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Beneath our feet

Tom Ray

The house in which I grew up rested firmly on the ground. If you took up one of the downstairs floorboards, you would see the solid earth. This was reassuring. Since then, I have lived in several houses where we had nothing solid under out feet. Pulling up floorboards would reveal nothing but a dark chasm waiting to swallow us up — a basement.

In medieval times the basement was the dungeon where you buried and forgot about your political enemies. Now it serves as a kind of a Freudian subconscious, where we hide all the things we cannot bear to deal with and don’t want to remember right now, or ever. It’s always a mistake to go poking around down there.

Basements worry me. I could have lived in high-rise apartments, but the sense of being suspended in space at the mercy of a whimsical architect and a still more whimsical builder is worse than being suspended over a basement.

The first basement I remember was in a rented 18th century house in a small English village. It was entered by a trapdoor leading down a rickety ladder into a dark and dirty space with crumbling brick walls which gave no confidence that they would hold up the house. It was close to a river and therefore damp. Creatures had multiplied down there, but it was too dark to see what they were. The only use we found for that basement was maturing homemade wine, but nobody wanted to venture down there to get a bottle, which may at least have saved us from alcoholism.

All my basement experiences since then have been much the same: dark, damp, claustrophobic, strange and adventurous wildlife, and piles and piles of stuff that I don’t or would rather not recognize as being mine.

The problem with basements is precisely that they are dark places where you are tempted to preserve things. Some people, like me, are dedicated to conservation. I never throw anything away: old cardboard boxes, broken mousetraps, dead radio sets — they may all come in useful one day. So, they end up in the basement.

This subject is on my mind because my wife is bravely trying to clear out our current basement, which is large and well-filled with stuff. There are unread books, broken toys, discarded files, unloved gifts and unfinished projects. It is a rich reservoir of memory, guilt, regret and amnesia going back thirty years

So it’s not just stuff, it is an authentic social history, a museum of the last three decades of our lives. As the process of purification moves forward, I feel impelled to point out that archaeologists never discard any artifacts found during a dig that might throw some light on a past civilization and that this layer of what appears to be junk will be a rich trove of historical data for future researchers. But intellectual arguments have no force when it comes to basement cleaning.

It would be physically impossible for us to haul all these objects up into the daylight for a yard sale. It’s amazing how we got them all down there in the first place. But, even if we did raise them up to ground level, who would want them?

Frankly, the best place for most of this stuff is right down there in the basement where it is now, waiting for the next homeowner. Basements and their contents should come with the house, like major appliances or the garden and its plants, a treasure trove of the unexpected, passed on from family to family and generation to generation, as much a part of the character of the house as its architecture and location. Not junk, but history.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.