The joy of decluttering

Bill Bailey / 01 May 2017

Bill Bailey on why no one has room for another shelf of books about decluttering.



I always think that, as mood-lifters go, having a bit of a clear-out is hard to beat. In the name of research, I found myself idly browsing the internet for some ‘happiness guides’. One expert had the eye-catching moniker of ‘positive psychology guru’, a job that was somehow overlooked by my school careers officer.

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I have no quibble with the fine precepts – ‘don’t judge others, stay optimistic, always put the lids back on pickle jars’ etc – but in my experience something less high-minded and more mundane will often elicit the same amount of wellbeing. By all means strive for a mental equilibrium by eliminating negative thinking, but while you’re doing that, chuck some stuff out and that’ll really help.

I’m looking at items of clothing I have inexplicably been holding on to for years. One in particular is an ill-fitting nondescript grey T-shirt that has no redeeming features. It never really felt comfortable on, it’s faded, and has holes around the collar. And yet I’m humming and hawing over it like it’s a family heirloom. The flimsy reasoning is that it might come in handy for something.

Ah, but what about this lovely Chinese jacket/smock thing that I bought in a street market in Yunnan province. Yes, in rural China it seemed like a good idea. But in Hammersmith it looks ridiculous. I look like a sitcom art teacher. Or a prime-time TV drama calligraphy expert who has a secret life as an opium dealer.

I will never, ever wear it, unless I am cast in one of these roles. And then it would look over the top. A long, droopy Fu Manchu moustache and a ponytail would look more authentic. But it’s still in the wardrobe, of course. Might come in handy one day.

Before the 1980s there was no storage industry in Britain. So were we always a nation of hoarders? And if so, where did we put it all before storage units? Before The Storage Age, we had to take things to the tip or hand them down to the next generation. Now we have the option to just… put them somewhere else.

You’ll have seen them cropping up near you. It’s a boom industry. There are now more than 1,000 storage warehouses around Britain, full of stuff we can’t chuck out or have no room for.

This surely flies in the face of all the Zen simplification and Eastern philosophy that we’ve been exposed to for decades.

Perhaps it’s a DNA echo from our early ancestors, when storing up stuff was not just a whim, it was for survival. Although I don’t know what evolutionary advantage is conferred by a standard lamp and a nest of occasional tables. The decluttering industry is part of the problem. There’s no space for all those books on decluttering so we box them up and put them in storage.

There is a kind of existential joy in having a clear-out. There’s a smug sense of being wiser. Looking at all this nonsense and shaking your head, saying ‘What was I thinking?’

I found some items I’d brought back from the Glastonbury Festival. An ornamental mobile made out of bent spoons. A metal chicken made from old engine parts. A jester’s hat. Might be handy.

When a friend came round to take me paintballing, I quizzed him on what I should wear under the protective stuff.

Just wear an old T-shirt.

What like a faded one, one with holes round the collar, one that doesn’t really fit?

Yeah, that sort of thing.

What, like this grey one?

Perfect.

How about this Chinese jacket over the top of it?

No.

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