Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Quality of Stuff

This was going to be a comment on somebody else’s blog, but it ran away with itself.  As I’m inclined to do, too.

Robert Pirsig went mad trying to define the idea of ‘quality’, or so he claimed.  But he was a philosopher; I come at it from a more practical perspective.
The question is: why do we, or some of us, retain unmanageable quantities of objects which have no intrinsic or practical value?  It can’t just be inertia (although that plays a part, at least for me).  Certainly, I know that my attic contains at least a dozen items of redundant hi-fi equipment that just got dumped up there when upgrades took place; and I know that I can get rid of most of these (once I’ve recruited a willing helper to get them down from the loft – I’m not doing that on my own) by a wide variety of means.  But then I think about just one of them – a beautiful Technics turntable with a smoked Perspex lid and anodised aluminium bodywork – and its elegance is projected into my mind, even though I haven’t seen it for ten years and I know it doesn’t work.  This obviously has some aesthetic worth (it probably belongs in a design museum somewhere) – but that’s not where the quality resides.  That resides in what it did.
I have about 400 vinyl LPs in various boxes up in the third bedroom (aka the dustbowl).  And that’s not counting the other hundred or so in the sideboard down here.  Most of them are worthless, financially (although if anyone wants to make me an offer for a near-mint first pressing of ‘Led Zeppelin’, the one with the turquoise sleeve lettering, start bidding); many are musically too.  But they all, every single one, have this thing I’m calling ‘quality’.  So this afternoon I went up and plucked out just three, more or less at random.  Here they are, with what gives them quality, for me.
The Crusaders : Street Life.  Dancing to the title track with a girl called Victoria at a boring party in about 1984, when my divorce was blossoming.  I never saw her again.
Blood Sweat and Tears : Child Is Father To The Man.  1968, trying to persuade the horn section to play more like those guys.  A very intense drunken debate with all the enthusiasm on my side.
Little Feat : Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.  An inexplicable visit to a stoner friend of a friend somewhere in Surrey, desperate to take a puff but not allowed.
I could go on, but you’re asleep.  But you get my drift.  Every object contains quality, to the extent that it contains the past.  They are all, more or less, Madeleine cakes.


  1. Madeleines that never grow stale. Hold on to them, tread softly. If ever you don't need them, they won't matter any more.

    I wrote about some of my madeleines several years ago (and thank you for using the word, I did once to a friend and had to explain, which rather lost the point) - here -

  2. I have a pair of Leak 2060 speakers, totally shot inside, but housed in beautiful teak cabinets. They're currently sitting, one atop the other in the corner of a cupboard. Are they going to the tip? Are they, hell!

  3. Buy a barn and lots of glass display cabinets and create your own personal museum, maybe labelled with the quality you attach to the stuff, for posterity.

  4. I do like the idea of the museum. Derek Jarman did something similar with his garden, didn't he? As did Tracey Emin with her whole life. But frankly, I'm more inclined towards a great big skip. Now there's a thought ... Reserve a space for me at Tate Modern!