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Hoarding: it’s time to throw the book at it

Eric Whitehouse finds out sometimes you've got to let things go

Eric Whitehouse

One of the inevitable by-product of our consumer society is the discarded or stored items which once fuelled our urge to possess, but now have outlived their usefulness and are piled mournfully on ever expanded scrapheaps, writes Eric Whitehouse.

The obsession of surrounding one’s self with familiar objects that have shaped our lives seems to me an understandable one, but is plainly one over which some people have no control. The results are often staggeringly extreme. Houses, barns, even factories are all taken over because nothing can be discarded, everything is somehow ‘useful’.

These items should, of course, be recycled, but sometimes they are hoarded. Evidence of this can be found, alongside programmes about fat people, serial killers, nasty neighbours and very cold places, on some of the more obscure TV channels which now grace our screens.

The chaos which ensues seems to mirror the chaos in the brain which produced it. The results are varied: some are neatly stacked, some random and chaotic, and others are a health hazard! I am convinced this phenomenon is far more common than is generally realised, and is on the increase.

I have always loved books and, throughout my life, I have squirrelled away copies of books I have read and enjoyed from schooldays onwards. This is, of course, the roots of hoarding, as a book can only be stored after it has been read and therefore becomes a mere memento of an intellectual experience.

What saved me in the early days was the fact that I naively ‘lent’ them to friends, or gave them away. The ability to part with them saved me from becoming a hoarder. However, it did mean I accumulated a large number of books about ‘ my kind’ of music ( country, blues, jazz and rock and roll), Northampton and Northants, (where I have lived all my life),  a certain local football club, philosophy and politics, British history, and the works of my great uncle, Arch Whitehouse, who was a WW1 fighter pilot and the author of over thirty books on military history and ripping yarns. Pretty ordinary obsessions I think.

And then classic English writers of the 20’s – 50’s ( Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Woodhouse, Graham Greene, H.E. Bates etc) and classic crime paperbacks – that takes care of fiction.

About thirty years ago I helped a musician friend of mine by manning a small secondhand bookshop that he owned for a short while. This exposed me to two extremely dangerous phenomena – the general public and their myriad wants and foibles with regard to books. I also learnt to appreciate antiquarian books, which is to me anything over 150 years old. Here’s a few of the mind-blowing enquiries proffered by the great British public to an incredulous, defenceless bookseller:-

“Are you the guy who sells the gas fires?”

“ Have you read all these books?”

“I had a book at home. It had a red cover but I lost it. Have you got one?”

“Where do you keep the true crime fiction?”

“Are these books all yours?” ( No I stole them!)

“Have you got a first edition of the Bible?”

“Do you buy books?” ( Yes, because otherwise we run out!)

( That’s quite enough of that!)

The bookshop alerted me to the kind of things favoured by book purchasers: military, transport, the occult, art folios, collectors’ wants, series of books, anything old or unusual and I began looking out for things to make up a popular collection that would appeal to Joe Public. This was a serious mistake. It was a mistake because it increased the likelihood of my personal collection becoming a hoard.

I began trawling car boot sales, jumbles, charity shops and anywhere where I might find a rare 17th century religious tome or one on Victorian wood-turning in rural Gloucestershire.

I found a book called ‘My Twelve Favourite Donkeys’ (Illustrated) and ‘ The Golden Age of Concrete’. A first edition signed by ‘E.L. Wisty’ and that perennial favourite ‘Fly Fishing’ by J.R. Hartley. Oh! what fun and games, what jolly japes! The stuff piled up.What saved me was, ironically, coming across houses, the owners of which had often recently quit this mortal coil, where books had really taken over. These were sometimes flagged up by house clearance chaps who were removing the entire contents.

In a local council estate there were hundreds of copies of Greek classic literature, an unmade bed and one chair by a gas fire. The rest of the place was floor to ceiling books in no particular order. A large house in the country contained a beautifully well stocked book collection in its own book room.

The man in charge said Sotheby’s had removed many art works , antiques and created the big gaps in the collection. Realising that Sotheby’s are not normally interested in any volume worth less than £100, I knew I had a few finds to come.

In another such house there was a gun in a secret compartment . At a town house in Oxford there were thousands upon thousands of newspapers and only a narrow passage to negotiate our way round the building.  In a garage in Corby, hundreds of 200 year old leather bound tomes and no real story explaining how they got there. In East Northants, I had to negotiate my way through many suits of armour to view triple stacked books against the walls. One three bedroomed semi- detached property was floor to ceiling with military aviation and transport books, sometimes with multiple copies of the same one. It was this that finally broke me.

I became a regular visitor to the Council tip. For the first time in my life, I went into charity shops and emerged with less than I went in with. I gave stuff away to anyone who expressed even the slightest interest until, finally, I only had books on shelves at home and none on the floor! ( Result).

I now go in fear of piles of stuff multiplying overnight without my consent, obsessively stack things tidily to remind myself not to slip back into old ways. There’s no doubt about it folks, it’s all in the head.

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