The Good Shelf

or: when did everyone suddenly get a Masters in Interior Design

I grew up in a house with one good room in it. We called this room ‘The Good Room’. Maybe it was called something different in your house. Maybe you called it the Living Room, despite there being no actual living done in it. Maybe you called it The Lounge, despite there being none of that in it either. Sometimes the Good Room isn’t a second living room but the actual living room, and the family do all their living in the kitchen. Regardless of what kind of room it is, you know right away when you’ve walked into someone’s Good Room. There’s a profound sense of airless quiet that pervades the atmosphere. An instant recognition that that the cushions in front of you, while plush and plump as summer berries, have never been lovingly and painstakingly filled with the farts only the real living room is familiar with. I am thirty this year. For the first half of my life, when I entered a friend’s home I was immediately dispatched into the real living room with a packet of Space Raiders and a copy of Crash Bandicoot for the PS One. For the second half, I have been ushered into the Good Room by someone’s house-proud mother, despite their children protesting ‘but Mum, we never go in here’. 

These women had Good Rooms because they were of a generation where it was both expected and likely that people might visit with little or no notice. Parties for the neighbours; an uncle, not seen for years, but was ‘just passing through’ and thought he’d drop in; a husband’s colleague and his wife. Good crockery was saved for the Good Room, and you would tease your mother about it. ‘Who are you saving this for – the Pope?’

‘Yes,’ she would invariably, exhaustedly respond. ‘The Pope.’

My mother had a Good Room, and her mother had a Good Room, and I have a Good Shelf.  My Good Shelf, however, is not for a specific cast of likely guests, but a huge cast of unlikely ones. Instagram, which has been blamed variously for the eating disorders, depleted bank balances and shonky mental health of an entire generation, has never truly bothered me. I have it; I use it; I think ‘good for her’, like, and move on. The only discernible way it has affected me is the creation of the Good Shelf. The Good Shelf is a table in my room that holds the following items: a lamp; a glass terrarium filled with plants; a giant hand that is used to teach palm reading; a print by Mr Bingo; an antique pharmacy bottle filled with cod liver oil capsules that light up gold in the sun. The Good Shelf is seasonal; at Christmas, the terrarium is filled with fairy lights and pine branches. Cards at my birthday, tulips in spring. I love The Good Shelf. The Good Shelf has appeared on social media often, where I have repeated at least two, possibly even all four, of the descriptors that, I believe, makes the Good Shelf cool. “It’s Mr Bingo”/ “it’s an antique” / “it’s for palm reading” / “it’s cod liver oil”. 

I should state that the rest of my house is a shit show. I have a dog that sheds constantly. Half of the blinds in my house don’t go up all the way. The shower ‘has a trick to it’. None of the doors close properly because there are always things hanging off them: a bag for life filled with recycling on a door handle, a bed sheet drying. Don’t get me started on the fucking drying. Like most people, my storage solution to having too many clothes is to keep them on a constant wash cycle, which means I am on a constant dry cycle. The clothes horse is always up, braying and nudging me for a Polo mint whenever I try to get a cereal bowl. 

“It’s fine,” a friend will say, when I complain. “Your house is fine?” 

My house is fine. Or, it would be, if I weren’t so keenly aware of the existence of other houses, belonging to women I actually know, winking at me on their Instagram stories. I can’t even say, ‘well, she can do that because she’s richer than me’, because I know we earn about the same – she just has the patience and the creativity and wherewithal to spend a Sunday afternoon making a statement wall in her rental flat. (Looking at you, Alexandra Haddow) I know that at least some people also have a Good Shelf, a tiny altar of artistry and balance that they show to the world while the rest of the house is, comparatively, dankness and decay. 

Jerry Seinfeld once said that all men think they’re funny, and all women think they have excellent taste. But someone has to have bad taste, and that person, I think, is probably me. I have no taste. No natural sense of balance, no instinct to think: if I pair these bar stools with this oak table, and paint that wall navy, and put this moth-grey sofa against it. I have no taste and I covet those who have it. Will’s Mum in His Dark Materials: why is her house so nice? Cassie Delaney in Dublin Murders: why is her house so nice? I am Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally, confused about why his wagon wheel table is so apparently abhorrent. To tell you the truth, I still don’t understand why the wagon wheel table was so abhorrent. 

A friend recently told me that she knew she was a grown-up when her friends started announcing that they were pregnant and that they were keeping it. “When did everyone start wanting babies?” she asked. I feel the same way, but about living rooms. When did being house proud become cool? I thought we were still at the novelty mug phase? No? When did nice homes stop being a thing only famous people and Mums had? 

I’m lucky, at least, in that I have Gavin, who is an artist and understands what is wrong with wagon wheel tables. He is the one who told me what Mr Bingo is. He has excellent taste. And I am funny. 

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