On the ceiling, above the hall, there is a door just big enough to shimmy your shoulders through. It lies locked and untouched for all but two days a year when my father ventures into the attic to retrieve and then put back our Christmas decorations.
For the other 363 days, the attic lies undisturbed. Aside from the aforementioned decorations, who knew what lurked inside its hidden depths? Perhaps, a la Hitchcock, a hoard of angry birds perch there, waiting to flock at any who dares disturb them. Or perhaps those who dare venture up the rickety ladder out the festive period are greeted by Mr Rochester’s first wife, grasped in the arms of insanity — yes, that seems more plausible.
Having already finished Tiger King, ventured outside for my state-sanctioned daily walk, and succumbed to downloading Tik Tok, it seemed like there was little else left for me to do but to be the one to make the treacherous journey into the attic and slay whatever beast lay there. I may have had an IR essay to write, but alas, it would have to wait, for the attic was calling. Like Woolf to water, I was being drawn towards the alluring call of the attic door: “frightening and excited in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is”.
To my relief, there was no Mrs Rochester. Instead, I was greeted by wooden beams and insulation illuminated by an exposed lightbulb dangling from the roof. For the rest of the afternoon, I hauled out box after box, an organised chaos of photographs and letters, nestled amongst a plethora of books acquired by long-gone relatives and a spear used as exhibit A in a murder trial in Sudan. I found objects that held stories that I couldn’t have imagined and rediscovered ones that I’d forgotten and, in an effort to implore you too to take advantage of our housebound situation and adventure into the hidden stories that your own walls hold, I’ve decided to share the highlights of my finds:
Fear and Loathing in My Attic
I was somewhere around the centre of my attic, but there were no drugs to take hold — or maybe that’s a lie. The dictionary defines a drug as “a substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body”, so if the nostalgia that flooded my mind when the neon cover Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tumbled out of an upturned box counts as a drug then maybe they were beginning to take hold.
I first read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in the summer before my final year of high school, the year in which I would apply to St Andrews. It was like nothing I’d ever read before. It made me want to be a journalist by showing me what journalism could be. Thompson had carved out his own form of reportage — Gonzo journalism — far removed from the “churn-alism” of re-worded press releases. Hunter’s articles transport their reader: I was there, I was part of the unfolding action, not just a spectator.
Maybe it’s clichéd to say that a book changed my life, but clichés are clichés for a reason, and as I stood in my attic flicking through the book’s well-thumbed pages, I still found it reaching out to me: “Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.” To me, the words felt like they were offering something rather profound: an encapsulation of what it felt like to exist in our little corner of North East Fife. Maybe it was just the rambling of a man 5 days into a mescaline binge.
I owe this book a lot: I’m not sure I would be pursuing journalism or have ended up at St Andrews without it. So, Fear and Loathing, I’m sorry that somehow you ended up in the attic: perhaps I should frame you, or at least return you to your former place of glory on the bookshelf.
An Ungodly Amount of Stuff from the Soviet Union
If it were a Godly amount of stuff that I stumbled across, it probably wouldn’t have been as fitting given the Soviet penchant for atheism.
“We should open a museum,” I shouted down to my dad, who sat perusing the Sunday paper, tea in hand. It was hard to equate the man who wanted to bubble wrap me as a child with the image of the 80s art student that was beginning to emerge: a student who, when given a grant to travel Europe, asked instead if he could use it to travel to communist China, with no guarantee that he would even get into the country when he showed up at the border. Armed with a hefty total of three phrases in mandarin, a map, and just a dash of foolhardiness, he had collected what was now strewn across our attic whilst travelling solo across the nation. Subsequent travels throught the Soviet Union boosted the collection: propaganda from Soviet Azerbaijan, a Mao suit, and a copy of Pravda to name but a few. If it were up to me, these relics would be on a display around our house, but minimalism is all the interior design rage, or so my mother informs me.
It’s easy to forget that my parents weren’t always “boomers”, interested in things like wine tasting and Great Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo. They too had once been students like you and me. They had had their own adventures and lives before us (shocking to discover, truly). Up amongst the pages of propaganda and literature, holed away, I hadn’t just got a glimpse into what life was like under by-gone regimes, I’d also caught a coup d’oeil at a side of my parents that too had been relegated to the attic.
A Letter from Dominic
Amongst postcards of the Kremlin and maps of the USSR, perhaps the most intriguing piece of paper was a mint green letter addressed to my father. It was signed “Dominic”. Dominic, I surmised, was a Belgian student who’d arrived at Edinburgh College of Art bespectacled with John Lennon glasses and on motorbike: all in all, he was described as a “funny guy” by my father — he has a way with words.
It was the Cold War and the letter explained that he was writing to my father in Russia to inform him that he had been drafted into the Belgian forces and was being deployed to guard some US missiles. But mainly he was writing because he was bitter about it: sprawled next to the scrawling handwriting was a map of where the missiles were being stored with watch towers marked out. “Give this to the commies,” it read underneath.
“Do you know where he is now?” I asked.
“No,” replied my dad.
I can’t fathom losing contact with the friends I’ve made over my first two year at St Andrews, and I hope I never do, but I suppose that sometimes friendships fade to mere memories. (On that note: Dear friends, don’t be surprised if you find at your door over the coming weeks a physical memento of our friendship that can never to be lost to “the cloud” — although my letters may contain significantly fewer military secrets). The thought makes me value what I have now even more and wonder where life will have lead me in forty years’ time. Wherever it may be, I hope that it involves the friendships I’ve forged in our quaint coastal town.
When I emerged from the attic, found treasures in tow, I was astonished as to how I’d managed to live in a house for almost twenty years and never thought to explore the very place I inhabited. It took being house bound to open my eyes to what has been right in front of me – well, above me, if we’re being pedantic – and in the process I reconnected with parts of me that I had forgotten and discovered parts of my family that I never knew. So, for those of you who find yourself edging ever closer to a Yellow Wallpaper episode and would like to delay it, at least by an afternoon or so, I encourage you too, to explore the hidden treasures of your home.