Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
Now the days are longer and lighter, and we’re opening windows and curtains, and leaving doors open more, to let the air in again after the long months of semi-hibernation, I’m noticing again the sheer amount of stuff there is all around, and specifically in our house. I’m not complaining, mind, because half of the stuff actually belongs to me, and any fingers I was about to point would have to swivel round until they pointed directly at the whites of my own eyes. It’s a sad truth that the world has become rather addicted to things, and we’ve become an acquisitive species. Or perhaps we always were, but we lacked the money or means to acquire things so easily.
Of course there’s so much more stuff out there nowadays. I remember my parents’ house when I was growing up. We had a simple life, relatively speaking. I don’t recall us having much more stuff than we actually used. There was furniture, of course, and all the things you need to eat and sleep and dress yourself and keep clean, and there were tools in the shed and kitchen utensils and clocks and things that were useful for going to the beach or on holiday, but there didn’t seem to be much more.
He particularly liked making them chime
I know my dad loved clocks. He would find them in bad condition and make them work again. He particularly liked making them chime, and it drove everyone mad. For some reason he liked to keep all his clocks running five minutes early. The theory was that everyone else was bound to be five minutes late, and this would fix that. Unfortunately, we all knew this, so we ignored everything until the clocks started chiming, thinking – “I have at least five minutes before I need to get ready”.
So I suppose my dad didn’t really need all those clocks. I do know that people who came to stay were exhausted when they appeared at breakfast because they had been kept awake all night. This was something my dad thought was as funny as he thought being late was infuriating. We also had quite a few pictures on our walls. Some of these were family photos, but most of them were acquired here or there, because of the pleasant scene or the ornate frame.
Crowded with knick-knacks and gew-gaws
Our mantelpieces were crowded with knick-knacks and gew-gaws, which were the other bane of my life, because I was ordered far too often to dust them. This involved carefully lifting each dainty item of glass or porcelain or some other fragile substance, wiping it with a duster and some polish from a large flat tin with a lid just like the boot polish I also had to use on my one pair of shoes. I lived in fear of breaking any of these things, because my mum loved them. I have no more idea where these things came from than I did for the pictures.
There was also a huge amount of crockery and cutlery, and saucepans, and jars and jugs and those muslin things with beads round the edges you used to cover jam or milk or cake with to keep the flies away. After every meal there was an unchangeable ritual, with my mum washing everything, my brothers drying, and me taking everything to its shelf in the pantry, which was much farther from the kitchen sink than it needed to be.
Far more sensible than carrying one at a time
I showed signs of early intelligence and efficiency, by hanging about until there was a proper pile to take away, but my mum refused to listen to my reasonable claims that carrying ten plates once was far more sensible than carrying one at a time. I must have worn through the lino (and the soles of my one pair of shoes) going back and forth. I’ll never get to the bottom of her reasoning, of course, it’s just going to be one of my life’s small mysteries. Hey ho!
I’m trying to think of other stuff we had that we didn’t need. Sadly the crockery and cutlery was needed, for the large numbers of international guests who my mum fed three times a day. I suppose I should be grateful she didn’t make us help with the washing and drying. There were some books, but a lot of these were gifts from incoming students. I remember a lavishly-coloured photo book of ‘Sweden – Land of a Thousand Lakes’. There was a tome on the churches of Stuttgart, I remember, and many others depicting Paris and Madrid and Tokyo and Greece and Italy. I even remember one about the ‘Horses of the Camargue’.
A large dark wooden wireless
My dad used to go to the Library every Saturday with his three books, which were always replaced with another three. I don’t remember ever seeing him reading any of them, and I’ve always supposed he used them for falling asleep. I loved to go with him, and I always had a pile too. But I don’t remember us buying books and having shelves for them. Our storage furniture was mainly to keep tablecloths and serviettes in, unless they were Victorian glass display cabinets with locking doors for more of my mum’s knick-knacks. I didn’t have to polish these, so I didn’t take much notice of them.
There wasn’t a record-player, although a large dark wooden wireless lurked in the corner of the living room. It used to have to heat up before any sounds could come from it, and you had to turn the knurled dial with the pointer with minuscule precision to get a scratchy broadcast from Radio Luxembourg. Other than that, we did have a television, which my dad rented from Radio Rentals. I think that was their greatest luxury.
My mum was big in the parish
One of the things I remember most, which might account for my growing magpie syndrome, was the jumble sales. My mum was big in the parish. She ran countless jumble sales, and our garage was never empty of boxes and bags of bric-a-brac and old clothing and bits and bobs, which we used to go to fetch, and then stored until the next sale.
My mother would go through these, and occasionally something would catch her eye. If it was valuable she would quietly pass it to the local antique dealer and get a better price for the item than we’d be offered in the jumble frenzy. Sometimes she would keep something, scrupulously paying for it. I was involved in a lot of fetching and carrying, and I loved to rummage myself. I also picked up the occasional thing, which would come out of my pocket money unless my mum was feeling jealous.
It became my kingdom
I was always attracted by things that seemed clever or interesting, or far too well-made for their purpose. My room gradually became cluttered, which was a problem, because I was often turfed out in favour of a paying guest, so I didn’t have my own room until my dad decided we needed to build upwards. There wasn’t enough room, but the roof was quite large, so he had a dormer window put in, and a floor, and plasterboard walls, and once my brothers, who were much older than me, left to go to school or college, it became my kingdom.
I ferreted away all my trinkets up there. The best thing about it was that we couldn’t put in a staircase, so there was one of those loft ladders, with a trapdoor attached, and a stick with a hook on the end. I could climb up and pull the trapdoor up behind me. I’m quite sure it was illegal and a death-trap in the event of fire, but I loved it.
My life of indiscriminate acquisition took off
I kept all the books I fancied from the jumble sales, and people started to buy me books for birthdays and Christmases, and my life of indiscriminate acquisition took off. There are multiple reasons for people acquiring too much stuff, or even more than they need or should reasonably own. I think we’re a bit uncomfortable with it, because we don’t have a concept of what is not enough, or just enough, or just a little bit more than enough, but not embarrassingly so. Yet.
We do understand what is definitely too much, and there are even television programmes about that now, addressing a phenomenon that we now call ‘hoarding’. I can relate to the person who has a hobby, as in train sets, or collecting stamps, or Barbie Dolls, as long as it doesn’t leapfrog their sense of proportion or priority. If you would enter a burning building to rescue your pets or children, or even a photo album, I would consider you to be a fairly steady person, but if you disregarded these and went back in for your Flying Scotsman, I’d worry about you, just a bit.
31 coffee pots
My mother was a magpie, but she was far too busy to let it get ahead of her. By the time she died, she had 31 coffee pots. I won’t make any lists, because that one fact should give you enough idea about the trouble we had clearing the house. She knew all the junk shops and the charity shops, and she just couldn’t go out through the door without buying something. Every now and then she would have a coffee pot horizon event, and a large cardboard box full of them would be donated. Somehow, the empty shelves would be restocked with similar items over the next few months. Often the same ones.
I, of course, show no signs of such madness. I’ve given away half my DVDs, so there are no more stacks on the floor any more. But the shelves are showing signs unaccountably of being overstuffed again. And I was a bit shocked when I got out my summer shirts the other day. I do like an interesting shirt. They’re useful, and I like them all. But if I wore them in sequence for the whole summer, I wouldn’t wear any of them more than three times. I’m not embarrassed by that.
The collecting equivalent of a gastric belt
The whole thing gets worse when there are two of you. We scoff at the thought of downsizing. We do make an effort to sell or give away our precious things, but we always find more to replace them with. I fear we’re incorrigible. At least it’s not newspapers, or pieces of paper, or string, and we don’t store piles of things up the stairs. And we can still travel from room to room without having to squeeze through piles of things. Just about. But it is difficult sometimes to find a flat surface to put a cup of tea down.
It sometimes feels a bit like dieting. Perhaps we need the collecting equivalent of a gastric belt.
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