, warehouses, box rooms, changing rooms, post rooms...they're so unapologetic, so blunt, so uncomplicated. They cleanse and refresh the spirit-- or my spirit, anyway. And the silence they hold....well, I always find something in their silence that I can't find anywhere else. But I can't really describe it. Maybe I don't have to?

Sometimes I surprise people by admitting to a strong dislike for silence. I'm not being a contrarian-- I do genuinely dislike silence. At least, I dislike most forms of silence (especially theatrical and ostentatious silence, like pregnant pauses in films and drama).

But I like the silence of out-of-the-way spaces such as store-rooms or attics (especially when they are deepened by random noises such as the tapping or sighing of pipes). It is somehow less showy, less self-congratulatory, gentler. There is a great pleasure to finding oneself outside, back-stage, in a place which is hardly a place at all-- somehow it makes the drama of life going on around you, the life from which you have suspended yourself for a moment, all the more exciting.

(The title of this blog post is a reference to the book Attic Nights. I have always loved anything with the word "nights" or "days" in the title. Attic Nights was a title that had somehow floated into my consciousness without me knowing where I had heard it, or what it was. When I did look it up, I discovered it was a kind of almanac or commonplace book that an ancient Greek author had put together to pass the long winter nights in Attica. Funnily enough, it is somewhat appropriate to the theme of my blog post, since excerpts from many ancient authors are only preserved because of this book.)


  1. Very interesting thoughts. Unfortunately my attic is very small and cramped and only contains insulation.

    I actually prefer basements, because I like the feeling of being underground (in fact, I tend to mildly pretend that any windowless room is underground even when it isn’t.)

    Once, when I was in college and had a job on campus, I was given the task of cleaning out the office’s underground storage room. There were a lot of records which had been digitally archived, and I was to throw away the paper versions and clear out the binders and books they were kept in. It was an incredibly sad, engrossing, and time-consuming task, because I couldn’t stop myself from reading every record.

    1. That DOES sound incredibly sad! At least you knew the records were digitized, but throwing out their paper versions would be a melancholy task indeed.

      I like the feeling of being underground too-- but in moderation. I remember when I first went on the London Underground I thought it was all my dreams come true. After a few days I found it incredibly depressing, almost dystopian.