Just when I’d really like to be blogging away about how Gnidrolog’s album ‘In spite of Harry’s toenail’ is a touchstone of Western civilisation or words to that effect, I find myself beset by the need to clear my Dad’s house of a lifetime (two lifetimes, if you count my Mum) of stuff….
Now, I already have stuff problems of my own, notably with cd’s and to a lesser extent with books. When I decided to go over to cd’s from vinyl, I rejoiced in the fact that I had managed to create a huge amount of space in the house and that these new shiny silver discs with their economical dimensions were surely never going to become as oppressive a problem as those big boxes of LP’s. Jump forward 15 or so years and all the space once occupied by clunky crates of vinyl is now taken up with smaller crates of cd’s. The economy of scale offered by cd’s has just encouraged me to acquire more of them, so in essence, I now have a larger quantity of music taking up the same space as before. Hmmmm….
With books, it’s not quite so bad, but I can nonetheless boast an impressively tall and increasingly unstable ziggurat of unread volumes next to my bed, which, should it ever collapse on me during the night, would probably result in a severe case of concussion.
All of which goes to show that for people like myself with a magpie disposition, you could probably rehouse us into a 25-room mansion and we would still – over a period of years – manage to fill the place up with stuff.
In some respects, I am fortunate to live with someone who is of a quite different viewpoint; the partner sees herself as some latter-day Gandhian ascetic who only needs a spare loin-cloth and a packet of B&H to keep her happy. As in many things, she’s not totally consistent about this, having a weakness for jewellery, cosmetics and handbags to name but a few conspicuous items, but she is generally happier to be less burdened with stuff than I am. I am always being encouraged by her to ‘sacredly cleanse’ the various cluttered areas of my life – my wardrobe, my cd collection, my books – and it’s sometimes hard to make her understand that the stuff I have accumulated over the years is somehow intrinsically bound up with my personality and forms an essential part of the way in which I see myself in relation to the rest of the world. Well, that’s my excuse anyway – another view would be that all my stuff is like a big security blanket that helps me maintain the illusion that everything is under control and that I actually do know what I’m doing. As if….
Of course, all of this comes from somewhere, and – unsurprisingly – I get it from my parents, both of whom were magpies up to a point. However, with them there was definitely an extra dimension that I think is probably peculiar to people who lived through the wartime years. This can probably best be summed up by the phrase – and it’s a phrase that I heard both of my parents use on numerous occasions – “I’ll hang on to that/those; it/they might come in handy.”
So now I am reaping the whirlwind of stuff that my folks accumulated in this house over the 28 years they lived here together and the final 7 years my Dad lived here as a widower. Having an appreciation of things that ‘might come in handy’ perhaps suggests an almost prescient appreciation of potential future needs, but as I’m finding, it’s more like an obsession with being prepared for any and every eventuality, no matter how unlikely.
I’ve already written here about how, after my Mum’s death, I was (partially) clearing out her kitchen and found several large tupperware boxes crammed full of those little sachets of sugar that are available in cafes and motorway service stations. My Mum would undoubtedly have accumulated these on my parents’ many post-retirement caravanning holidays and I can see the way her magpie mind would have justified this consistent and systematic pilfering of sugar. She knew perfectly well that neither she nor my Dad used sugar, except perhaps on breakfast cereal – something they ate only rarely, so there was little point in keeping any sugar in the restricted storage space within their caravan. On the other hand, it was not unknown for them to entertain other caravanners for a cup of tea from time to time and those people might be users of sugar, so having a few sachets handy would be a good thing. So far, so logical, but then the wartime hoarding mentality, not to mention the something-for-nothing mentality obviously kicked in and what started out as a piece of common sense rapidly became a full-scale obsession, eventually requiring tupperware boxes and cupboard space.
Now that I am having to clear the entire bungalow, what I am finding is that my sugar sachet experience was just the tip of a candy-coated iceberg. It’s becoming abundantly clear that my folks kept just about everything, treating the house as a repository for the accumulated stuff of their lives. However, whilst their previously-mentioned prescience about the things that they kept because they might ‘come in handy’ perhaps hints at an organised approach to their squirrelling, what I am now finding is that there was a total absence of such an approach. Obscure cupboards and unused shelves became spaces where stuff could be shoved in a fairly haphazard manner and it has become customary for me to find small and often broken ornaments filled with assorted detritus – for example, fuses, perished rubber bands, paper clips, foreign coins, keys (to unknown locks), 50-year old letters from obscure or unknown persons, old passport photos, yellowed newspaper cuttings featuring useful gardening or household tips, recipes clipped from old magazines and so on.
Larger receptacles such as cardboard boxes may feature tourist brochures for somewhere in Scotland or Switzerland, theatre programmes, football programmes, single gloves, plastic flowers, broken Christmas decorations, 30-year old credit card bills, postcards from friends or family, invitations to weddings of people I’ve forgotten or never heard of and desiccated chunks of that weird green foam that florists use (or once used) for flower arrangements.
A cupboard occupied principally by a well-lagged hot water tank was additionally filled with dozens and dozens of tea-towels and hand-towels, washcloths and threadbare old tablecloths, all of which had over the years been stuffed in there and had slowly forced themselves down and around the tank like an extra layer of lagging and had been slowly compressed into almost sedimentary layers of exhausted cotton and towelling.
Wardrobes were another horror show; odd slippers, dozens and dozens of ties, wildly kitsch sixties jackets, multiple old cagouls that had somehow become stuck together, so that they were like some bizarre gore-tex sculpture, weird hanging contraptions that dangled from the inside of wardrobe doors as receptacles for shoes and more stuff…..as if any extra space were needed.
And so it goes on. A peculiarity of the house compared to the others in the vicinity – all built in the early ’70’s – is that my Dad’s place was built by the builder for himself; he lived there for 4 years before selling the place to my parents in 1976. As such, it’s bigger, has more garden and – in particular – has a small room (maybe 8 feet wide and 15 feet long) leading off the main living room which could, in another lifetime, have been a small bedroom or, more likely, a study. Instead, my Dad slowly turned it into what I called (somewhat inappropriately) his ‘glory-hole’ . It all began well enough, with large and capacious shelves for books, files and the like, but as the years rolled by and the shelves filled, the floor-space eventually became covered with boxes, pieces of old (and frequently broken) furniture and, in the end, random piles of papers and junk. By the time I started in on it about 3 weeks ago, it was barely possible to open the door and it took me the best part of a week just to clear a path to the shelves at the far end.
Thus far, I have found some real gems among an awful lot of shite. On the plus side, there were some really old family photos that I’d never seen before of relatives (most of them long gone now) taken during the war years. In amongst that were letters from LMS Railways in Leicester detailing aspects of my Dad’s glorious and brief Casey Jones career before he got into teaching, love letters from my parents to one another before and just after their marriage, a letter from my maternal Grandmother to my Mum at her workplace a week after she’d stormed out with my Dad, begging her to come home and begging forgiveness for the terrible things that had been said (she never went back) and finally a letter written by my maternal Grandfather to my Dad’s parents, turning down their invitation to my parents’ wedding on the basis that there had been too much ‘lying and deceit and insulting behaviour’ from my Mum & Dad for them to accept. Dramatic stuff and though I knew the stories I’d never seen the documentary evidence.
However, for every piece of genuinely interesting stuff I’ve had to wade my way through piles and piles of detritus – most of it prompting the question ‘Why on earth did they keep this?’ About 50 address books – most of them unused, zillions of tourist pamphlets from Salzburg to Saltash to Salt Lake City and a whole box of postcards going back to the 60’s – some of them used/received, others unused/blank. In another pile were about 150 postcards of Inveraray Castle – all of them unused, all of them identical. Shelf after shelf of VHS videotapes, boxes of audio cassettes, boxes of 35mm transparencies – the footsoldiers of obsolescent technologies. I’d already disposed of my Dad’s classical cd’s and old vinyl and there were some favourite pieces like Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ which he had on cd, LP and audio cassette. Well you never know….
However, if I needed a metaphor for this whole process, it would be a plain terracotta flowerpot that I found tucked behind a curtain on a windowsill in this overstuffed room. In it were some pieces of World War 1 shrapnel that my Dad picked up on a trip round the Somme battlefields about 20 years ago. Apparently, farmers in north-east France still plough up thousands of tons of this stuff every year – they call it the ‘Iron Harvest’ – and they tend to leave it lying by the side of the fields for Bomb Disposal (in the case of munitions) or for the tourists (in the case of less lethal artefacts) to pick up – which is exactly what my Dad did. He’d picked up several random pieces of very heavy metal, including what was recognisably the remnants of a horseshoe, and was clearly transfixed by these souvenirs of a war that fascinated him even though it had ended fully 6 years before he was born. Kept around as a conversation piece for a few weeks after their return from France, the shrapnel had finally been lodged in a random flowerpot, dumped on the windowsill of this room and forgotten. Twenty years of sun and oxygen and condensation have done their work and most of the shrapnel has by now disintegrated into powdery red dust, which poured out of the hole in the base of the flowerpot the minute I picked it up. So much for history.
Still, you never know when you might need a few handfuls of rust…might come in handy.