Tuesday, 13 September 2016
I've been doing a lot of clearing out, packing up, and throwing away lately. This takes a certain physical toll, obviously. Heaving crates in and out of cars and and up and down stairs in the heat and dust is definitely a job for a younger man, and I find I tire more easily than I used to. But it has also been emotionally exhausting. Unexpectedly so, although I suppose this shouldn't be so surprising. Our children are moving out of the family home, which is as it should be, but the imminence of an "empty nest" does draw your attention to the accumulated stuff of 25 years of family life, which fills a house several times over with a compacted tangle of memories and associations that is, at the same time, a precious legacy and a substantial obstacle to moving on. You know that you shouldn't and can't keep all that stuff for ever, but dealing with it requires a degree of ruthless unsentimentality which is hard to summon up in sustained doses. In fact, that effort is actually far more exhausting than humping the dusty boxes down to Oxfam and the Recycling Centre.
An attachment to inanimate objects is a natural human tendency, but one which can get out of hand. I accept that I have what we might call an advanced tolerance for clutter, though not to a pathological level. Mind you, it is curious, isn't it, how the opposite tendency – to continually discard stuff as if it were toxic – is not popularly regarded as a bad thing? Hoarding and a fear of clutter and disorder are doubtless two sides of the same neurotic coin, but I'm not aware of any TV programmes dedicated to filling the anaemically-minimalist houses of the super-hip with remedial clutter. That could be fun to watch, though, I reckon. Oh, come on, just a couple of piles of books over there, where's the harm? And, hey, why not leave the washed-up dishes on the draining board for a couple of days? You're only going to use them again, after all... And I want to see that pair of socks on the banister still there when we come back next week! We could call it How Sterile is Your House? or maybe Does Anyone Really Live Here?
I suppose the truest test of emotional steel, though, is when it comes to dealing with your own sentimental objects, especially those things you have kept close by you for most of your life. I had a dramatic illustration of this just recently.
A very long time ago, in my pre-teen years, I was a keen collector of moths. A teacher at my primary school was a serious amateur entomologist and palaeontologist and, spotting my love of natural history, he turned me on to both hobbies. For a few years, I was a full-on moth-nut. I'd sling a lightbulb and white sheet over the washing line, and net anything that stumbled drunkenly into my trap. With the guidance of books from the library I constructed my own entomologist's kit; a net from a coat hanger and a bamboo cane, a killing bottle from a ground-glass jar with ammonia-soaked plaster in the bottom, a relaxing tin from a tupperware box, setting boards from balsa sheet and tracing paper, and so on. Like the naturalist-collectors of the Edwardian period, who shot birds out of the sky and skinned them to get a proper look at their plumage, I was slaughtering and preserving the very things I purported to admire. My generation may have been the last not to see the inherent contradiction, though the hands-on skills in miniature taxidermy and species identification we developed in the process were not negligible. We were probably also the last 12-year-olds to be able to enter a High Street chemist, ask for a bottle of ether or ammonia ("For my killing bottle, mister!"), and walk out unaccompanied by the police or social services.
The one item I did not make myself was a double-sided "clamshell" wooden box, about 18" x 12", bought mail-order from Watkins & Doncaster – still in business after 140 years! – in which my collection was kept. Despite giving up the hobby in my teen years, I kept my boxed collection of moths – I suppose as a reminder of one of those paths not taken, which say as much about us and who we are as the paths we did choose – and it has followed me loyally as part of my material entourage over the years. However, until a few weeks ago, I hadn't actually opened it for decades.
Yikes. It seems my skills at preservation, or the air-tightness of the box were not quite as good as claimed. Over fifty years most of the contents had been reduced to dust, leaving just ranks of pins and paper labels standing among scattered limbs and fragments of wing. What I'd been keeping was not so much a collection as an insect charnel house. It was clearly beyond saving, and I simply vacuumed the lot out, taking on board the rich metaphor I'd just been handed about holding on to things for too long, courtesy of the unsentimental forces of entropy. Though it was still with some regret that I heaved the box into the "mixed timbers" skip at the Recycling Centre that afternoon.
I suppose a proper artist would have made something more of this, though goodness knows what. Certainly more than a thinly-veiled blog-post about the piercing sadness of throwing out your children's old toys. Although... Being of an inveterate post-war waste-not-want-not stripe, I did keep some of the tiny, beautifully hand-written labels – annotated with species, date and place of capture – removed from the delicate pins of a small, antique collection of butterflies I'd acquired to augment my collection. It struck me that, hmm, with a bit of scanning, there might be the germ of a photo-collage project there, maybe even a little artist's book...