I’ve had an almighty clear-out of my flat this year. It’s been ruthless. My home has basically undergone the domestic equivalent of colonic irrigation. A total flush-out of its nether regions. If my flat had a waistline, it would now spend its days thumbing its belt loops whilst bragging that it had dropped a jean size.
There are two reasons why I had the cull. The first was to make valuable space in my home for new, exciting, future crap to fill. The second was to give my green wheelie bin pause for thought. The cocky blighter sits by the back door all year round, lording it over the poor old black bin, collecting nothing but rinsed-out bean tins, folded cardboard and those inky local newspapers that only ever seem to arrive on a Sunday afternoon (and consist of little more than a front-page headline about well-attended fetes and ads for window installation services). The black bin, on the other hand, has a right old time of it, routinely jammed to capacity with dinner scrapings, out-of-date fruit, snotty tissues and crusts of toast. It was only right that the green bin took some flak, too.
The cull started in spring with me wheeling the green bin round to the shed door – you should’ve seen its face – and loading it with broken bric-a-brac. Where this junk all came from, I don’t know. It was as if the residents on my street had all secretly been given a key to my shed and then filled it with things from their own whenever I was out. The clearing process took weeks. Before I knew it, spring had turned to summer.
During those long warm days, whilst most people were sunning themselves merry on continental beaches (and uploading photos to social media as evidence), I was mostly indoors, cracking drawers open that hadn’t seen daylight since Dannii Minogue was an X Factor judge. No stone was left unturned. I even went into the pantry and attacked the dreaded Morrisons carrier bag which, for the last decade, I’d been using as a ‘filing system’ for every bill and statement, every contract and agreement, that passed through my letterbox. Pulling it out of the pantry and into the light, the bag split and crumbled into a biodegradable mess, as though gnawed by invisible mice. A ten-year retrospective of correspondence sprawled across my kitchen floor: gas bills, water bills, council tax updates, Phones 4 U contracts, insurance agreements, credit card offers and credit card threats. They looked like Michael Aspel’s research notes for a special capitalist edition of This Is Your Life.
Other than a vague anxiety about the importance of letters that say ‘important’ on the envelope, I’m not sure why I’d been keeping these bits of paper. It certainly wasn’t to look back at them and reminisce over classic council tax statements of yore. So, going against the advice of every One Show feature fellow-baldy Dominic Littlewood has ever made, I threw it all in the bin. Pin codes, sort codes, account numbers, phone numbers, passwords, the lot. Balls to it. If some wretch wanted to root through my trash and steal my identity, they were welcome to it. I’d been thinking of getting a new one, anyway.
The satisfaction of the cull was considerable. I found myself opening drawers just to stare inside and admire the new space. The gap on the pantry floor, where the Morrisons bag of bills once slouched, was sweeter still. Who would have thought that throwing stuff out could be so liberating? Especially considering the fact that every time I did so, I was effectively binning money. With each item I threw away, I thought of its original cost. The running total of money wasted currently stands at about £217,000. (I suspect Dominic Littlewood would roll his eyes at that information, too.)
As joyous as culls are – except to badgers – there’s always the danger that you might throw the wrong thing away. You never know for sure what’s going to be worth keeping in years to come. The whole process was similar to a particularly brutal episode of Antiques Roadshow, where I, the expert, spent two or three seconds, max, valuing items before tossing them away:
‘Book about Friends? Bin. Hoover attachment? Bin. What’s this, then? Cherished, childhood cuddly toy with a gnawed left ear? Bin.’
There’s comfort to be had in kidding yourself that, like Del Boy, your fortune might be dormant in your attic or garage, waiting to be discovered and auctioned off at Sotheby’s. It’s a soft, fuzzy daydream of optimism similar to that feeling you get when, at a low ebb, you buy a lottery ticket and realise that it’s Sunday and you still haven’t checked last night’s numbers. For that next few minutes, you might just be a millionaire. You react accordingly, mentally divvying out the incoming fortune, working out who’ll get what and how much you’ll have left. (Among the obvious close-family beneficiaries, I always plan a few surprises when I come to claim my lottery fortune. I envisage myself striding around north Norfolk, rapping on door knockers with bags of legal tender, like Scrooge the morning after the third ghost’s visit.) Well, there’ll be no such soft, fuzzy daydreams for me. I now know for a fact that there’ll be no priceless heirloom unearthed on my property: it’s all in a landfill site.
There was, however, something worth salvaging amongst the detritus. At the bottom of a cupboard, I found an old Walkers Crisps box. It stopped me in my culling tracks. It was loaded with old school work. I sat on the floor and read it all, from the cack-handed worksheets to the cack-handed essays. I even read the cack-handed school reports, which were all in general agreement that, if I continued to work at my bang-average rate of effort, I would achieve a bang-average set of GCSE results. (For the record, these predictions were bang on.) To be honest, judging by the number of doodles on my work, it’s a wonder I even managed to complete my GCSEs. The interior cover of one exercise book was almost wholly covered in practice attempts at my signature. Clearly, I had high hopes for myself. Ah, sweet, optimistic youth. These days I only use my signature for when I’m getting cash-back at Tesco.
But it wasn’t the schoolwork that caught my eye. It was the scripts. There were loads of them. A vast, teeming dossier of my thespian college days. Pantomimes, talent show sketches, plays, skits, compère notes. All awful, of course, but all neatly handwritten with more fuss and more care than I ever put into real school work. I’d kept everything. Why and when I’d compiled this all and packed it safely into the Walkers box, I don’t recall. But I patted myself on the back for doing so. There was even a diabolical sitcom in there that I’d sent to the BBC, aged seventeen, called – and I almost want to be sick as I write this – Two’s Company. It was about two old men who ran a newspaper shop. The twist was that they didn’t like it. The BBC wrote back. They didn’t like it, either. They gently encouraged me to keep writing but otherwise heavily implied that they were going to put their collective energy into things like The Royle Family, The Office and The League of Gentlemen instead. Fools.
Whereas my brain had mercifully repressed my memory of Two’s Company, there was one piece of writing from my sixth form days to which I’d privately given mythical qualities over the years. It was my first attempt at proper writing. A last-minute task in English. The teacher asked us to write about a desert. He gave us five minutes. After I’d shakily read it aloud, he broke with convention and said it was ‘good’. The girl next to me said it ‘geeeniius’. And I was away. Off with the fairies. Maybe I could be a writer. Maybe I could probably be the best writer ever.
I didn’t know that I’d kept it, the desert task. I almost wished I hadn’t. I’d since given my memory bias seventeen years of free reign to inflate the piece’s quality, importance and reception. I’d allowed myself to believe it was a telling precursor of future greatness, reminiscent of something from Sketches By Boz. It’s easy to do that when you know for a fact that neither you, or anybody else, will ever read it… But there it was, in the crisp box, word for horrible word:
The harrowing heat hangs aimlessly around signs which lead to nowhere. The dry, dreary landscape is drenched in nothingness. The vast empty sky grabs your attention whilst the tumbleweed glides its way past on its thoughtless flourish to nowhere. The sun’s heat lures you in like a master criminal before it attacks and leaves you almost lifeless, gasping for breath.
Ta-dah! Good, eh? I’ll let you decide whether or not it’s a telling precursor of future greatness.
After reading, I slipped it quietly back and surveyed the scene. It was strange seeing it there, the bulk of my education, all crammed into one box, from loopy, scraggly childish stories to loopy, scraggly university lecture notes on Jurgen Habermas’ Public Sphere. And stranger still to think that there are lights, sounds, smells and colours to accompany it all, stored in an even smaller box at the top of my neck.
My MacBook died recently. Gone in one second were seven years of sketches, stories, sitcoms, manuscripts and many other failed attempts at creating telling precursors of future greatness. The files can be retrieved, I’m reliably informed. But it does bring to the fore something of the charm of pens and paper. In the future, I might show my grandchildren – or any grandchildren I can get within earshot of – my Crisp Box of Achievement. Granted, they’ll be far more interested in how much the Walkers logo has changed, but it will be nice to show them just how thick I was in school. Desktop folders won’t have the same charm, I expect. Unlike my schoolwork, word documents won’t have doodles on them, or furiously scrawled clandestine notes like ‘Fuck I hate Shakespeare and Keats – and Joyce!!!’ It’s odd to think that in the future, people may be required to sign into web accounts in order to reminisce. Crisp Boxes of Achievement will be a thing of the past.
Maybe the junk isn’t too bad, after all.
If anybody needs me, I’ll be down at the landfill site, getting my stuff back.