Whatever. In any case, that comfy home you have now has a place for everything and everything in its place. The problem is, it has too many things and too many places. That doesn’t bother you, but believe me it will bother your kids when they have to clear the house. No, they can’t just order a skip and shovel everything into it, because if they have any sort of feeling for their heritage they will want to rescue every little artefact, every momentous document, every medal, every certificate gained on life’s tortuous path. “June 13th 1948: Arthur Smith swum one width of Greyfriars Baths unaided by floats.” What a hell of a task they will have, driven as they will be by the fear of missing a vital item of family history, not to mention the vague but alluring hope of finding a pile of tenners, which in my experience will likely be in a Hovis wrapper hidden and forgotten within a pile of 1970s Woman’s Owns.
So, what’s to be done? Well a good starting point is to get a sheaf of black bin liners. Then wait for a rainy day. When it comes put something cheerful on the CD player as an antidote to the essentially gloomy nature of the task at hand. ‘My old man’s a dustman!’ might be appropriate. Then get on with it. Rubbish is the first objective, but how to define ‘rubbish’? Excruciating as it is, you must abandon the ‘it might come in’ philosophy that has been a mainstay of your life. Or at least moderate it to a realistic level. Realistically, are you likely to use sixty-three of the flimsy plastic containers that supermarket ready meals come in? Even as seed trays? Will you ever re-read those trashy paperbacks that you bought one at a time on Doncaster station when you were a commuter? Yes I know they cost 3/6d each but so what? They aren’t worth a light now (although a light is actually what they need). Now what about all those clothes? Yes, I know it will break your heart, but some of that gear needs to go to the Oxfam shop and a lot of it needs to go for recycling. Let’s face it, Teddy boy gear, loon pants, and fright wigs aren’t going to come back, and even if they do you’d look just ridiculous. And then there’s the home brewing gear. Yes you have the whole lot; you did it properly back in the 70s; none of that ‘kit’ nonsense! The Burco boiler, the mash tun, half a mile of plastic tube, the big bag of Milton, the crown capper and 300 caps. Realistically — and that’s the buzz word here — what are the chances of you brewing again? Be honest, the results were indifferent, the headaches were cataclysmic, and it was a lot of effort. “But what if there’s a national emergency and we have to serve tea to the ARP wardens, or whatever they’re called nowadays? We’d need the Burco then wouldn’t we?” “No dad, honestly, I don’t think so. They’d be on Red Bull.”
If you send less than ten black bags full to the dumpit you have failed. Try again. Wine and spirits can, in moderation, be helpful at this stage. Once the absolute, obvious junk is gone, look at what’s left. Yes, there are quite a few items that you know in your heart you’ll never use, but you can’t bear to just dump them. Suppose they were to go to a good home though? Waste being a sin and all that, the possibility of future use would make disposal much more palatable, wouldn’t it? So, there are people who refurbish tools, phones, and domestic electrical equipment, and send it all to Africa. Second-hand bookshops always welcome good quality stock. The Media Museum at Bradford will just love that old wireless. Hobby shops and sports shops often take in old items, especially magazines. Even if it only helps a small shopkeeper to keep going it’s better than just sending it to landfill. And there’s Freecycle of course, but watch out for the idiots who ask for a twelve month guarantee on your thirty-year-old lawnmower, and would like it delivered for free to somewhere at the other end of the borough.
How about buying a few cardboard folders from Staples and sorting out your documents? Those gas bills from the 1970s can safely be disposed of now. As can your pay slips from the 1960s, guarantees for electrical items that you can’t even remember owning, dog licences, wireless licences, half-filled books of Green Shield stamps, old diaries with no entries, and coupons promising 2d off your next purchase of Omo. But keep the vital things. School reports, postcards, personal letters (love or otherwise), and of course telegrams bringing momentous news – none of these should ever be thrown away.
Documents with personal and financial details shouldn’t go in the bin. If you don’t have a shredder, a small garden bonfire might be the answer.
Empathetic readers might detect a note of anguish in this piece. Yes, I’ve just gone through this, not as the old person but as the son (who is also an old person, and is feeling it at the moment). Father had a stroke three years ago and came to live with me temporarily. He’s still here. Until a few months ago he was driving, so could go ‘home’ and mow the lawn, but then his eyesight deteriorated, making the use of the mower and more alarmingly the car rather problematic, so after an unfortunate incident at the Sprotbrough crossroads the decision was made to sell the house.
I went with my sister to have a look. The once immaculate garden was now a rampant jungle. We had a bit of a look round inside the house, poked about in a few cupboards, then stood in the cold unfriendly kitchen, state of the art in 1965, the room gloomy from the towering foliage outside. Was this really where we grew up? And the task ahead seemed enormous.
We were both busy with other things, so visits to the house were infrequent, and were made more so because we found every excuse not to go. It was a desolate business, breaking up the home where we had spent our childhood. The house, once filled with all the jollity and endless mini-drama of our happy family life, stood cold, damp, and empty. To commence the dissection of this corpse felt like a violation of the family.
But we did commence. We started with the obvious things. The paintings on the wall were all by my long-dead mother, so obviously they had to be saved. No doubt about that. Can’t destroy any of mum’s art! But then when we had a pile of thirty large framed oil paintings filling the car we started to have doubts. Then we found over a hundred paintings on boards, mercifully without frames. The storage implications begun to hit us, and we realised that the pictures would have to be sorted and some would have to be thrown away. So suddenly we’re art critics! This was the tip of the iceberg. The conflict between the sentimental value of various objects and the practicalities of their storage would soon be massive. I’m sure that a lot of the paintings actually meant nothing to Mum or Dad, and had they been thinned out by them it would have saved us a lot of time and angst. I couldn’t help thinking that if the old darling had painted over her failures like old masters did it would have saved a lot of space and hardboard.
We got into a routine. We would spend hours sifting though rubbishy books, magazines, clothes, and tools. Just as we were losing patience and were about to hurl the lot, unexamined, into a skip, we’d find a priceless object. That forced us carry on, grumbling, with the grim task. On one occasion I had a pile of useless, perished waterproofs in my hands, but as I was about to sling them into the bin en masse something made me separate them. I found a brown envelope with two large photographs; portraits of my dad’s parents when they married in 1917. These pictures had been lost thirty years ago, and were an irreplaceable part of our family’s history. In Dad’s fishing room, amongst the vast and incomprehensible detritus of an eighty-year fishing career I found a scruffy brown envelope bearing the legend ‘Morning Telegraph ABC Railway Guide 1957’. Inside were seventy photographs: from the urchin me sitting on my trolley, the pictures went right back through my early childhood and well beyond. In the bookcase, between volumes of instantly forgettable pulp fiction, I chanced upon a leather folder which contained a considerable amount of fascinating Second World War memorabilia.
To date we’ve found, amongst many other things, a 17th century Scottish rapier, the Italian coin which father set in the solidifying magma of Vesuvius in 1944 when the British were advancing through Italy and the volcano chose that moment to join in the fun and destroy four villages, a sheaf of 1941 Free Passes to anywhere in London, curiously undated but apparently signed by the CO, three 1797 cartwheel pennies, a touching letter from my mother’s schoolteacher, the invoice for my wedding reception (Ł18.05; my goodness we pushed the boat out), my mother’s school art book (exquisite floral watercolours when she was 14), a picture of my sister in hospital aged two, being visited by the Mayor of Doncaster and Father Christmas himself, no end of leaflets dropped by the Germans, advising Tommy to surrender, and a new-condition British Rail waiter’s uniform. Then there were my ‘O’ level certificates, which have lain deservedly buried and forgotten under other worthless items since 1965. I saw for the first time in half a century my school reports – “A pleasant lad but no ability”, “Must cultivate a more serious approach to The Game of Football,” and mused that they said more about the limited horisons of PE teachers than they did about me.
On the way home from each trip our cars handled like canal barges. Then, at home, we faced the problem of where to put the stuff. The tools I could add to mine, but do I really need 27 cold chisels, or six surveyors’ tapes marked in feet and inches on one side and rods poles and perches on the other? Bizarrely, I started going through my own stuff, taking bags and bags to the Dumpit, in order to make room for my parents’ stuff. I brought so much good timber away from Dad’s backyard that I’m thinking about using some of it to build a shed to put the rest in.
By about 1960 the faded yellow box on the mantelpiece had become full of things ‘that might come in’. Things had been going into the box since 1948, and now there was something like a thousand items in there. Silver rings made from plastic, a free gift from Bunty magazine in 1965. Springs, washers, badges, tokens, minute screws, buttons, pins, nuts, bolts, key rings, hairsprings. Rings from pigeons’ legs. A thing for pegging rugs. A single runner from a fishing rod. The insides of a bicycle bell. A set of feeler guages. Two Green Shield stamps, face value 0.033 New Pence. All the paper clips from sixty years of letters. Six cup hooks, all different. Valves from bike tyres. Lamp holders for dolls’ houses. Bulbs for radio dials. A bakelite knob, function unknown. A Prefect’s badge. A crocodile clip. A Markham Main Colliery tally token. A Bell’s fruit machine token. A wingnut. A bicycle rear reflector. An hour hand. A minute hand. A cat bell. A rubber grommet. A St John’s Ambulance Brigade uniform button. A small coil spring. A bracket. Many, many keys. A bootlace. A lead-headed wall nail. For each one of those things, someone had devoted a moment to thinking, “Hmm, what shall I do with this? Can’t throw it away; it might come in. I’ll put it in the yellow box.” Now I had to trawl the box and its three sucessors, checking for things that were of historic interest (I found plenty), or things that really ‘might come in’ (which of course they never will).
Then there were the workshop items. Countless nuts and bolts, damaged spanners, halves of hinges (I kid you not), bags of washers rusted into one lump, bent nails, screws with damaged slots, and then, hiding at the bottom of the washing up bowl in which some of these things have been stored — a pair of good quality pliers, unused and in good condition! A pair of new brass rising butt hinges, wrapped in greaseproof paper! A set of tiny spanners, chrome, perfect condition! A very large screwdriver, apparently unused. Then I discovered five garden forks, and some spanners so gigantic I wonder if father was once employed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And four lavatory chains (with rubber handles). And some tools so ancient I think they must pre-date father. And 300 yards of rope. And a set of jump leads that would start a Centurion tank.
We sat in our dining room staring disconsolately at the boxes of things. I muttered, “Judging from the number of bars of soap he’s got he must be planning to live a long time!” From the next room the allegedly stone-deaf father shouted, “It’s cheaper in bulk!”
Please think about your children. Next time you go shopping, get those black bin bags.