The cull

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I have probably laid a few paving stones on that road since I last wrote. No cooking from Nigella except for a rather unconvincing polenta. No surfing, in fact no time spent at the beach at all. I’ve still got an impressive cluster of knots in my back, and my bottom… well, never mind.

But when distribution and PR duties call, I answer and the dog and pony show that is promoting and selling a book seems to be paying off: Living Iron is now available around the world – check Book Depository, which offers free delivery worldwide, or your local bookshop, which can order it from a wholesaler such as Gardners or directly from our distributors Art Data in London. We’ve been getting positive feedback from scientists, technicians at steelworks, history buffs, architects, artists, there’s even a technical university considering the book for its curriculum and we hope to get some international press after the summer.

Logistics and admin have eaten up many days that I would have liked to spend writing, but these messy months have also provided a window for a slew of other projects, the kind you set aside for calmer times (ha). My little house, work on which I’d stopped when producing last year’s books became all-consuming, has acquired curtains, cushions, shelves, hooks, picture rails, a window seat with gorgeous detailing built by my brother. There are etchings and watercolours newly framed, proper lamps to replace the temporary fittings dangling from ceilings since 2015, there’s a futon and myriad other small things that allow for more people to live in it more comfortably. They say a house is never finished and certainly if, like me, you tend to pick up tasks like others slam into their after-work beer, the list never ends.

While I’ve arranged and shaped matter, using bits and pieces collected and kept safe for years, there has inevitably been something of a spring clean too. Which has got me thinking about what seems to be everyone’s favourite hobby at the moment: the all-out, no-holds-barred, KonMari cull.

You may be familiar with the basic principles of this decluttering method, espoused by Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo. One selects everything in one’s home that does not ‘spark joy’, one thanks it for its service and one discards it. Marie Kondo also teaches people how to fold T-shirts and roll socks. These should be able to stand up by themselves after folding and must be stored ‘vertically’, a twist of physics I still can’t get my head around, as from my perspective anything that is hung or stacked is stored vertically and anything that goes into a drawer cannot but go in horizontally – but let’s not quabble. Hangers do seem to be allowed for those of us who iron our clothes and prefer not to have to iron them again when we get them out. What a man is supposed to do if he is used to folding rather than hanging his pressed shirts I’m not sure, but I’ll assume Marie will be on hand to provide a ritual if not a solution.

Marie has published books on tidying and there is now a Netflix series in which she works her way through people’s homes. Trained KonMari experts spread the word around the world and help desperate people clear out their belongings. The husband of one aspiring expert told me he is no longer allowed to keep more than twenty books at a time. “Books you have not read you are never going to read,” said another aficionada. I shivered, regretting her ignorance of possibly the most magical quality books possess: that they wait for you until you’re ready for them. But to my relief Marie Kondo does not dictate a book cull per se. She simply asks us to be conscious of the things with which we surround ourselves and make sure we do not clutter the spaces we live in with needless, encumbering gunk. That others then stretch the rules to get their spouses to do what they refuse to do upon regular request is only to be expected.

I must admit I’m slightly shocked there are, apparently, so many grown-ups who still cannot tidy their own room. It’s a bit like not having been potty-trained. But what worries me is the sense that this rage for ‘decluttering’ is really an easy way out of consumer guilt and an invitation to buy new things, to be chucked out again at the next cull, perhaps ceremoniously, but chucked out nonetheless. Some may call it a purge, but to me it smells of addiction.

We like to fill a void. And we are addicted to buying. We also love to ‘reinvent’ ourselves – every season, if possible, and as there are barely seasons in commerce anymore, that means all the time. Of course there is something hopeful about shedding excess and throwing out the old stuff. It feels as though we might shed our old identity with the floppy socks and ill-judged sofa throws and replace them with a much better persona – the ‘real’ us. Except that if we’re honest we all know there is no getting away from ourselves, no matter how tidy we get, though I suppose a decluttered environment may give us space to see this.

Could we get a Netflix series on changing our mindset? On shedding bad habits, bad manners, useless thoughts and feelings, without needing to throw away half our belongings as a trigger? I have fallen into the trap of buying new lipsticks, shoes, even furniture as if these would anchor me into a better version of myself and result in a better life; I am as big a sucker as everybody else. But I am also old enough to know that we always end up full circle, struggling with the same challenges throughout our lives, even if they take on different forms.

So I count myself lucky to have grown up in a family where people return to the same clothes for decades, where repairing what you can is not some trendy make-do-and-mend attitude, but an unspoken way of life – frugal, but also born from respect for craft and love of the challenge to make a broken thing work again.

I hate the ease with which I see people dump things into overflowing recycling bins, the same ease with which until recently we dumped mixed waste on the pavement, only now with the grand air that we are ‘giving it a second life’. Frankly we could do with a TV series on waste processing too, but for now let’s assume most of us know the world’s recycling systems are overburdened and that we are nowhere near able to recycle enough of what we produce and consume. I’d also quite like a sterner look at swapping schemes – at so-called ethical establishments where one can borrow and return clothes, for example, but which ‘drop’ new styles as frequently as any Zara or Topshop. Even one of my favourite American brands sends out its goods with a swapping card attached, encouraging customers to pass them on – and there is space on the card for at least ten new names – feeding, to my mind, our relentless hunger to change the outside and calling it sustainable.

Maybe the only way to stop the pile-up is if we’re all forced to repurpose our stuff ourselves, at home. Maybe I’m exaggerating, and you will call me a hypocrite. But I’d quite like it to become a little less easy for us (those of us lucky enough to have more than enough) to get rid of things, and a bit cooler to treasure what we have.

I don’t believe in escape, I believe in transformation. In proper reinvention – the triumph of ingenuity over decay. Wise people say that all creation involves limitation. Without boundaries, nothing can take shape. And so I think discipline is a far more useful tool for survival and happiness than ‘the art of throwing away.’ Yes, there are moments when we must let go and say goodbye. Death comes to us all, in various forms. But while we live and have a living environment can we please look a little further than sparking immediate joy? And when we hit a void, let’s try to fill it with stuff that lasts. Fill it with generosity, with compassion, empathy, grace, dedication. Clear the decks to pass on something substantial. Then maybe, if we’re lucky, our kids will thank us for what we leave behind – even, perhaps, for some of our books.

Samurai with a katana, source unknown