Mud On the Road

we're about to go shopping in Salisbury...

Disciples of the Great Decluttering

      Ok, so it’s still a bit cold and wretched out there but Spring has most definitely sprung, announcing itself in a prettiness of snowdrops and daffodils and primroses and bobtailed bunnies frolicking and making big bunny eyes at one another.

     But, dip your hands in the icy waters below all this surface frivolity and you will find a darker,  less gentle but equally biological impulse, the urge to Sort Stuff Out and Throw Stuff Away.

     Yes, across the Northern Hemisphere a giant Northern Hemispherical Dump is about to begin...

     This annual assault on the homestead is euphemistically referred to as 'Spring cleaning'  but we fundamentalist adherents know it can be nothing less than a  systemic purge if the arteries and vestibules of the body domestic are to circulate freely and remain unblocked by garbage.

     How patiently we have waited, we disciples of the great Decluttering.  Of course, after the accumulations of Christmas there's that brief flurry, the binning of small things to make way for the presents we have received. But serious chucker-outers  regard this with scorn – a side-show whittling before the mighty carve-up which is to come.

     We proper chucker-outers bide our time. We are waiting for the clocks to change. We are waiting for more daylight. Specifically, we are waiting for  the extended opening hours at the Andover Household Waste Recycling Centre. A.k.a. The Dump.

     With what quiet joy will we gather then, our faces flushed and glowing, hearts soaring as we queue for the best parking bays, as we begin, at last, to empty the boot of the car. And the back seats, and the roof racks and the passenger seats and the spaces underneath the seats, all freighted with stuff collected from cupboards and drawers and the every nook and cranny of the house and all deemed useless by Me.

      The rituals of the dump are not showy or loud. They are muted, discreet: a series of nods and soft 'good mornings', half-smiles shyly exchanged. Let's face it, there is something intrinsically shaming about showing your rubbish in public, like airing your dirty laundry or flashing without have shaved.

     There are some among our number who move briskly and with purpose. They prefer to brandish the fruits of their toil in attic and garage and shed – a defunct toaster here, a broken hoe there. They are saying in effect: 'Look: see how very useless is this toaster, how beyond salvage and repair is  my junk.'

     The majority stagger and totter towards the skip's gaping maw, gasping beneath the burden of their waste.

     Some people have so much rubbish to carry they fall over and sprawl across the access which is unseemly and embarrassing.

     The signs say 'Do Not Throw'. But when the Waste Recycling Operative, high priest and guardian of the skips,  momentarily turns  his high-visibility back, who among us is not tempted to hurl and chuck and jettison; even to whoop and dance a little jig of glee.

     In this way too we send a clear signal to our peers that we are genuine chucker-outers. It is important to communicate your zeal for culling your possessions without being deemed a spendthrift or a wastrel. You do not want anyone to mistake you for, horror of horrors, a HOARDER who has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to this place by the council, or your doctor or BBC programme makers.

     No. You are a true believer. You have come of your own free will: you are happiest when all your surfaces are clear.

     Not so long ago, Shedley Mode and I watched several episodes of Britain's Biggest Hoarders, often with our mouths hanging wide open.

     At the end of each programme Shedley would remain very quiet for a while and  then turn to me and say, 'Don't say anything.'

     One day without warning he climbed the ladder into our attic and began emptying it.  For weeks he re-organised boxes of stuff he had kept for decades into smaller boxes and he threw quite a lot of things away.

     I said nothing.

     I did not say, 'Hey, shall I help you do the Man Shed next?'

     What it may have lacked in evangelical zeal Shedley's assault on the attic made up for in bravura  and sheer self-discipline because, as a rule, Shedley  parts only  reluctantly with stuff.

     He is a man who views the cardboard box in which a case of wine has arrived  not as a cardboard box ready to be flattened and dispatched to the wheelie bin but rather as a vessel in which further stuff may stored and therefore kept.

     According to Shedley's way of thinking,  a cardboard box is not rubbish at all, a cardboard box is an opportunity.

     So, though the day of extended opening hours at the Dump looms large on the calendar,  I have not said, 'Hey, shall we tackle the Man Shed next?'

     No. I must marshal my arguments. I must not alarm him by revealing my inner Decluttering Ninja.

     For one thing I am not supposed to touch anything in the Man Shed. I have only limited access. I should have only the vaguest notion of  its contents. Whereas I have a  detailed inventory, tabulated and analysed on an Excel spreadsheet and backed up to the Cloud.

     Multiple curiosities are retained within that shed, all of which Shedley is convinced may very well come in handy one day: a long range telescope; three tents; three of those very hard and very-heavy-even-when-empty plastic picnic boxes; enough screw drivers to open a small hardware shop; two Frisbees, one cracked; several waste paper bins, full of torn plastic bags; an empty tin of WD40; fishing nets for small children and miniscule fish; boxes filled with electric leads that once connected gadgets to the mains but we don't know what those gadgets were or where they are now. Kettles.

     All possess an iconic status. All have meaning. Decluttering the Man Shed would be the latter day and domestic equivalent of the dissolution of the monasteries. How then to begin conversation about throwing it all away  without sounding like a vandal or Thomas Cromwell.

     It happens  that Shedley is big into his ancestors right now. He's joined which I tend to think of as Facebook for dead people.

     Thanks to this  sudden fascination with the ancestors we watched those Eddie Izzard programmes in which the comedian traced his DNA back down the millennia. After which I had a go at justifying my more radical Decluttering activities in terms of our shared pre-historic Ancestors. It was my attempt at proving that deep down we’re all the same, me with my natural Homo Sapiens  impulse to Throw Stuff Away versus his  Squirrel Nutkin compulsion to hoard.

     You see I maintain that the impulse to radically divest the limited storage cavities in our house of their bulging contents is  triggered by a powerful DNA memory of the Ancestors who, about this time of year, would have emerged, blinking, wan and probably rather smelly, from whatever hole in the ground/nest/cave/pond/pit they had been lurking in all Winter and, feeling extremely hungry, would have set off, sharpish, in search of lunch. And left all their rubbish behind. Forever.

      This is not a ‘Fire! Fire! Fire! Get-out-of-the-cave now’ scenario. Eddie Izzard would know what I mean.

     But it comes down to what, having emerged from the deprivations of Winter, you can feasibly hope to carry on your thin and etiolated person to the first watering hole or hairy mammoth kill. Because you certainly won’t be going back.

   I readily concede that any sensible ancestor,  i.e. one scheduled for survival, would not have left completely empty-handed. Not once they'd passed the amphibian stage and grown proper hands. No.  They would have shouldered their good usable animal skins, possibly one of Jasper’s early cave paintings or that sabre-toothed  tiger's tooth with which young Henrietta once tried to trepan Uncle John, plus sundry keepsakes.

     I do understand that the things we accrue, be they valuable in themselves or of sentimental value, define us and tell our story. Just that I don't want to be defined by rubbish and broken things. Unless they happen to be priceless antiques.

     I know first hand the perils of throwing stuff away too impetuously: a little boy’s beloved and prodigious collection of plastic Star Wars models would have been worth several hundred pounds today. Except it was all thrown away in an epic attic-attack while their owner was away at university. My Eeyore with the pop-on tail went to Jesus in the same razing.

     But even we chucker-outers are human too.  I keep photographs, scrapbook mementoes, diaries.  It’s  a way of holding on to my past.  Plus I have a dreadful memory and might need to know what I threw away in March 1993. But I also keep vinyl records  I rarely play anymore, books I’ve read once and will never read again. Why?

     The answer I guess is ‘just in case’. So my Gormenghast Trilogy and Echo & The Bunnymen albums are on the same continuum as Shedley’s rubber doormats and picnic boxes which ‘might come in handy one day.’ Which means I’ve yet to attain the enlightened state of The Clutter-Free. Worse, I fear an embryonic hoarder may lie  dormant inside me and could suddenly burst out and begin stockpiling cat food.

      All hoarding starts small and slyly ascribes to itself  the virtues of thrift and mending and making do. The so-called siege mentality of storing e.g. canned food, was actively encouraged when nuclear war was threatened.

     Refuting the accusations of hoarding with its connotations of miserliness,  the cunning hoarder will argue that theirs is a noble calling in a consumer era where everything is disposable and every  appliance designed with built-in obsolescence.

     The latter is the excuse given by several of the TV hoarders who reduce their neighbours to tears by transforming gardens into  terror parks where  rusting fridges topple and washing machines lurch.

    The line between collecting and hoarding is a fine one. When does a collection of magazines become a fire hazard, or boxes of buttons become an obsession?

     Hoarders are all around.  The institutions we revere - museums, libraries, The National Trust, Venice, The Queen - all simply vast  repositories for hoarding stuff.  Just that we call that stuff culture.

     Successful artists are highly adept and evolved hoarders. Instead of having to go out and acquire stuff, they’ve cleverly conjured it from their own bare hands. The bigger their hoard the greater their success. Think of Antony Gormley’s repeat groupings of the human form; Damien Hirst with his pharmacy bottles and animal parts and paintings of spots.

     I recently went to the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective at the Tate Modern. The paintings are tongue-in-cheek, zingy and witty, artful as stripey  toothpaste, but emotionally blank.

    What really grabbed me though was the outbreak of Benday dots. They were everywhere, like an epidemic.

      Adapted as an idea from the processes used to colour comic strips on the cheap, Lichtenstein apparently painted all of his dots by hand. Truly, the mark of the obsessive.

     I became fixated upon these Benday dots. How many Benday dots, I wondered, are in this exhibition? Has anybody counted them? Has Lichtenstein used up all the Benday dots in the world? Will Damien Hirst go the same way with the whole coloured spots thing?


     Any day now the Andover Household Waste Recycling Centre will stay open until 7 p.m.  I’m still lying low,  pondering how best to tackle the Man Shed. Shedley, meanwhile, is busy amassing ancestors. Not Eddie Izzard's hairy Neanderthals. Shedley’s ancestors are newer and shinier. They have birth and marriage and war records. He’s already collected 780 and Spring has barely sprung. The ancestors are beginning to take on the sinister aspects of a hoard. I find traces of their lingering existence in every room. But this time he’s outfoxed me good and proper: he’s stashed all 780 of them online, in that virtual cardboard box we call the internet where even I, with my Marigold gloves and black plastic bin bags, can’t get anywhere near them.

Click for bigger picture: Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964 Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012
Oh Jeff...I Love You Too...But...Roy Lichtenstein, 1964

Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein, 1962.
Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein, 1962.

Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein, 1963; Purchased 1966 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein, 1963


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