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The family house where my parents lived for 56 years is being sold and there is a huge amount of stuff to sort and clear out. My father, in particular, was a hoarder, who looked after things meticulously but did not like to discard them.
As the house is comfortably sized, there was always space to put and store possessions and so stuff accumulated: the bookshelves became full, and then fuller of books; obscure cupboards above sinks were loaded with back numbers of Country Life and Gramophone magazine; cassettes and then CDs were added to the old shellac and vinyl discs, both 78s and LPs, which were never thrown away.
Miscellaneous bottles of wine, old rotary mowers, duplicating and sewing machines and golf clubs, bags and trolleys took over the big double garage. Heaven knew what had gone into the lofts, until my mother finally decided to investigate, and found, among other things, my father’s Scots Guards uniform from 1948, partly eaten by moths.
All this goes by the name of clutter and nowadays we are under orders to declutter. This, as anyone who has dabbled with Buddhism will know, is a spiritual matter as well as a physical one. Being weighed down and hemmed in by stuff affects our emotional and spiritual life, intensifying the pain of attachment.
I went so far, one summer, as to take a short course entitled “Decluttering your life” at that brilliant adult education institution in London, the City Lit. I cannot remember a single useful lesson I learnt, which I am sure says more about my obstinate resistance to the whole concept than about the tutor’s skill.
I love clutter. In particular, I loved the things of my father’s that filled the family house. I loved the darkroom, fitted with enlarging and developing equipment dating back to the 1930s; the orange safelight, the chipped enamel trays, the smell of the chemicals. I was fond of the golf clubs and wooden tennis racquets – although I had no particular affection for the rotary mowers.
I treasured the collections of old maps and atlases that filled two complete book shelves; the squat red Michelin guides to European countries, with their entries on restaurants and hotels written in arcane symbols, the green ones with their star ratings for medieval abbeys and scenic highlights (two stars, “mérite un détour”, three stars, “vaut le voyage”).
Why did I, or do I (because the attachment is not broken), love these things? Because they all represent something I suppose: the maps and the Michelin guides represent the excitement of travel and holidays, finding a perfect restaurant with tables outside, shaded by plane trees, as my parents once did, on the banks of the river Nive at Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry in the French Basque country. (I went back there a decade later, in my early twenties, and found it just as magical.)
More than that, they represent my father’s particular approach to travel, which always involved meticulous planning, and the care he took over everything to do with cars. There were, and I suspect still are, somewhere in the garage the various preparations for cleaning and waxing, the cloths and the chamois leather for adding the final polish, the foot pump for tyre pressure, and the driving gloves with leather on the palms and crocheted cotton on the backs. They remind me of the way my father used to walk to the main road to guide me as I reversed out of the back entrance of the house, until the day last November when he was too frail to negotiate the steep slope.
What I am talking about, I suppose, is the connection between clutter and love, and the imperative that that connection brings to declutter slowly. If you throw stuff out too fast or too thoughtlessly, you are in danger of snapping loving attachments that need to be teased out, with patience and care, as you would disentangle a snarled-up fishing line. Going through some of my father’s effects, I found a box-file in which he had kept some of his mother’s papers, insurance policies, cheque-book stubs.
No point in keeping those, but before I added them to the pile destined for the recycling centre I looked through the stubs and admired the way in which, though old and ill, my grandmother had maintained payments to a number of charities and, just weeks before she died, in a firm hand, paid the rates she owed to the local council.
And there too, as a proof that she had not always been old and ill, was a photograph of her as a stunning Edwardian beauty, with elbow-length gloves and a bouquet of lilies.
All physical stuff ends in decay, as Giuseppe di Lampedusa pitilessly reminds us at the end of The Leopard, when the preserved skin of the Prince’s hunting dog Bendicó is thrown out of a window, momentarily resumes the shape of the long-dead hound, then turns into “a heap of livid dust”.
Not everything can be kept, and stuff can be kept for too long. But if you are facing a situation like mine, my advice is to allow generous time for the sorting before the clearing, so that gone things can glow warm in the memory, one last time.
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