In the cramped shoebox that is my bijou cottage – I call it the Yellow Submarine – stowage becomes an art form. I’m minded to upsize – an unusual ambition for one who has matriculated in the University of the Third Age. But upsize to what, and to where? Wait until 29/3/19. Then, when the road system has become a gigantic lorry park, and the supermarket shelves are empty, all will become clear.
In the meantime, to keep my lobby open and passable, I must ruthlessly dispose of junk. And not only junk. Things of value, sentimental or otherwise, must go. There is, literally, no room for sentiment. But there is an upside to all this. I’ve become quite good at decluttering, simply because I have no choice. People talk about “retail therapy”, but of course it’s addiction to retail therapy that lands us in this jam. You buy your way into a corner and then you can’t get out, a prisoner of your own possessions. Every therapeutic regimen has its unwanted effects, and the main side effects of retail therapy are guilt, and over-satiety. Even as you make the purchase, and pass your debit card over the contactless console like a magic wand, the still small nagging voice of conscience interrogates you: you may want this commodity, but do you need it?
On the other hand, letting stuff go is largely a guiltless procedure. Maybe it really is true that it is better to give than to receive. This week I had another book cull, loaded up the car, and went to the local charity shop. I started with a taster, and offered half a dozen hardback books of good quality. They were gratefully accepted.
“Do you gift aid?”
“No.” I affected the demeanour of a mysterious tax exile.
“Not a problem.” (I’m on a solo and forlorn anti-gift-aid mission. The tax system is far too complicated. If HMRC didn’t sanction gift aid then presumably she could recoup all that tax and be in a position with the increased revenue to tax us less. Then we in turn would be in a position to increase our donations to charity if we so wished. Then everybody would know who was paying what to whom.)
“I’ve got another 200 books in the car. Do you want them?” I felt it was only fair to warn them they were about to be inundated. But they seemed to be delighted, so I started to lug them in, in rubbish sacks. I don’t think there was a single dud among them. They fell broadly into three categories: (a) books I’d read and probably wouldn’t read again (example – Madame Bovary); (b) books I’d always meant to read but would probably never get round to reading (example Lanark); (c) books I’d partially read/skim-read/plundered in one way or another (example Finnegans Wake). I suppose if I’d had a library at home large enough I wouldn’t have parted with any of them. But in that case, I might have been the laird of a vast estate, occupying a huge pile and flaunting, in addition to the library, a music room, gymnasium, swimming pool, cinema, and private chapel (God knows I’d be in need of the latter). Anyway I was glad to get them off my hands and if somebody out there buys one of these books at a snip, reads it, and profits by it, then I am delighted.
Next up, I dismembered my bulky photograph albums. I can’t justify the shelf space. I separated the cardboard from the plastic and put the remnants into the green and blue bins respectively. That left a vast pile of old photos. If I didn’t recognise the people, or the scene within the photograph, I binned it. It’s always a poignant experience, going through old photos. You have this recollection of the richness of an epoch in your life that you were barely conscious of at the time. I tipped all the surviving loose photos into a filing cabinet. My “filing cabinet of memory” is not metaphorical but real.
Next up: textiles. I counted fifty ties. I only ever wear four – two medical college ties, the clan tartan, and a black tie for funerals. (The black tie is not entirely black; a subtle texture is apparent, like Hawking radiation.) Also I’ve kept my father’s RAF tie. As someone once in the RAF volunteer reserve I might even be entitled to wear it, but I never have.
Next up, tired old suits…
You get the sense I’m on a roll. I said that, unlike retail therapy, declutter therapy is without side effects, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. My penchant for relinquishment can get out of hand. I think I’m wedded to the Shakespearian notion of periodically being cast away, and washed up naked on an unknown beach, to start again, to fend. The perusal of all these ancient photographs reminded me of the episodic nature of my life, and the way I strived to attain some position, only to give it away and start afresh. I don’t think the idea of constructing a life, adopting a strategy, and planning the next move, has ever crossed my mind. Eighteen months after I got the senior lectureship at Auckland University Medical School, I quit, and vanished, and buried myself in a tiny hamlet in North Skye. A colleague told me I was utterly mad. I guess he was right. I remarked to somebody that I suspected I might have a self-destructive nature, and she replied, “You’ve only just noticed?”
There’s that guy in the gospels, a virtuous young man who kept all the commandments, who asked Our Lord what else he needed to do to gain the life more abundant. Well, he was nearly there. All he needed to do was sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. That came as a bit of a blow, and he departed, exceeding sorrowful. Sometimes I think that if I’d got the call, I would have said, “Cool! I’m up for that!” But, precisely because of my dangerously mendicant tendencies, Our Lord would never have commissioned me. He would probably have looked at my twelve year old self and asked, “How much does Mr Winning pay you for your paper round?”
“£1.00 a week, with a £1.00 bonus in the week of your nativity.”
“Bank it every week for a year. When you attain £53, come back and see me, and I’ll tell you what to do.”
But that would have been too much of an ask for somebody who never really grasped Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notion that “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”, and I, too, would have departed, exceeding sorrowful.
Actually I held on to Finnegans Wake. You never know.