Charlotte Mendelson on the dramas of downsizing
I am definitely not a hoarder. Trust me: I know. If my parents ever move house, it would be simpler to hire a wrecking ball. No removal company could handle, just to give you the tiniest sample, five decades’ back issues of the Maritime Boundary Disputes Journal and the Cod Wars Gazetteer, every wood glue ever manufactured, “the medicine cupboard” (cracked calamine lotion, surgical spirit “for toughening the soles of your feet”, 14,000 boxes of Nurofen, primitive antibiotics), rolls of fax paper, Yiddish joke books, unusually vintage marmalade, first-generation Nokia handsets, mislaid hamsters and the national Radio Times archive. To enter my father’s study, one must goose-step. In the living room, avalanches are frequent. When you grow up poor, no banana is too black, no Wellington boot too leaky, to throw away.
In comparison, I am virtually an ascetic; a desert monk. Every book I own has been read or almost certainly will be. Every garment meets one of three criteria: lovely, useful, warm in the event of nuclear winter. I don’t keep reviews of my novels, or unflattering lipsticks. Minimalism: or so I thought.
Then I moved from a house to a flat.
In a house, things can accumulate: forests of spatulas; lightly broken lampshades; clay items created by one of the children. Flat-dwelling would involve some winnowing, I knew, but I’d read Walden; embracing a simpler life couldn’t be that hard. The new flat had big windows, high cupboards and an air of extreme grannyishness; I immediately felt at home. Once my landlady had removed her mahogany-effect glass-fronted cabinets, as promised, I could make it mine.
When Ray, chief remover, appeared in my new kitchen, grey-faced, I feared the worst
Admittedly, by this point I was visualising the flat as ballroom-sized, my few items of borrowed furniture dwarfed to Sylvanian Family proportions by the vast airy space. Yet, heroically, I pressed on with my cull.
I’m sure the local charity shops were as delighted with my unwanted Jane Eyres as I was with myself for keeping only a couple. That’s the problem with books: every copy serves a purpose. Of course I need both proof and paperback of one of my favourite novels, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star: the latter to read and the former to gloat over. Scoop has a sweet inscription; The Pebbles on the Beach may be useful, if I become interested in . . . stones. Don’t laugh; I’m a novelist. Everything is material, even shingle.
I can’t pretend it wasn’t painful, this contraction of my possessions to the essentials. Who knows which earrings they’ll want to wear tomorrow, let alone in six months’ time? Are potato mashers vital? And, most upsettingly of all, can anyone passionately be in love with their tiny garden, particularly if they regularly write about it in The New Yorker, move to a flat with only a balcony and still keep their sanity, let alone their column?
I discovered unimagined reserves of strength, fluff and earrings. I begged the removers to deliver yet more boxes. And at last, having got rid of more than six books, several small mementoes and, I would later discover, 11 and a half pairs of shoes, I was ready to move.
Trained professionals don’t panic easily. When Ray, chief remover, appeared in my new kitchen, grey-faced, I feared the worst. Had Clive collapsed under the weight of my interesting twig collection? Had one of my chipped mugs become more chipped? He said: “Thing is, the flat’s full.”
“We’ve got 50 boxes of books left in the van.”
It’s all very strange. I had left so much behind; not a day passes without a powerful yearning for Cranford, or a never-before-consulted recipe for Turkish yoghurt soup. Yet there is not a surface left unbooked. The glass cabinets were not removed, thank God; where else would I keep my old laptop cables? Luckily the bathroom shelf just fits my Penguin 60s, or they’d be under my pillow. Even with a strict one-in, one-out policy, the flat is at book-saturation point already. I see no possible solution.
“My advice,” said my father, “is to finish the unpacking.”
Other invaluable tips have poured in from well-wishers. What would I do without them? I wouldn’t have left behind those jam jars, for a start, although it’s amazing how much peanut butter one can eat in an emergency. Sometimes I even ask for advice, particularly now that washing and cleaning, as well as cooking, are my domain. I am mastering housework tentatively, like a 1940s bachelor, often greeting friends with: “Can I ask you about mopping?” They are kind.
Similarly, I’ve become quite brilliant at creative repurposing. A handsome wooden microscope case from my youth — yes, I was that cool — is now a bedside table. My grandfather’s astonishing red terry-towelling 1970s beach jacket has become a stylish cat bed. And, while every day of spring makes gardenlessness harder, it’s bracing to ditch a small fraction of one’s unnecessary stuff.
Most utensils are multipurpose; with dim lighting, the dust barely shows. I even pretend to myself that when I move out and the whole process restarts, the Great Purge of 2018 will make it easier. But it’s amazing how much stuff one can fit into a flat. Monasticism can go too far; there’s even a little space left to fill. I definitely need some books. And think of what I could do with a potato masher.
Charlotte Mendelson is the author of ‘Rhapsody in Green’