My mum has started to go through the family photographs again. Perhaps once a year she will pick a genre of item or designate a zone in the house for sorting, and launch another effort to sift through the things that have been left to us.
I come from a long line of hoarders – sentimentalists as well as recyclers. The house that my parents live in once belonged to my great-great aunt, and was then passed on to my grandma. When my parents moved in to care for her in the last years of her life, two more households’ worth of belongings were added to a home already filled to near-dysfunction.
Grandma’s side of the family were market gardeners, which meant that in their acre or so of fruit orchard there were various outbuildings to amass items in – a garage, a shed, a lean-to, and for decades a railway ticket office which had been repurposed when the local station was axed during the Beeching cuts in the 1960s.
My family was rich in fruit but very little else, and some things were retained because they continued to use them long after others would have given up. Mum has kept several wooden spoons that descend, inch by inch, from identifiably spoon-shaped implements worn out through hours of boiling jam, to finger-length nubs of handle we refer to as “jam stumps”.
But other items cannot be explained away by a mentality shaped by seasons of glut and scarcity. It is sad to encounter the paraphernalia of not-used things that older generations needed in order to consider themselves respectable. We have found three full sets of fish knives – though fish dinners must have been rare, because as a child my grandma pasted into her scrapbook, alongside magazine cuttings, the labels of tinned salmon. Ceramics, once smashed, were put into drawers in bags – items that could not be parted with in the hope of imagined future restoration.
Then there are the dolls’ heads. Maybe 20 of them – marble-sized decapitations in porcelain from toys that had grown too threadbare to play with. After the 18th salvaged head, did no one admit that their bodies were not going to be reconstituted? And for whom were they saving the several sets of false teeth that we found in a shed, diligently tucked away in their original boxes, beneath newspapers announcing the death of George V and then the abdication crisis?
The unhappy irony is that these objects were kept in such indiscriminate quantities that so much of it is unsalvageable. There are heirlooms among the debris; mildewed, mouse-eaten and rotting in outbuildings. We have rescued what we can. There’s a cautionary tale here, about how if we do not let go of anything we may end up truly cherishing nothing; about how we cannot, and should not, try to save everything from time. But it is melancholy, too, especially as a historian, to find so many objects whose human stories are lost to me.
There is the ever-present threat that anything discarded might bring incalculable loss. Among a file of seemingly every mid-century receipt kept from my grandad’s years as a milkman, we found – just as we were about to consign it to the recycling bin – all the love letters he had written to my grandma. Alternatively, after a morning’s treasure hunt amid rusted cutlery from a box at the back of the garage – and an afternoon of polishing – you might be rewarded with a silver salt spoon in the likeness of the Duke of Wellington. Or a walnut, with a curtain hook drilled into it, which we have kept because it so perfectly encapsulates the whole enraging mystery we’ve inherited.
There’s a new interloper in my home, one to which I’ve unfortunately become beholden: my smart meter. It’s in the hallway – the only place, it seems, where it can pick up signal from the meter cupboard downstairs in the apartment building. Its home screen, which I see every time I move between rooms, is a big red gauge with a price overlaid. It displays, in real time, precisely how much is being extorted from me each day for the reasonable amount of electricity I’m using.
I’m furious about it. I could have turned it to face the wall. I haven’t. I want to be furious about it – and at those whose soaring profits we’re paying towards, and the energy bailiffs at the doors of the most vulnerable. The screen offers the illusion of control, but really it’s a reminder of how we are utterly not in control when others can so easily make our lives unaffordable.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere