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Marie Kondos of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your cheque stubs

April 1, 2021

Have fun, Boris Johnson tells us in this bright shiny week when England goes en fête because six people can gather together in the park. Down in ours, the tennis players are back, and a middle-aged chap sits on a park bench nearby playing jaunty tunes on his guitar.

Boris’s idea of fun, of course, is chasing around his lover’s flat looking for a sock because he has an impending date with members of the royal family. Or was, back in the days when he was London’s libidinous mayor, according to an expose on his relationship with one Jennifer Arcuri.

My idea of a good time is far more boring. I have a round or two of golf lined up over the next few weeks. That will be fun of a sort, though my body, unused to five mile walks punctuated by violent spinal contortion, is unlikely to see things that way. But the real amusement lies in what I call The Sorting.

If that sounds like the title of a horror film involving a demented postman, all well and good, because dementia is very much on the agenda. Not because I suffer from it as far as as I’m aware, even though those closest to me might secretly believe that I’ve been demented for decades. But for anyone who’s just reached seventy, as I have, gaga is no longer a landmark on a distant horizon.

Nor is our project to clear out stuff that we don’t need the result of any desire for an uncluttered life advocated by that pre-COVID self-improvement hero, Marie Kondo. She’s young, after all, and the young rarely appreciate the ephemera accumulated over over a long life, because their lives have not, in terms of average life expectancy, been long. In other words, less experiences, less memories and less stuff that triggers those memories.

No, The Sorting is necessary because we need to prepare for a time when we no longer find pleasure in rattling around a large house, and start thinking about the dangers of having to shuffle around with a Zimmer frame, tripping over unnecessary obstacles and taking an eternity to find a doctor’s appointment letter (amazingly, my lot still send letters) among a mountain of paperwork. Best to do that preparation now, while we still retain some remnants of middle-aged vigour, rather than to wait until we’re so old that we couldn’t give a damn, and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it even if we did.

So over the past couple of weeks I’ve become very friendly with my local recycling centre. Every day or three, I’ve been down there with our latest load of stuff, much of it from the attic and the rest from the garage. I’ve disposed of all kind of things, some of which induce pangs of guilt. I feel particularly bad about jettisoning ancient DVD recorders and desktop computers (hard disks removed) which work perfectly well but are rendered redundant by satellite TV boxes, laptops and smart phones. Our ancestors, who built stuff to last for generations, would be flabbergasted that something as sophisticated and intricately constructed as a motherboard should be useless within ten or fifteen years.

But electronics, wonky furniture, moth-eaten clothes and leaky garden hoses are merely the low-hanging fruit of The Sorting. Things get interesting and, in a weird kind of way, fun, when, as members of a fast-dwindling population for whom paper was at the centre of our lives, we get to grips with the written evidence of the past that will soon be irrelevant to all but ourselves.

I’m not talking about the kind of papers that end up in the Bodleian Library – a lifetime’s collection of letters, doodles and musings by the likes of Isaac Newton and Winston Churchill. Much as I’d like it to have been otherwise, our lives will not be analysed, dissected and argued about for centuries once we’re gone. Curious descendants with a yen for family history might wish to delve, but all they’re likely to find are clues as to the origin of their own quirks. Assuming, of course, that when we’re gone our immediate offspring, when going through the quiet ritual known as Sorting the Effects of the Deceased don’t decide that the stuff we value isn’t worth keeping and make their own journeys to the municipal dump.

Therein lies a key question: what do we value? Not so much for the benefit of future generations, but for us, while we still have the capacity to recall events in our lives and bathe in nostalgia?

Of what value are chequebook stubs, apart from serving to remind me how ridiculously loyal I was to the bank I started with when I first went to university? Why keep the stern letters from bank managers about overdrafts, credit card statements, ancient employment contracts, phone bills, tax returns, airline tickets and ream upon ream of paperwork relating to businesses in which I’ve been involved over four decades? They may have served as evidence of what I did, where and when – insurance against one day having to prove such facts, even though I couldn’t conceive of having reason to do so. But now, no value, except in the opportunity while purging them to revisit both good and difficult days before the memories finally fade.

Anything dating beyond a handful of years is irrelevant, stacked in chests in the garage, never visited. Time to get rid. Not so much the vestigial records that remind me of the essentials, but why do I need to remember that on May 17 1992 we had to call a plumber out to fix a broken ballcock? Unless, of course, in a fit of murderous rage I destroyed the loo as well. Which I didn’t.

Simple then. Just chuck ’em. Well not quite. A while ago, my wife, out of an abundance of caution, suggested that we should remove any personal information from bits of paper we discard. I should have thought that there were easier ways of gathering sufficient information to steal our identities, through hacking for example. But she assures me that there are gremlins and goblins out there who recycle paper and do just that.

This means that the whole process involves mass snipping, which takes some time. But what the hell. I always reckon that going to the dump is like another kind of dump. This is similar. It just means that you have the chance to listen to an interminable Mahler symphony or the entire works of Bob Dylan while doing the needful.

There are some items that are spared The Sorting. These include every birthday and Christmas card since the beginning of time (not my decision). Also the obvious stuff: photos, programmes of plays I acted in, letters, miscellaneous writings, school reports, certificates of birth, deaths and marriage. Then there are all the things relating to the offspring: school books, baby’s first weight chart, works of art of staggering beauty created when the artist was seven, as well as a video which bears the legend “strictly off-limits to my parents”, which I imagine dates to one or the other’s teenage years and gives rise to the ethical dilemma as to whether the content can be used by the bride’s father when that time comes.

Working though this lot is indeed fun, though in a sad kind of way when I compare the young face staring at me from visa applications and ancient driving licences with what I see in the mirror today. And then, halfway through the project, I got a reminder of why it’s worth doing. It came in the form of a documentary about Jack Charlton, a footballer celebrated as a player and a manager. A man of trenchant views and a character in all the best senses of the word. It looked back on his life, but included footage of him in old age before his dementia carried him off: staring into space, able to remember little of his long and productive life.

The moral of the tale is that when you have your marbles, use them. Something, I suspect, that Marie Kondo will come to appreciate in a few decades’ time. Will her de-cluttering philosophy survive into old age, or will she devise some new pearls of wisdom about what you shouldn’t throw away? And will she come to realise that what might fail to spark joy today might one day remind us of joys past?

If so, I’ll be long gone by that time, so back to the cheque stubs. Not much joy to be found in them, that’s for sure.

From → Business, History, Social, UK

  1. Are you slowly turning into “disgruntled, Tunbridge Wells” if so beware the Ides of March.

    • By no means Rachel. My gruntle is one thing I have no intention of sending to the dump….

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