A modern necessity: clearing out the old stuff to make space for all the new stuff
Published 27/08/2014 | 02:30
For various domestic reasons, I've been 'doing a job' on my house - going through one of those periodic bouts of throwing things out that arise as an inevitable side-effect of modern living.
The operation has involved Getting A Skip, which always strikes me as just one step short of ordering a casket. I am, after all, the puppy who stops and looks into other people's skips, mystified by the things people nowadays throw out. I'm always coming upon things in skips that strike me as almost fitting my own needs - never quite, I notice - and taking them home. These, naturally, are the first things to go into my own skip when it arrives.
I wouldn't call myself a hoarder, but I have difficulty getting rid of things: old newspapers, letters, analysis documents sent by all kinds of lobby groups and activists, cheap shirts and T-shirts that I just couldn't resist, suits I bought when I was going through a phase of thinking that 'a man of my age' shouldn't be wearing jeans. My problem is not so much fully blown materialism as that I'm useless at identifying things I'm not going to need anymore. At what point in the life of a suit does it qualify for a free transfer to Enable Ireland? Of what, precisely, does a record collection nowadays consist? Mine includes CDs, vinyl and cassettes, and I regard all three as possessing an entitlement to equality. It is true that - for the moment - I don't own a cassette player, but you never know when you'll walk into Oxfam and find a barely used three-in-one snoozing between the books and the bric-a-brac.
I have a rule that I never throw out books, however decrepit. After all, I have for many years been buying up the books other people threw out. I would sooner throw out the Kindle I bought half-price in America last year (and have yet to use) than a dog-eared copy of Anita Brookner's Providence, even though I know there are at least three other dog-eared copies somewhere about the place that I bought in the late, lamented Readers Bookshop in Dun Laoghaire for a euro apiece.
Women are better at throwing things out, being - at least in things domestic - more ruthless than men. In fact, I recommend to anyone who sets to 'de-cluttering' his house in the company of females that he wear a heavy pair of unambiguously new boots - for ballast - lest he himself gets thrown out into the bargain. Women apply all kinds of arbitrary rules to the 'de-cluttering process': have you worn it in the past year? Does it still fit? Is it still in fashion? If you answer 'no' to any of the above, they'll have it in the bin liner. I take the view that things go in and out of fashion, that I will not necessarily be the shape next year that I am now. I also have an 'endearing' habit of 'sparing' things I like most - putting shirts, for example, away for 'special occasions'. So, they snort, "you intend to wear it in the coffin?"
There's an odd process that occurs in the course of a day's 'tidying up'. (I prefer this term, having some kind of visceral objection to the word 'de-cluttering'). The victim (hereinafter 'the householder') begins in a disposition of entrenched resistance to throwing out anything whatsoever. His 'helpers' become like public prosecutors, who interrogate him about every item. 'But you never wear ties', they say, as though not wearing ties is at once a suspect and irreversible condition. 'Really - can you see yourself ever again in a cord jacket?'
But sometime around the mid-point, something happens to the householder, causing his reason and true intentions to get mislaid. At this point he flips over and becomes intoxicated by the prospect of freeing up space in his wardrobe or filing cabinets, of finding his way to bed without tip-toeing around piles of Very Important Documents Waiting To Be Sorted. In this dangerous mood - very close to madness - he temporarily allies himself with those who are trying to divest him of every single belonging. He begins volunteering things to be discarded, submitting for retrial items he has hitherto defended with his life, and now himself airily casting them on the skip. He will spend many years regretting these reckless hours when the prospect of 'making space' lured him into throwing out that collection of old theatre programmes. Once, in the course of a frenetic day's 'tidying up', I managed to throw out the deeds of my house, which I think took asceticism a tad far.
I'm not sure if accumulating stuff is a specifically modern condition. My father collected tools and engine parts, most of which we auctioned off when he died, and yet was a profound anti-materialist. I think that, like a lot of the old generations of the recently freed Ireland, he was perpetually engaged in a process that might be described as the postponement of total living, accumulating items and resources for some imminent paradise while trudging and struggling on in the moment. I suspect I too suffer from this condition, though complicated by various symptoms of the disposable society. With the latter-day generations, the problem is that we mistake stuff for the fabric of our true desires, attaching ourselves to things because we don't really know what to do with ourselves. A clear-out enables us to make a new start, but we are doomed to repeat the procedure ad infinitum, unless we start to reconsider the question of how we are really made.