Sunday, April 07, 2013

The profound joy of getting rid of stuff

We've been in this house twenty-five years this summer. Most of that time has been devoted to raising a family. We didn't pay much attention to the rising tide of stuff we were surrounding ourselves with.

After a while even books, records, DVDs and magazines cease to be the things you work for. You get to a point where it's either you or the stuff. By that time you've had the melancholy experience of clearing the homes of your own parents, who didn't accumulate a fraction of the junk you've got yourself. You kid yourself you're going to pass on your records to your kids. Then they grow up and you realise that even if they were bothered there's no way their lives could also find room for the detritus of yours.

What do you get rid of and what do you keep? The reasons you once collected things no longer hold good. Spotify and iTunes have made a nonsense of all those compilations you hung on to because of one track. IMDB makes those fat film and TV reference books look ridiculous. Those launch issues of classic magazines you squirrelled away are never going to make you rich but they will attract dust and mildew. You no longer believe that if you pass up this CD you will never be able to replace it.

In the past few months I've taken what seems like tons of books down to the charity shop. I'm such a good supplier they've given me a Gift Aid card.

Chucking stuff away is a learning experience. You realise nobody is remotely bothered about the thousand-pound computer you take down the tip. They just point you to the pile in the corner. On the other hand they don't know what to make of the old tea chests because they've never seen one before and you wonder whether you should take them home and hang on to them. You visit the second-hand book store so often that you start to develop an attraction for old paperbacks and find yourself picking up the odd one as you drop off the odd box of fifty.

The process of sifting is slowed down by the occasional piece of paper that flutters out of an old book. A child's hand-drawn birthday card, a note of apology for some long-forgotten breakage, a rejection letter from a job you don't remember applying for, all put away nowhere in particular because somebody thought it would be a shame to lose them. Maybe this was the occasion that you were saving them for. Is anyone really going to pause in the middle of cleaning up to look at them again? Anything that's not been disturbed in the last twenty-five years is, for obvious reasons, unlikely to be disturbed in the next quarter of a century.

Your reward for having got rid of all this stuff is the liberation of the space you need to be able to enjoy the stuff. The records you can suddenly put your hand on, the newly-cleared window seat which you can use as a place to read, the profound calm that steals over you when your desk is finally cleared. This is every bit as spiritual as the impulse that led you to acquire the stuff in the first place.


  1. My clearing out is going very slowly, but I'm coming around to the idea of thinning out the CD collection. Will keep all the vinyl though! That's all too precious for me..

  2. Isn't there philosophical wisp that states that our accumulation of stuff symbolises our denial of our own mortality? I think that there's something in that.

    I had a dig out of my books five years ago but kept the valuable ones. Now I would call myself a collector and reader and haven't reached the point when I would consider slinging them.

    As for the vinyl; my substantial collection has been in storage for over ten years now in another country. I don't know what I'll feel about them when I eventually unlock that door.

  3. I couldn't agree more. I've been doing the same thing for the past year. The books I've never read, the CDs I didn't really like and the videos I can no longer play have all gone. I felt a palpable lightness afterwards.

    I now read novels on a Kindle, saving my bookshelves for a few treasured art and photography books.

    I've kept things for many reasons; sometimes because they seemed to provide anchorage in the narrative of my life. But revisiting boxes of memorabilia always leaves me feeling curiously depressed and, occasionally, embarrassed by my younger self.

    I've lived long enough to know that the 'rainy day' never comes.

  4. I'm hanging onto the launch issues of classic magazines. They're snapshots of a moment in time, and a reminder of some fantastically silly launch ideas.

  5. despite a huge edit 7 years ago, my eaves are stashed with boxes of china and 45's:
    the word legacy is my excuse but now you've burst my bubble!
    out of sight ....

  6. We're currently clearing the loft to allow our cramped-in-the-box-room youngest son to relocate to our bedroom, whilst we move to the giddy heights of a loft-conversion, with the promise of a new en-suite and a chance to nosey into our neighbours back gardens. But the process is proving a slow one, with the inherited possessions of two sets of parents to wade through, plus two decades worth of our old nonsense to sift and sort. Tears have been shed (discovering a note written by my dad and a forgotten 70's snap of my mum). Gasps of wonder have been heard (long lost rollerboots found) and howls of laughter have been heard(old school reports). Long bouts of contemplation have taken place - keep or throw? Ebay or bin? But not an awful lot of actual shifting has been done. It's painful. Like you say in your post - I now wonder if this is the moment that we were meant to discover, gaze upon, then finally let go of the stuff we've clung on to for so long. Yesterday I heard my youngest son enthusing to his mate about how great his new room's going to be. I knew then that we really don't have a choice - it's all got to go.

  7. Fantastic piece of writing! I save the books I like - and yes I still read books although I gave up on CD:s/DVD:s etc. ages ago - they give me a sense of history and perspective. And yes, I do look in them every so often. Otherwise I agree, don't keep stuff around just because.

  8. The process of sifting is essential. A colleague recently gifted me an LP (Norton Buffalo’s Lovin' in the Valley of the Moon, since you ask) that I’d mentioned I once had on a long-lost cassette. Between the outer and inner sleeves I found a pencil drawing of a clock with a name sign below it: a Google Images search of the name yielded multiple pictures of the same clock outside a bookies in southeast London. The drawing, my grateful chum told me, was by his three-year-old son, now 21, who grew up yards from the clock.

  9. I wonder if, when they are our age, our children's homes will have rooms that look like Zen gardens with non of the cultural ephemera our generation managed to accrete.

    There will be little to indicate that a human being actually occupied this space, just a futon and obsidian cube slowly pulsating in one corner.

    My Dad died thirty years ago and when going through the boxes in his attic I found a saucy pin-up calendar (French I think),cinema playbills and ping-pong club cards from the 1950's; the tangible stuff of a life just ended. It was a genuinely depressing experience.

    Is it an experience our descendants will spare each other?

  10. I've invented an adage with which to regale my hoarding wife with: "unless it has huge sentimental value, chuck it away if you haven't used it in the past 12 months". It seems to work -although unfortunately not in her vase.

  11. I've been going through this process - I even managed to shift the first 10 issues of Mojo for a total of about 80 quid, which surprised me. But the other 100 or so issues are just going to have to be recycled.

    What's weird, though, is that as I dispose of a mid-life's worth of stuff, I seem to have started recreating my childhood - buying Observer's books, old Penguins, those old Pan war books like The Dam Busters and The Colditz Story, even the odd Dinky toy. Not sure why this is happening, but I'm enjoying it, even at teh cost of some raised eyebrows from the wife.

  12. For anything that the charity shops don't want, you might like to consider offering it to anyone in your local area who wants to collect it from you for nowt:

  13. I also applied the 12-month rule to my CDs, deciding to place all those I'd not listened to in a year or more on a separate shelf – leaving only my 'true' favourites behind. Realising just how many albums no longer formed part of my regular listening was an eye-opener. I can either cling to a former version of myself, frozen in a time when music was all that mattered; or I can accept that I've grown up and will almost certainly never listen to 'Be Here Now' again.

  14. I think men hoard more than women because they think they're important and are self-obsessed. There, I've said it!

  15. Regarding Lesley's bitter and sexist remark, I would just like to reply...SHOES!

  16. Shoes? What shoes?? The ones in the loft are not being hoarded, they are about to be worn, when the weather improves/I get invited to a wedding/stilettos come back into fashion/my feet shrink

  17. Anonymous8:05 am

    You want to get rid of stuff? Move city or even country. Best motivation ever to ditch all your collected crap. And it's all crap in the end.