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A Treasured Tale Or A Tale To Treasure?

Author: Elizabeth Gray

I saw an advert on a local community group on Facebook, from a woman in Govan: “I’ve just bought a house, and I need help decluttering to prepare for the move. £15 an hour."

Now, I have no skills or experience in this field but I did need the money, so I wrote her “hello, I am an anthropologist specialising in material culture: the study of objects and the emotions invoked by them. I can do a professional “Marie Kondo” style cleanse into minimalism in your house.” Score, I got an invite!

She texted me soon after, oh by the way, just to warn you I am a hoarder. I replied with false bravado “that’s no problem at all”. Fake it until you make it, that’s what I say. So on the bus ride over I read about hoarders for a good 25 minutes, and I thought I knew all I needed to know. The rules were simple. It was important to be non-judgmental, patient, and treat the items with care and never remove them without the owner's express consent. The most important thing of all was that you must never, ever, ever laugh at them. Easy money. I rang the doorbell.

She answered the door and put the kettle on.

She was 50 years old. She had a difficult upbringing, a family fragmented by addiction. She never drank or smoked. She struggled homeless for a while, living with no belongings except those in her bag, which sometimes got stolen while she slept. Twenty years ago, she was offered a council flat. All her furniture was salvaged from the street. One man’s trash was another one’s treasure. Soon, she had enough to fill the flat. Still, she couldn’t bear to throw anything out, so clearly she remembered having nothing.

Now she had a managerial job as a civil servant and had saved up to buy a flat. A fresh start, but she couldn’t bear to part with anything from the past. Books, boxes, furniture, everywhere: stacked high and packed in. I have no idea what the wallpaper looked like, you couldn’t see it. Just stuff.

I was awestruck by this woman who had lived this life, how she had coped, survived, and thrived. I pulled out the first box and said let’s get started.

The first thing I opened was a Santa and reindeer and snow printed Ziploc with a brick inside. I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. “What on earth is this all about?” I asked.

She started laughing too and said she didn’t know. We worked out it was from a protest over a new housing development, where the protestors raised bricks in solidarity with the striking workers. She had kept it as a memento in her sandwich bag. The protest was in December 1997. Still smiling from the absurdity of it, I suggested we could probably bin it. She agreed. She said she knew I wasn’t laughing at her but with her. I saw myself in this disorganised flat. I have hidden chaos in cupboards, I have drawers of memories I can't bear to part with. Sometimes the unstructured pile is sentimental. A good life is hard to compress into a small flat. By virtue of being alive we accumulate. Still, there has to be a line somewhere, so we continued to clear.

The rest of the box was no better:

A landline.

A sports bra.

A fire extinguisher.

Box of screws.

1000 Russian rubles.

Sanitary pads.

A TV remote from the 80s.

An unused box of floppy disks. Did she think they’d make a comeback?

A bingo card.

A broken plate from a holiday in Turkey she had intended to repair.

Halloween decorations.

Some kinder egg toys.

Christmas crackers. With each item she told me the story of how she got it and why she had kept it for many years. We discussed the idea that objects have agency, a life of their own, and what kind of life she wanted for them: they could live in her cupboard untouched and unseen, or they could go to someone who would cherish them. We designated boxes for the charity shop, for local community drives, for a new archive opening up that wanted materials about the history of activism.

We pulled the Christmas crackers and told the jokes, wore the paper hats and played with the toys. At the end of the day we had unpacked 8 out of 400 boxes. We had a contest to find the oldest item. We had found beautiful posters of sea creatures from her time studying marine biology, and set them aside to go up in frames on the wall. We agreed that in her new flat we should be able to see the walls.

After six hours of laughing and joking we realised we’d had nothing to eat and she offered me a coconut. So we found ourselves at 9 pm on a Thursday in a flat in Govan surrounded by boxes smashing a coconut with a hammer even though she insisted “it’s just like an Easter egg, you just hit it once”.

Eventually the coconut split and we each had a half, spooning out the flesh with a spoon. She went to throw the coconut shells in the bin and I stopped her, I said well perhaps I could make bowls out of them. She handed me them with glee, a delighted acknowledgement, a knowing nod that perhaps I would make two little ice cream bowls but perhaps they would sit in my flat for years ignored. They were an idea for a future project I would maybe never commit to. Regardless of their future, I liked them, and I saw their potential.

Perhaps there is a hoarder in all of us.