For the last twenty years I have been trying to convince my parents that the three boxes of old computer games and broken joysticks I’ve been keeping in a cupboard in their bedroom will one day become priceless artefacts of early man, like the cave paintings at Lascaux. It wasn’t until this year that I was vindicated: a pristine unopened copy of Super Mario Bros from 1985 sold at auction for two million dollars. Two million dollars. Imagine, I told them, the retirement villa on the shores of Lake Como I will buy you with the proceeds from the sale of my ultra-rare copy of Castles of Doctor Creep on floppy disk. My parents stood back in awe as I unveiled the dusty boxes, a yellowing Commodore 64, its plastic now the colour of a smoker’s fingernails. I tested the keys – crunchy with dead skin – then set about putting it all on eBay.
After a week of researching the rarity of each game, photographing the tatty boxes in natural light on a clean white tablecloth, I had earned £131. Enough for a budget flight to Como but not the villa. As I took the last package to the post office, my father applauded and my mother said: “This is wonderful news.” It took me a moment to realise that they were celebrating the moment when their thirty-nine-year old son finally moved all his crap out of their house.
At the bottom of one of the boxes – underneath the video games and an empty tin of Ghostbusters-themed Spaghetti Hoops from 1992 which I had hoped would become high value memorabilia – I found a plastic bag full of love letters, diaries, bad poems and notebooks. These are the kinds of items that mean too much to throw in the bin and yet you would never want to live in the same house as them, let alone reread them. I now understood why I had buried them here in my parents’ house. This was longterm toxic waste disposal.
All afternoon, I knelt on the floor of their room, picking through the debris, filling the air with ghosts. I found old school reports and a Year 7 class photo where I could clearly discern – in the horror of certain children’s eyes, their hunched shoulders and tight lips – those unlucky enough to have already been struck down by puberty. Scanning my classmates’ names, all the intricate networks of friendship and animosity came back to me, the people I loved and those I hated, and those who loved and hated me. I had a sudden rush of empathy for the boy who used to laugh at my eczema – who once wrote I hate scab-boy Joe Dunthorne on a store cupboard – when I saw that he was the first boy in our class to get acne.
I found a pile of ticket stubs in which I was able to trace my journey towards angst and self-importance – from Super Furry Animals to Placebo to Radiohead. Then there were the letters from my girlfriend during the year when she started studying PPE at Oxford and I went to Australia to work as a door-to-door salesman, convincing suburban business owners to change their landline provider. In retrospect, it’s amazing that she waited so long to break up with me. Reading her letters again, it’s clear she did try to help me understand what was coming but I was unable or unwilling to believe her. When she finally called to let me know that it was over I uttered the timeless words of the emotionally stunted: but… but… but… you can’t.
Finally, there were the diaries. I was never much of a diarist except at certain key moments when I decided that whatever was going on in my life was sufficiently formative that I had a responsibility to my future self to record it. For this reason, these notebooks made it seem as though my life from age twelve to twenty-two was one relentless stream of life-changing incidents: two break ups, one car crash, a six-date punk tour in a converted Royal Mail van, a modest mental breakdown in a Bengali seaside town. A decade of joy and pain compressed into fifty scrawled pages. A part of me perhaps imagined that the British Library would one day be storing these documents in a humidity-controlled environment so that PhD students could discuss how my shoplifting phase subsequently manifested in my poetry’s use of unattributed quotation. But no. The archivist hasn’t been in touch and when I told my father that I felt torn about whether to throw it all out – thus giving him a chance to say my boy, no! It must be retained for posterity! – he merely shrugged and said that perhaps I should throw it away bit by bit, so that it didn’t feel too final.
As I read back through the diaries, I realised the question was not whether I should bin them but why I hadn’t done so already. If Marie Kondo were here, I would tell her that they sparked no joy but shame in abundance, as well as confusion, regret and long periods of staring at the wall. They also sparked relief that I was no longer twenty years old and gratitude that it all took place in a time before Facebook. Even the entries that should have been worth keeping – the record of the time that my band supported an unknown group called the Arctic Monkeys, a night which I have subsequently worked up into a shapely anecdote – my diary revealed the sad truth that I’d been too wasted to watch any of the bands above us on the bill (which was all the bands). The diary offered just one piece of deep emotional insight: “had a post-gig pipe. Felt shitfaced.”
So I stood over the recycling bin and tossed the diaries in, one by one. Farewell, teenage Joe, you mean and self-righteous moralist! Farewell, early-twenties Joe, you paranoid and horny wreckhead! It is pleasant to think that one day soon – when these notebooks have been pulped, slurried, bleached and recycled into packing boxes – they might return to me in the form of an urgent next-day delivery of pull-up nappies for my one-year-old daughter, and that this will be perfect karmic justice.
Having disposed of the unflattering realities contained in my diaries, I hope to eventually view my younger self through the forgiving delusions of old age, telling my grandchildren that I played with the Arctic Monkeys once and what lovely boys they were. I knew from the moment I saw them that they would be famous. Me and that Alex really hit it off. All that remains is the question of what to do with the £131 I made on eBay. Technically, it should go to my parents for storage costs but, let’s be honest, they need it less than me, what with their pensions and their sensible attitudes to money. And anyway, I’m sure they would want me to put it towards something really worthwhile like, say, talk therapy or a new Nintendo.
Joe Dunthorne is the author of the novels Submarine and The Adulterants, and the recent poetry collection O Positive
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