I’m not in the habit of quoting from films in the Harry Potter universe for one obvious reason; nobody can learn anything from them because they’re too caught up in wishing they were 11 and that letter on the carpet isn’t a reminder from HMRC but an invitation to Hogwarts.
But two days ago I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – because, frankly, it was that or Sharknado – and there was a scene that really made me think.
Enter stage left
In this scene, a magical snake with avian somewhere in its ancestry, slipped into a room through a window and immediately grew so huge it only just fitted inside the room. Before that it had been your average grass snake size.
Great Kit, a snake with inconvenient magical powers, what’s the point? You might be thinking.
Well, it wasn’t really that scene that got me thinking. It was the scene where Eddie Redmayne discovers his lost snake is now dangerously large and in a pretty bad mood;
He says, ‘she expands to fill the space she’s in.’
I’m writing this from a boatyard in the Azores. For those who don’t know, that’s an island chain 900 miles west of Portugal, hanging out in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from being a great place to buy fresh cheese, it’s also home to many transatlantic sailors, stopping off for repairs, over-wintering or, like I said, cheese.
There’s a huge boat out on the side here like us – except much bigger. Every day things appear from inside and are laid out on the concrete. By ‘things’ I mean untold quantities of stuff. It’s beginning to look like the Beaulieu Boat Jumble has relocated to the immediate area around their 50ft yacht and yet the stuff just keeps on coming.
I happen to know that the sailing couple on board have, like me, sailed around the Atlantic. However, they did it in one year and didn’t venture to Central America, thus covering significantly less distance. I’m not saying this as a woohoo look at me (they have, after all, done many other sailing voyages in different boats), I’m saying this because they did a smaller voyage and yet took 10+ times the amount of stuff.
They even have three dinghies. Three.
Did they need all this stuff? No, of course not.
We fill the spaces we have.
This has never been more apparent to me as it is now that I’m back on board my boat.
For the past seven months I’ve been living in a variety of apartments in Austria after leaving the boat in the Azores to weather the winter alone (I know, I felt like an absent mother but, to be honest, she’s older and tougher than I am anyway).
While I didn’t fill the apartments, I did fill the car. To the brim. For a 4-month ski season in which 80% of seasonnaires fly out to with 20kg of hold luggage. I definitely had more than 20kg in the car. Because I could. If there was a free space, I’d fill it.
When I returned to the UK and visited friends and relatives, I was amazed to see the sheer amount of stuff they’d accrued over their lives. One friend who’s moved to a shoebox of a studio flat (but it’s beachside so fair play) is now faced with the amount of choss he’d acquired in his family home. The decades pass by like waves, dumping unquantifiable amount of oceanic trinkets in our homes. And by trinkets, I mean rubbish.
I was even horrified at the amount of stuff I had in storage. Big plastic boxes (£3 Wilkinsons – there’s a bargain for you) containing 40 filled notebooks, paperwork I don’t know if I can throw away and clothes I’ve neither worn nor seen for years.
I immediately took three huge bags to the charity shop and a black bin liner of stuff to those men who show up at 8am once a fortnight with a line of seagulls and forlorn foxes trailing them.
Luckily, I’ve never stayed in any one house for more than 11 months since the age of 18 – so my accruage is significantly smaller than my peers who’re swinging from the first rung of the property ladder.
You know what I dislike about the ladder analogy? Ladders are increasingly dangerous the higher up you go. And the rungs are usually the same all the way up. Plus, heat may rise but once you reach a certain point, it’s only going to get colder.
And yet, the moment I boarded my beloved yacht, I was confronted with the sheer quantity of things on board. Or, rather, the sheer lack of space. I’m talking 2m2 of floor space – just to give you the gist. That’s all the floor space I have, and have had for the past 2+ years on the boat. And I don’t store anything on the floor. So you get the idea of how small the boat is.
We fill the spaces we have.
Anyone who disputes this should go look in their garage/loft/cupboards-under-the-stairs (after all, if we were in the Harry Potter universe you’d find a small magical child in there).
Of course we all do this to varying degrees. Hoard things. And most of us are hoarders to some extent, reluctant to get rid of things that might one day be useful despite their pronounced uselessness for that past two decades. Or reluctant to rid ourselves of souvenirs from our pasts, boxes of things we haven’t looked at and, realistically, will never look at again.
I opened the glass cupboard today which also happens to be the Travel Scrabble cupboard, the sewing kit cupboard, the spare errant foreign currency cupboard and the chocolate cupboard depending on the thing I need. There were fifteen glasses.
Three were free with rum bottles when I was in the Caribbean, six are from French yogurts that inexplicably come in glass jars, one is a Nutella glass cup, two are €1 wine glasses and only three are proper drinking vessels. Considering there are only two of us living on board and we’ve only ever hosted an extra four at the most, fifteen seems extravagant.
But the captain won’t let me toss any.
‘They might come in handy,’ he says.
This is the same reason why I have circa 25 pairs of thermal socks despite only owning two feet. It’s also why I have lots of lecture print-outs from my degree that finished eight years ago, y’know, in case I suddenly need to brush up on Wordsworth and the true contribution the Romantics had on modern day literature.
We’re a sentimental bunch really and we like things. We like owning and accruing things. If there is a shelf, it must be filled, a mug cupboard cannot just have two mugs, a cutlery drawer cannot just have enough cutlery for four.
We love to buy, replace, acquire. Those who don’t buy things buy food or toiletries, things that appear useful but are really only an extension of our need to fill our spaces. If you have enough food in the house to last a month, you don’t need to buy more every day. If you have four tubes of toothpaste just in case, then it’s time to reevaluate.
It’s difficult to see when you’re in it. I should know. I lived happily for years carting boxes of choss between rented rooms. It was only when I left the country for years and returned that I thought, ‘oh hang on a second, what is this parasitic lump that’s hoarding dust and sapping my energy? What is this four-box tower that demands to be housed somewhere, demands to be returned to only to be moved another hundred miles unopened, unloved, unknown.’
We fill the spaces we have.
But what is it that makes us need to take up so much room in the world? Why do we keep furniture we don’t need, don’t like and don’t use? Why do we keep things that might be useful in an imaginary future when they aren’t earning their keep?
Most importantly; why do I have chargers for phones I haven’t owned in ten years?!
Only when I returned to the boat did I finally throw out the down duvet my step-mother gave to me ten years ago. It was damp, mouldy and when I picked it up, it emitted a small colony of airborne spores singing, ‘freedom!’
And still I caught myself thinking, ‘well it might come in handy as a back-up duvet…’ When in actual fact, the only thing it would come in handy for would be a spot of chemical warfare.
It had seen too much, from the squalors of university residences to the cloying jungles of Panama. I felt a little stab of sorrow as it was pushed into the marina bins. The duvet, sensing its last chance at reproducing, emitted another puff of spores.
More, more, more
I don’t think it’s a healthy mentality, this clinging on to relics.
We’re constantly being told that we don’t have enough of anything and here we are, holding onto belongings with our cold dead hands. Well, that might be an overstatement – or not, if you consider the ever-expanding charity shops and house-clearance companies.
It’s a myth that things aren’t made ‘like they used to be’. The only difference is the high streets and out-of-town-shopping-centres are filled with cheap shops selling cheaply made products. The good stuff is still out there, you just need to pay for it. Which lots of us aren’t willing to do when faced with the superficially glorious-looking objects in H&M/Primark/Ikea Home.
Sailors are classic hoarders. And, to be honest, they have better reasons than most. When you’re in the middle of the ocean and something goes tits-up, suddenly that locker of really useful bits of rope might actually save your life.
There have been plenty of times when something has broken in an extremely inconvenient location – i.e. hundreds if not thousands of miles from land – and the captain fixes it with something that’d been freeloading for two years.
But do we have that excuse in the UK? The land of plenty? The land of 24 hour Amazon and eBay deliveries, the land of Homebase and Lidl? I’m not saying just chuck out everything and buy new versions when you need them, but there’s got to be a line drawn somewhere.
My dad offered my an upright piano the other day and as tempted as I was to get him to hoard it for me until the time I could take possession of it, I did come to the conclusion that there are about 300 on British Heart Foundation’s eBay page for around £50 each. It might come in handy one day, but when it does, I can just go out and buy one.
Hoarding on a what-if basis in a country with a darn-fabulous logistical system seems a little cray-cray – if you catch my drift.
JK Rowling’s magical expanding (and similarly shrinking) snake-bird-creature is a good lesson to us all;
It doesn’t pay to fill the space you’re in – you just end up getting stuck.