A few years ago an elderly gentleman in north London called Mr Trebus had stuffed his home from floor to ceiling in every room, with what most of us would call rubbish. Even his garden was chock-a-block with biscuits and fridges. The neighbours were fed up, the local council in despair, and Mr Trebus was regarded as fairly batty, but I rather sympathised with him. My house was also filling up with drek, and I am not alone; according to a report commissioned by Lloyds TSB Insurance, the British are hoarding more and more useless clutter – so much so that many of our homes are nearly half full, yes half full, of stuff that we don't need or want.
So Mr Trebus was at the forefront of social change. According to the researchers, we have a growing problem with clutter in this country, and we find it particularly hard to get rid of electrical devices and toys. The average British person has 3,370 cubic feet of his/her home stuffed with items that they rarely, or never, use. That's twice as much clutter as we used to have 30 years ago.
I've just checked my basement and found that I have four desktop computers, two sets of speakers, two hi-fis, one monitor, two printers, one radio, two bicycles and a mountain of tins of paint, and that's just the stuff at the front. So the electrical devices are clearly a bit of a problem. Why can't I get rid of them? I'll tell you. Because some of them may still work. What if my current computer breaks down and I need emergency backup? I could use one of those.
Or could I? I once asked a computer-mender friend to check which ones were useable. He sorted them out. The plan was that I take the useless ones to the recycling centre. But that meant getting them out of the basement, schlepping them to the car and driving them to the dump, which was all a bit of a performance, so I didn't bother, and by the time I wanted to bother, I couldn't remember which were the useless ones, so they're all still there, with a few more in front of them. Besides, how can one just chuck out something that cost hundreds of pounds? It doesn't seem right. My mother couldn't bear to throw out brown paper bags or old tights. How can I throw away expensive electrical goods?
No wonder we're all hoarding them like mad. And as for toys, well, what if we one day have grandchildren? Or great-grandchildren? They might want to use them. Which is why I can't get rid of the giant rocking horse, or the Daughter's Chopper, or the 60-year-old monkey called Roger who belonged to my mother, or lots of her clothes, particularly her evening dresses, which I might one day wear, or her bed-jacket, which I won't ever wear, or piles of my own old clothes that I might wear again (because everyone knows that fashion is cyclical), or my first pair of tiny little blue baby shoes that my mother kept, or all my daughter's school exercise books, all of which is why my home is stuffed to the gills.
Mr Trebus and I are just two among millions. There are endless websites to help you clear out all the clutter. They give practical instructions, zen suggestions, mostly rather obvious and some insufferably bossy: "Start now! start small, don't panic, do 15 minutes at a time, start with the sock drawer." I rather resent this sort of advice. It implies that I am stupid. I know all that. I just can't do it.
Then I spot a particularly difficult bit of advice. "Analyse yourself." What just like that? How do I know why I can't throw anything away? So I ask psychologist Linda Blair, whose book Straight Talking tells us "how to deal with modern-day anxieties", why we are all hoarding more, particularly electrical bits and pieces?
"Hoarding is often a symptom of an obsessive compulsive disorder," she says. "Obsessionality starts when we feel out of control.
"Furthermore, most of us are now using technology to express ourselves. Old computers almost certainly contain personal information and tell a great deal about ourselves. Even if we try to erase the data, we may unconsciously worry that if we get rid of those computers we might be exposed, someone might find out more about us than we want them to know – and then, in yet another way, we've lost control."
That doesn't sound very sensible or logical, and it isn't. Blair explains that "emotion and reason should work as a team, but in today's speeded-up, overdemanding world we've lost the connection between them. What we're technically able to do is racing ahead too fast for our emotional and moral sense. We need to slow down, to absorb technology as is comes along and to understand more fully the implications of what we can achieve.
No wonder the basements and spare bedrooms are bunged up with electrical devices and old toys and clothes. Well, at least mine are. I daren't let go of the past, and I know that I've completely lost control of the present, never mind the future – except for the bits of it that are stuck in my basement, which I haven't yet absorbed or understood. I think they may be stuck there for some time.
Use it or lose it – tips on how to declutter
▶Think about what you use, and what you love – all the rest is clutter.
▶ Clear one room at a time – empty every drawer and cupboard and make a judgment on every item.
▶ Create a home for everything, and store like with like.
▶ Always put things back in their rightful place. Don't buy any more storage until you've thoroughly decluttered.
▶ Once you've decluttered, get things out of the door. Donate furniture or electrical appliances to the Furniture Re-Use Network (frn.org.uk), which helps low-income households.
▶ You don't have to be ruthless, but you do need to be dispassionate. Don't feel guilty about getting rid of something just because somebody gave it to you, or you spent a lot of money on it. Source: Romaine Lowery, clutterclinic.co.uk