My wardrobe, floordrobe, was supposed to be a curated collection of neutral basics plus a smattering of thrifty vintage pieces mixed with designer splurges. There was that pair of leather strappy sandals bought in Greece that I could never wear for more than half an hour before they rubbed my feet raw to ribbons. After every hangover, I vowed to give up my late nights. I was going to reinvent myself and spend my Sundays outdoors, just as soon as I’d broken in the hiking boots that pinched so much that I lost all feeling in my toes. I knew they were supposed to be tight but once they’d moulded to my feet, they would be the most comfortable footwear in the world. I thought I looked the business in those silver leather brogues until I saw three other women wearing the same shoes at the same event as me. Embarrassing wasn’t the word.
I know now to never buy this year’s colour in a leather handbag. It’s a waste of money because it only lasts one season and I’d have to keep it for 12-15 years before I could use it again. Chain store coats are also a mistake unless I wanted to look like everyone else.
Marie said to put all of my clothes onto the bed so I knew what I’d got. Passers-by could see right into this basement flat, but I didn’t care. They also didn’t seem bothered because it was still raining, so they were hurrying by, just wanting to get where they were going.
I was down to my bra and knickers, trying on everything I owned, chucking my clothes into piles – keep, bin, donate, sell – whilst dancing around to an 80s pop mix. Between songs I could hear a burglar alarm wailing like an old-fashioned air raid signal so I just cranked up the music a bit louder to drown it out. Then someone startled me by banging on my window and shouting “get out!”. I quickly put on a pair of comfy cord jeans and an old baggy t shirt and ran to the front door to yell right back at them. Before I could open it, I heard water trickling down the steps and saw it creeping under the door towards me. For a moment, I stood there, watching my slippers get soaked.
“This is the police helicopter. The river has breached its bank. You are in imminent danger. Please evacuate your property immediately and make your way to higher ground.”
In less than thirty seconds, I was out of there. I grabbed my phone, purse, glasses, a pair of trainers, socks, knickers, a jumper, that book I was reading and (weirdly) a pillow. I put on the first coat I saw hanging up and snatched another. Then, swinging a black bin bag containing all my worldly goods, I pelted up the street, splashing through the ankle high water in my sodden slippers, as if I had seen the last bus coming.
The truth is that ordinary folk in the States don’t live in the perpetual autumnal town of ‘Stars Hollow’, nor is the opening shot of a fabulous Brownstone apartment in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ a realistic home for many. The closest us Brits get to wood panelled rooms and the servants quarters of ‘Downton Abbey’ is on a family day trip, visiting a National Trust property.
None of the characters on British soap operas could afford to buy the houses on the wages of the fictitious jobs they do. Even the ‘Friends’ characters wouldn’t have been able to rent their apartments back then, let alone now. Bridget Jones could only dream of her grubby, tiny Zone 1 flat as a single woman on an average salary. What would be the point? She’d never be able to socialise. No money.
When time was measured by pencil lines on the door frame, and the term ‘staycation’ hadn’t even been invented, DIY happened twice a year in our house. Spring cleaning meant that every Easter, the four days that the adults in the house had off work, were spent washing net curtains and sofa covers, dragging duvets to the launderette, pulling furniture out and hoovering with the nozzle on the brighter patch of compressed carpet behind the wardrobes or damp dusting of skirting boards with old vests cut up into cleaning rags. Every year my mother would comment on how many spiders must have lived behind her bedside table and if she’d known, she’d never have been able to sleep.
There was a wall-mounted telephone in the hall, which sadly lacked the extra-long cable you see in TV programmes. An old dining chair lived permanently underneath, which was more useful these days as a prop to rest alternate feet whilst tying shoelaces, than as a seat for long conversations. On it was a mint green floral cushion featuring a slightly cross-eyed appliquéd owl that I made in primary school. Another one of my creative endeavours survives in that hall to this day. I sprayed an ornate picture frame gold, then hot glue-gunned some circular slivers of wine corks from my brother’s wedding over the painting. I thought my notice boards were a winner and planned to sell them at a craft fair, but never got around to it. There’s probably a etsy shop now selling similar somewhere in rural America. For over twenty years, that corkboard has remained the hub of both equally vital and useless information for the house. A Snoopy pen with a neck ribbon hanging from a hook. Postcards from pre-Obama holidays in Miami and Florida, the Dr’s phone number and opening times, a yellowing newspaper clipping of one of the grandchildren in a local play, a dry-cleaning stub, a tiny pink scrap of paper congratulating you on winning £25 on the lottery, a torn-off piece of cardboard from a lightbulb box as a reminder to buy some more, a half-used book of first-class stamps, taxi business cards and a list of household jobs that need doing. Defrost the freezer. Clean the oven. Wash glass light fittings. Move bed. Sort bathroom cabinet. Sharpen knives. Declutter.
Declutter. It had to be done. Basically, for us kids, it involved spending a whole day pulling everything we owned out of our wardrobes and putting most of it back in again, but tidily. That or helping with some proper elbow-grease scrubbing downstairs. Windows open, music blasting, dusting. Dragging furniture round to change the feng shui of my bedroom. I never had Molly Ringwald’s room or any brat pack teen movie bedroom for that matter, and I always had this nagging feeling that there was someone out there who would judge my record collection and deem me unworthy. I got to use the fancy, scented drawer liners that mum got me for Christmas, and spent the evening looking through her catalogues, writing up a list of clothes I thought I needed for the summer. By Saturday afternoon, there were libary books to be returned, magazines to donate, black sacks for the tip, or the charity shop, and clothes to be mended. Everything back in its right place.
Easter Sunday obviously meant chocolate for breakfast. Hopefully, we would all get an egg in a mug which would become our new favourite. Other times, it was a smaller egg in a pretty eggcup, plus the promise of a day out at the zoo or theme park. My brother always hoped for a real ostrich egg but they cost £10 each, which seemed a bit steep. We were reminded that “an egg was a whole day’s work for a bird” and anyway, there weren’t enough of us to eat an ostrich egg, so it would go to waste.
Before lunch, I’d set the table with the fancy cutlery, that was usually kept in a shiny, heavily laquered wooden box, lined with red velvet, and, if we were having visitors, make name place settings using pinking shears, thick cardboard and felt tips. I liked to be quiet and still so I could see the motes hanging in the air in that cool dining room. Once we were all as small as those insignificant specks of human skin dust. I’d change the antimacassars from the armchairs to the Irish linen embroidered ones, polish the cut crystal glasses, and try to find the youngest mint leaves that had taken over the vegetable patch to mix with some malt vinegar. Roast leg of lamb for lunch. Being a teenage vegetarian meant I had the same meal as the rest of the family minus the meat, but I made myself some extra thick Bisto gravy, and possibly some bread sauce.
I hadn’t been a veggie very long, not even a year, so I was still experimenting with food. My mother said that if I got anaemic then I’d have to eat liver or beef once a week whether I wanted to or not, because I was still growing. When I became an adult, I could eat what I liked, so I decided very quickly that cavalo nero was going to be my favourite vegetable. I made my own humous, with chick peas from cans and tahini from the local health food shop. My worst purchase there was fennel toothpaste, but their falafal mix was quite good for my amateur palate. I invented something with red lentils, marmite and cheese, and begged my mother to fill the freezer with spinach and ricotta lasagnes.
It was a strange experience that made me turn vegetarian. The previous August bank holiday weekend, I was given the job of repainting my bedroom window frames. A butterfly got stuck on the paint and there was nothing I could do to help it. I watched it hopelessly struggle for ages after it tore a wing, before it finally gave up. I felt guilty for not helping, but relieved that it was a cabbage white with a tiny wing dot in the shape of a black heart, and not the rarer, more dazzling, common blue. Did insects have feelings? Was my overreaction empathy? A few days later, the butterfly had gone. It had been wiped away. Where its leg and wing had been trapped, there were two tiny marks. I’d sometimes gaze out of the window, thinking about what my future would be like, and run my finger over them. The smallest reminder of a brief life lived.
So many people want to declutter but cannot let go of books. Any of their books. I move house fairly often and I can tell you that boxes of books are really heavy and dusty! They have to be packed, carried downstairs and loaded onto a van. Unloaded, carried upstairs then unpacked by me. Some books I owned were just not worth the bother. After one move, three boxes of books remained boxed up for over two years.
I’ve had the following conversation several times with people and the most common responses are “Nooooooo! Why would I want to do that? I could never get rid of any of my books! They mean too much to me. I might read them again. I would regret it”
Is there a person inside your head who judges your book collection? If you had fewer books, would they disapprove?
If someone took away one book a day, how long would it take you to notice?
Would you know which ones were missing?
Would you miss them?
For the prize of a thousand pounds/dollars, could you whittle your collection down to one bookcase or shelf of your absolute favourite books?
Imagine you can take only twenty books with you when you move abroad. How do you feel about leaving the other books?
Is it sentimentality, cost, status, perceived value, it was a gift, they are a collection?
If you love it and will read it again, then keep it.
If you don’t, then why are you holding onto it?
If you loaned your copy of a book to a friend, and never got it back, would you buy it again?
Does your ‘to read’ pile never seem to go down?
Will there never be the right time to read certain books you own?
If you knew that someone else wanted to read a book that you owned, and you probably wouldn’t get around to reading it, would you give/sell it to them?
Letting go doesn’t have to happen all at once. You didn’t acquire them all overnight, so the cull doesn’t have to be dramatic.
Books are meant to be read, not to gather dust. There is barely enough time to do everything you need to do, so don’t feel guilty about not finishing a book.
I’m not heartless. I get the struggle. I do keep some books from childhood with my name and class neatly written inside. I bought first-editions of future classics by accident that I can’t bear to part with. Pangs of memories forgotten of old train or concert tickets used as bookmarks. Those expensive signed hardbacks where I queued for two hours to get two minutes with the author.
I’m into audiobooks now, so have digital clutter to contend with, and unlike my spare room, I have a very restricted amount of storage.