The German Chancellor lands in Greece. ‘Name?’ asks the Greek immigration officer. ‘Angela Merkel.’ ‘Nationality?’ ‘German.’ ‘Occupation?’ ‘No, I’m just here for a couple of days.’ A joke a BBC radio journalist overheard in Athens, and the only nugget of the constant media barrage about The Crisis I let seep in this week. Too much, all the time, la la la, let’s talk about something else. Another crisis: my clutter one.
Are you like me? You’d love to live in one of those interiors you see at the end of Channel Four’s Grand Designs. The owners of the dream house show off the light-filled spaciousness here, the gorgeous minimal calm there, ne’er an ironing board heaving with creased clothes, nor a spatula out of place in the spanking new kitchen. But your reality is more like one of those Channel Four documentaries featuring loons with problems like their house being so packed with back issues of Bunty, there’s no place left in their living space to stand, let alone actually live.
You know the way: it’s not that you’re a hoarder; it’s just that stuff accumulates over time, and unless you’re diligent about ongoing sorting and chucking, you suddenly find yourself in Crisis! I’m there. Everything needs sorting — creeping outcrop of books, catastrophe of CDS, calamity of clothes, paperwork, towels, appliances, shoes — STUFF. Everything seems to have coalesced in a cacophony of STUFF screaming, ‘Sort Us!’
Then you’re on your knees starting to go through about 40 pairs of shoes, and you just kind of lose the will to live and have to stop. You find yourself thinking, ‘I bet Madonna doesn’t waste time staring at an old pair of running shoes, thinking, “Is it time to chuck these? On the one hand, they were extremely expensive. On the other, that was 11 years ago and they smell weird.’ I invoke Madonna as an epitome of ‘Successful Person’, I can’t imagine her wasting her successful lady time sorting her own stuff going, ‘Pointy bras — haven’t worn for yonks. Bin!’ I aspire to a level of success, therefore I don’t tidy. That’s the logic. It’s the last to-do on the list, until it reaches this point.
Stuff has got to go, but what? The matching African masks that an ex got me in Ethiopia, or wherever? No, they remind me that someone once thought enough of me to cart two big chunky wooden yokes all the way back to Ireland from Ethiopia, or wherever. The little souvenir wooden sake bowl I got at the ceremony to mark the start of boring the Dublin Port Tunnel? Have to keep that: it’s a little bit of Irish history. What about what’s in it now? A ball of hair from a Saharan camel I sat on once? Have to keep that: it’s a little bit of personal history. Three failures to dump it already, and that’s just the ornamental wooden and dromedary-hair section — a tidy subcategory of the overall horror.
Kids. They give you perspective. I go round to my friend’s house: four-year-old twins, a six and a seven-year-old and an astronomical mass of toys, not least hundreds of biteens of newfangled tiny Lego. She tries to tidy, attempts to sort, but ultimately, I see her method is ‘Chill out — the place is going to be teetering on a disaster zone for a decade — nothing I can do’. I leave her house inspired; I too must chill about my ambient mess. But I don’t have four kids under eight. I have no excuse.
Well, here’s one: there’s just too much stuff generally. I’m reminded of an Alexei Sayle short story I came across a while back. In it, aliens land on Earth. ‘We come in peace,’ they say. ‘We have gifts for you.’ And we, the humans, say, ‘No! We have gifts for you!’ And there’s a log-jam of giftgiving as the aliens attempt to offload their overload of Stuff on us and we, ours, on them. In fact that’s why they struck out across the universe: to get rid of the excess stuff that’s clogging their planet. It’s an intergalactic, universal problem with intelligent life; ultimately there are too many knick-knacks involved. In terms of the existence of our planet, it’s taken the blink of an eye for us to go from fashioning the odd flint arrowhead to massproducing trillions of thingamajigs, from souvenir whoopee cushions to ipads.
And there can never be a ‘Stop, hang on, let’s see if we’ve got enough already!’ moment. Just gotta keep on chucking… I’m throwing out shoes, while recalling my mother mentioning that as child she didn’t have shoes in summer. I’m bin-bagging bad fashion buys thinking of the sweat shops whence they came — what a cycle of waste: exploitationlevel labour, a couple of wears, landfill. I’m dumping the crazy ‘massage pillow’ I got given as a promotional gift recently, an inflatable cushion with a battery-operated vibrator thing inside. I tried it once — it was like having a big bluebottle under your back. Less ‘massage’, more ‘sensation of being attacked by giant fly’. Bin time for you!
My minuscule apartment will never be Grand Designs-worthy but at least a roll of bin bags and a determination to declare ‘rubbish!’ can get this crisis under control. And the ongoing bigger one? La, la, la...