The Shopping Trolley of Lurve

I live in a very small house. Of course, lots of London houses are small, but this one is a cottage. I don't mean a cottage as the term is used by estate agents -- a small terraced house exactly like every other in the terrace -- but a proper cottage, of the sort that looks as if it might well be made out of gingerbread, and should be home to Granny Weatherwax or some similar. For those of you who do not have a passing acquaintance with Walthamstow, it is not exactly known for having cottages. Nevertheless, as you walk down this rather ordinary terraced street, you suddenly come to a gap in the terrace. And there, nestled between two clumps of urban threeuptwodowns, are a pair of semi-detached cottages, of which we live in the right-hand one. It's almost reminiscent of living somewhere much nicer, or at least, it would be if it wasn't quite so ramshackle, hadn't been extended in 1970 in an unsympathetic style, and wasn't being gradually buried under a variety of aggressive hedging plants.

The one piece of home improvement that was done to this house by the previous owner was the installation of high quality double glazing. However, this means that you can no longer open the windows fully. The house was designed so that opening the windows wide afforded a method of getting large pieces of furniture into the house. Now that this is no longer possible, there is no way to get anything larger than a smallish sofa into this house, and Steven only got the smallish sofa in by taking the door off its hinges. Taking things upstairs is even worse. The staircase is roughly as narrow and as turned as the staircase on a double decker bus. Doesn't move quite so alarmingly, though, other than on Friday nights. The next door neighbours seem to have the same problem; many is the time we've woken up in the dead of night to the sound of someone falling downstairs.

As a result of the house's tricky layout, we've furnished the entire place with flatpack furniture. This means that we've spent innumerable happy hours intrepidly scouring the North Circular for suitable items, and invariably ending up at IKEA. Meanwhile, IKEA has become a national running joke. It's no longer possible to pick up a house delightful magazine or a Sunday supplement without seeing an array of bizarre Swedish kitchen implements, or an article by somebody who despairs that they're the only person left in London who doesn't spend their Sunday afternoons pushing the shopping trolley of lurve round IKEA. IKEA tales are second only to 'The Day I Met Eric Cantona' for their usefulness at random dinner parties.

Nevertheless, we keep going back. This might be because IKEA furniture is generally well designed and stays together well, with a few astonishingly naff exceptions at the cheaper end of the range. It might be because the furniture is made of real lumps of wood, and some of it is quite suitable for a cottage. It might be because IKEA advertises at length that its furniture is extremely straightforward to put together, requiring no tools other than your friendly IKEA allen key. It might be because in addition to furniture, IKEA also sells an astonishing range of stuffed moose. Or it might be because we're both addicted to Swedish meatballs.

It certainly isn't because the furniture is really easy to assemble. All IKEA furniture requires an assortment of tools to put it together, usually including at least one tool you don't actually own. The astonishing thing is that this often happens even when you're buying a second piece of furniture to match one you own already. Also, I sometimes have fevered imaginings that IKEA is actually a front for the Campaign for Real Woodwork, which uses non-violent means to teach people traditional crafts. Every piece of IKEA flatpack furniture has one stage in its construction that is (a) not explained anywhere in the instructions, and (b) tricky. Not to mention little hassles like the holes in one piece of wood not matching the holes in the other piece of wood. I'm not always very non-violent after a bit of this.

So, how much IKEA furniture do Alison and Steven have? Oh, I don't know. A bed, two bedside cabinets, a chest of drawers, a mirror, a wardrobe, a desk, an armchair, two dining chairs, two 'kitchen sofas', of which more later, a sofa, a coffee table, some CD racks, an assortment of kitchen cupboards. Oh yes, and eight sets of bookshelves.

Personally, we prefer to indulge our habit on weekday evenings, as it's so crowded on a Sunday. Nevertheless, if we happen to be in the area we're often drawn to the place. So there we were, on a Sunday, in the middle of a vast sea of people, fighting to pick up the little sheet of paper that gives you the right to buy a piece of furniture. Eventually, having gained our prize, we headed for the exit. I gazed, unbelieving, at the checkout queues stretching off to the horizon. We were demoralised. We thought about leaving and not buying anything, but a little furtive investigation showed that all the people who were queueing all through the self-service area and back into the pot plants had trolleys. IKEA doesn't have a single queue system, so there were queues at the front with far fewer people in them -- however, it was impossible to get to them while pushing a trolley. So, as we weren't carrying anything else at all, we walked our little piece of paper to one of the queues at the front, thereby saving ourselves, oh, about eighteen hours. We did have the grace to feel a little guilty.

We still had an extensive wait. I fell into conversation with the chap next to me. I explained a number of my IKEA theories, including the one above about the campaign for real woodwork, and also my theory that IKEA isn't actually a furniture shop at all. The whole strategy is that you come to the shop intending to buy furniture, fail to find exactly what you were looking for, but, as you don't want to waste the journey, wind up buying a duvet cover, a pot plant and a light bulb. Look at all the people in these queues, I gesticulated. Hardly any of them have any furniture, or even little slips of paper. However, they all have big yellow bags full of king size cotton bedlinen covered with weird turquoise Aztec prints which won't match anything else in the house.

This was actually a little unfair, because most people who buy furniture have trolleys, and as you will recall, the people with trolleys were unable to get anywhere near the checkouts. Nevertheless, the person I was chatting to paled a little, and explained that he'd been looking at kitchens, but wasn't entirely sure, and he'd actually bought a very cheap ten-pack of 60 watt lightbulbs. And his mate was carrying a geranium.

I spent some of the time reading the new catalogue. All the names of IKEA products are Swedish, and Steven and I gain a good deal of innocent amusement from the way the names read in English. They used to have an entire range of flatpack furniture called Boj, for example. We were also very taken by Atilla the Bar Stool. On a previous trip round IKEA, Steven spotted a lamp called Uns. What's so funny about that, I wondered. Steven showed me the tag, which read 'Uns table lamp'. I tried, but it hardly seemed to wobble at all. And a colleague tells wistfully of a range of kitchen furniture called Halibut.

Eventually we paid, and coped with IKEA's famous three-queue system for collecting larger items of furniture. After another hour or so, we came up against the famous IKEA furniture /Astra interface problem. Whenever you're at IKEA you see people wheeling their purchases back into the shop to arrange delivery because they've discovered that it's impossible to fit 130ft of Ivar bookshelves into their MGB. However, we knew that we could get our furniture into the Astra, because this was something we had bought before, and it fitted in the previous time. Nevertheless, it was extremely useful that we knew this, because we might otherwise have given up and decided it was impossible. As it was, we eventually forced it into the car with a measure of infinite will. If only the infinite will worked when getting furniture into the house.

Not that infinite will is necessarily all you need. I have a friend with a house of perfectly ordinary size. She had an IKEA sofa delivered; the delivery chaps took one look at her house, and said "You won't get that sofa in there, you know". It transpired that they ended up taking nearly every sofa of that design back to the shop, because it wouldn't fit through any normal size front door.

What we'd bought, though, was the second of the 'kitchen sofas' mentioned briefly above, and completely flatpack. I have no idea what a kitchen sofa is supposed to be, and in fact am not accustomed to the notion of having sofas in the kitchen anyway. These are solid pine bench seats with backs and sides and a padded cushion, under which stuff can be stored if you're that way inclined.

We've bought them to solve a problem -- our living room isn't really large enough for a three piece suite, but we would like to have sitting space for more than two people in it. These sofas seat two people in adequate comfort and three people in extreme discomfort, and fit under the windows. This means that I can now entertain. As long as you are happy to eat food on your lap, that is. I am troubled by the fact that they're called kitchen sofas, though. I wonder if IKEA thinks that they're in some way not good enough for the living room. But there you go. What do they know, they're only a furniture shop.

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