Tuesday 17 November 2009

Reflections from the life laundry

You know how it is when you start tidying up. As soon as you begin delving into cupboards and clearing shelves, you create a mess at least 100 times worse than the one you were trying to tackle in the first place.

If, like me, you are foolish enough to have thrown away virtually nothing for 20 years, the results of embarking on what I believe is called a “life laundry” are truly horrific.

I can barely move for stacks of books, videos (remember those?) clothes, toys, crockery and pictures, despite having occupied most of my spare time for the last week making repeated, heavily laden trips to the Alnwick household waste recycling centre.

The good news is that I have uncovered numerous interesting things I had completely forgotten acquiring. The bad news is that, after a couple of decades lurking at the back of slightly damp cupboards, most of them are too mildewed or rusty to be worth keeping.

There is a simple lesson here: do not buy things you do not really need. And, if they come as gifts, do not hesitate to recycle them swiftly through a charity shop, ideally one that is not frequented by the person who gave you the present in the first place.

I am belatedly taking my own advice now, though struggling to apply the necessary ruthlessness to books and papers. I feel attached to my extensive collection of reference books, though I never actually use them since it became so much easier to find the answer to everything on the internet. And I cannot quite face admitting the futility of having made and kept so many press cuttings, which I never look at again after they are filed.

There are well over a thousand unopened biographies, novels and historical works I bought because I was mad keen to read them. Indeed, five years ago I gave up my job in London primarily so that I could devote more time to this. What I was overlooking is the fact that the books you read in your teens and twenties stay with you forever, but by my time of life the brain has reached full capacity and little sticks.

Around the age of 40 I felt the need to start defacing my books with little notes to remind myself that I had actually read them, in the hope of preventing myself from doing so again. Now, like a castaway on Desert Island Discs, I really only need one book that I could read again and again, with a goldfish-like delight. Something by Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse, I fancy. There’s no point taking anything too seriously when your mind is going.

Albums of family photographs covering four generations also take up yards of shelf space, though at least that has stopped growing since the invention of the digital camera; a great boon given that more images must have been captured of my son in his first five months than of any of the previous generation of Hanns in all their three score years and ten, or thereabouts.

I was just going to sit here surrounded by my piles of junk until I expired, then let my unfortunate heirs sort the mess out. Now I have had to become my own executor before the baby starts crawling, to enable him to move around in relative safety.

Everyone told me that it would be really hard to do, but that I would feel much better afterwards. A bit like climbing Everest or stopping banging my head against a brick wall. It is perhaps too early for me to say, but I think I am beginning to see their point.

Possessions really are a burden. They tie us down. Memo to last week’s big lottery winners: buy nothing apart from a really good digital camera and one outstanding book.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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