Unpacking my library, part 2, or Dante does Ikea

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sandro Botticelli, The Inferno: The Chart of Hell

There’s an annoying but inevitable corollary to unpacking one’s library: finding a place to put all the books. Though I’m grateful I didn’t have to deal with huge wooden packing crates as Walter Benjamin did, I also envy him not having to deal with the modern bibliophile’s torment: flatpack bookcases, the buying and the assembly of.

When I moved to London I decided that I would buy as much of my furniture second-hand as possible, an approach that has so far netted me an Edwardian wardrobe, a 1950s café table from Bruges and a handsome set of 1960s Polish bentwood café chairs. But with bookcases I quickly met my Waterloo. The old ones tend to be too big and too heavy for a small modern flat; buying someone’s old Ikea shelves would ultimately have been more trouble and expense than it was worth. No two ways about it, I was going to have to bite the bullet and take that dreaded trip to Ikea.

I’m sure I’m far from alone in feeling that a trip to Ikea is hell on earth. But… what if one viewed the whole experience through the lens of the Divine Comedy? I’m not sure it actually made it any more bearable, but interesting? Well, judge for yourselves (and try to ignore the sound of Dante turning in his grave)…

Inferno: The Dark Wood/The Gates of Hell

Sandro Botticelli, The Inferno: The Dark Wood

The way to Hell in the Inferno is through a dark wood inhabited by wild beasts. The way to Ikea is by bus then tram through Croydon, a dark wood (sans trees) populated by endless pound shops and fast food joints. There are probably places that are even more soulless, grimy and generally horrible, but I’m hard pressed to think of any. (Well actually, I can – Neasden, the home of North London’s Ikea, is every bit as bad. Coincidence? I think not.) For those who aren’t familiar with the place – if you think of London in terms of Los Angeles, Croydon would be the San Fernando Valley. Without the saving graces of mountains and taco shacks.

I alight from the bus and stand at the tram stop with a despondent-looking group of people who bear more than a passing resemblance to the dead awaiting the arrival of the ferry on the banks of the Acheron. Finally the tram arrives – it’s driverless, Charon has been made redundant – and we get on.

There’s no description of the crossing of the Acheron in the Inferno because Dante faints and only comes to on the other side. Since the stop for Ikea is only midway down the line, fainting is, unfortunately for me, not an option. So I step off the tram across the street from a massive car park (Limbo?) in the midst of which sits the dreaded blue-and-yellow box with, inexplicably, two huge, scary-looking old brick towers next to it that could well be one of Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’.

According to Dante, the inscription on the Gates of Hell is ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here’. The inscription here says ‘Welcome to Ikea Croydon’. Just as terrifying, somewhat more succinct.

Inferno: The Lustful

William Blake, The Circle of the Lustful

Several years ago Ikea ran an ad campaign with the tagline ‘One in ten Europeans were conceived in our beds’. One could quite plausibly argue that going to Ikea is the modern-day equivalent of the punishment of lust: rather than getting knifed by her jealous husband and condemned to be blown around in a whirlwind for all eternity, Paolo and Francesca would today be condemned to spend eternity trying to furnish a bedroom, accompanied by their toddlers who are perpetually on the brink of or in the midst of a meltdown.

Leaving lust and its results aside, the punishment itself accords eerily well with the general experience of the first floor of Ikea (=first circle of Hell). You try desperately to find the one or two pieces of furniture you set out to buy, only to be blown about by some invisible force beyond your control that wants you to stumble through room after room of total-look Ikea (Gesamt-Ikeawerk?) until you’re utterly disoriented and blearily scribbling down on your list another ten pieces you don’t actually need but have been duped into thinking you do (while you’ve meanwhile forgotten what exactly you came for in the first place).

By a massive effort of will (plus my very precise shopping list) I somehow manage to ferret out the three bookcases and two CD towers I wanted – not without getting lost a couple of times in the process and briefly fearing being trapped forever in a forest of furniture named after your hundred best Swedish friends.

I’m a little surprised that among the Billys, Ingos and Bennos I never find any Paolo chairs or Francesca tables.

Inferno: The Simoniacs

Sandro Botticelli, The Inferno: The Simoniacs

I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered anyone practicing simony at Ikea – or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s just that the punishment for it – being buried upside-down, feet in the air – seems like such an apt metaphor for how Ikea makes you feel.

Inferno: The Gluttons

Gustave Doré, Dante and Virgil among the Gluttons

Just when I don’t think I can face another piece of furniture, the café beckons like a false beacon of hope. The café is yet another example of the evil genius behind Ikea. Its main raison d’être isn’t so much to feed exhausted and frustrated shoppers as it is to prevent exhaustion and frustration from tipping over into homicidal rage. I’m pretty sure that if ever an Ikea were built without a café, the place would turn into a bloodbath in less than 24 hours’ time.

A sad little prawn sandwich summarily dispatched, I find myself tempted by an offer of chocolate truffle cake with a free coffee. Chocolate and coffee were unknown in 13th-century Florence, but I’m absolutely certain that if they had been available, Dante would have fortified himself appropriately for his journey and taken an ample supply for the road.

The cake is fridge-tasteless and has the consistency of a block of Styrofoam. The coffee might as well be warm water. It stands to reason that you can’t get decent coffee in Hell.

Inferno: The Evil Counsellors

Sandro Botticelli, The Inferno: The Evil Counsellors

Another well-known aspect of Ikea’s evil genius is its ability to induce you to walk out of the store with a million little things that you had no intention of buying when you arrived. However, I am going to beat them at their own game. I have come with the intention of buying one, and only ONE, little thing – a pair of egg cups. My flatmate in LA had some and I constantly found myself admiring the elegant design (yes, I know, elegance and Ikea aren’t concepts one normally thinks about together) and wishing I had some of my own. So, to the kitchenware department.

If only it were that simple. Finding the egg cups is like looking for a needle in a haystack – or maybe hay in a haystack, or a needle in a stack of needles. The arrangement of goods is so illogical (probably deliberately so) that I soon find myself wandering around in circles as if constantly led down false paths by will-o’-the-wisps, or rather the evil counsellors concealed in flames.

After what feels like an eternity of hunting, I’m in such a rotten mood that it would take one of two miracles to cheer me up:

  1. One of the angels from Wings of Desire coming to my rescue.
  2. Michael Fassbender appearing out of nowhere. (However, not an angel played by Michael Fassbender, that tends to end in tears and apocalypse.)*

Likelihood of either of these occurring: Nil. I’m now in an even worse mood.

…or not! I was standing in front of a shelf full of egg cups all along! Two of them go into my trolley, along with a packet of 100 tea lights. There is an unspoken rule that no matter how restrained you are with little impulse purchases, you are not, absolutely not, allowed to leave Ikea without buying tea lights. Maybe they’re meant to serve as a peace offering to Cerberus or the equivalent thereof. Don’t ask me.

Inferno: Caïna/Judecca/escape

Sandro Botticelli, The Inferno: The Treacherous to Country and The Treacherous to Guests and Hosts

I’ve (almost) made it to the end. All I have left to do is collect five flatpacks from the warehouse. And okay, it’s not the same as being stuck in ice up to one’s neck, but the warehouse IS cold and draughty and on the bottom level. I spend what seems an absurd amount of time trundling up and down the aisles with my trolley (even though I’ve written down the locations of everything I need), struggling with the smaller pieces and hunting for someone to help with the biggest bookcase. Actually, I feel much more like Sisyphus than anyone stuck in this particular circle…

Eventually I make it out, pay for my furniture (and egg cups and tea lights), hand the furniture over to the guy at the home delivery desk who helpfully tells me that it will arrive ‘sometime between 7 am and 7 pm tomorrow’ (um, thanks…) and make my escape. As I step blinking into the sunshine, I glance down at my watch.

Only two hours have passed since I arrived. Why did it feel like an eternity?

The return journey is exactly the same as the first – with the difference that I could almost cry with relief as the bus crawls up Anerley Hill and the Crystal Palace transmitter (aka the Eiffel Tower) suddenly appears in my field of vision.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle**, indeed.

Purgatory: The Proud

Sandro Botticelli, Purgatorio: The Proud

The suffering’s not quite over yet (i.e. I now have to unpack and assemble three bookcases and two CD towers), but at least there’s an end in sight and the promise of paradise. Also, unlike the souls in Dante’s Purgatory, I don’t have to deal with having my eyes sewn shut, breathing smoke or walking through flames – just the punishment of the proud, which is carrying heavy loads (I’m sure that if Dante were around today he would add flatpack furniture assembly to the punishment, since if the Divine Comedy is any indication he didn’t exactly suffer from a shortage of Schadenfreude). Oddly enough, it takes me seven days (= seven terraces of Purgatory) to get everything put together and all the books out of their boxes. I only manage to assemble one piece per evening (with two nights off) because when I get home from work I’m too busy watching Mad Men tired to do more. Even so, my dreams are haunted by allen keys, screwdrivers and a million little wooden dowels.

Paradise: The Empyrean (yes, I know, I skipped straight to the end)

Sandro Botticelli, Paradiso: The Empyrean

Boxes: collapsed and sitting in the recycling bank across the street. Tools: back in their box. Floor: swept of all that noxious particle-board and cardboard dust. But most important…

Books unpacked and on the shelves!

Would I be prepared to go through Ikea-hell and -purgatory again? Not anytime soon. Was it worth it?

Yes. Yes, it was.

*Why yes, I have just admitted to watching Hex. Just in case you thought I was relentlessly highbrow…

**‘And so we came forth and once again beheld the stars.’

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