This year I’ve been trying to deal with all the clutter that has built up over 16 years of having young children. Some of it is my sons’ clutter – the pointless museum gift shop purchases that they’ve never touched, the half-empty science kits and, worst of all, years of party bag contents that were probably bought in Poundland. However, most of it is ours.
My main offence is leads. I have boxes and drawers full of leads for phones and appliances that were probably thrown out years ago. I’ve no idea what 90% of them are for.
My wife’s vice is books on how to deal with a difficult child – none of which have worked – and titles about organising your home. I was amused to find that a huge pile of paperbacks by her bedside included two books on decluttering.
I’ve also been trying to simplify my computer clutter and remove all of the redundant documents, photos and audio files. The ‘My Pictures’ folder is a particularly chaotic affair, but I know that each image meant something at the time.
Here are some of the files that particularly struck me:
This LP was given to me when I was eight or nine. My initial excitement soon turned to bitter disappointment when I put the record on and realised that they were all cover versions. There was a particularly bad version of the maudlin ‘Deck of Cards’ that sounded as if it had been performed by a double glazing salesman on his day off, with a nasal Estuary accent that achieved the seemingly impossible task of being worse than Max Bygraves.
I came to realise that any record with ‘Stereo Gold Award’ on it was to be avoided at all costs.
I know nothing about the background to this photo. It looks as if it belongs to the set of a dystopian film, but I have a horrible feeling that this might be a picture of a real workplace, with a filing system on a Kafkaesque scale.
This is a page from a 1928 department store catalogue that I came across. It is beautifully produced, with pages of colour photos of men’s clothing, from slippers to skiing outfits. I gave it to a friend who has a penchant for gentlemen’s accoutrements (he owns around 100 watches) and he was delighted. I wasn’t so pleased when, a year or two later, an Italian fashion editor offered me £600 for the catalogue.
This photo shows my aunt (on the left) and my mother (with the hat) in the playground of the Darrel Road school in Richmond. It must have been taken in the mid-1930s. I like the unusually informal pose and the period features: a car-free street and the girl with a plaster over her lazy eye.
When I was very young, just before cassette recorders became as common as radios, any trip to London usually included a visit to a Make-Your-Own-Record booth. You put the money in the slot, then when the light went on you began speaking. Once the recording was over, the machine would play the record back, before promptly dispensing it from a large slot.
My father kept trying to make me sing the hymn ‘Joy, Joy, Joy, With Joy My Heart is Ringing’, which contained the slightly ominous line “I’m on my way to Heaven”. I rebelled by singing ‘Yellow Submarine’, much to his annoyance.
Green Shield Stamps were the Tesco Clubcard of their day, given out by a number of retailers. If you managed to fill enough pages of you collector’s book, you could take them to an Argos-style showroom and choose a gift from their catalogue. In the early 70s, the stamps were ubiquitous and during a very dull weekend at Butlins, I came across a fruit machine that paid out in Green Shield Stamps.
When retailers started to give discounts upfront, Green Shield stamps went into a slow decline and their stores became converted into the Argos brand. I assumed that they’d fizzled out in the late 70s, but apparently they limped on until 1991.
I wish I knew who this was by. It looks like Doré, but that’s probably because he’s the only 19th century engraver I can think of. I love the way the ruins completely dwarf the people in the foreground. It’s a powerful image of a theme that has gained a new currency today.
This is a photo of one of my favourite composers – Walter Leigh – and his wife. If he hadn’t been killed in action at the Battle of Tobruk, he might have gone on to become one of the major composers of his time. Sadly, he is largely forgotten, even though the small body of work that he left behind is exquisite, including this piece.
I looked into buying the unadulterated photo from Getty Images, but it’s far too expensive for an ordinary user.
This is a photo of a boy who went to my older son’s school, taken during a particularly violent autumn storm. It’s a powerful image on its own terms, but it becomes all the more poignant when you learn that it was taken moments before the boy was hit by a wave and swept out to sea. The boy’s pose is both beautiful and tragic, defying nature with the overconfidence of the young.
It happened some years ago and even today, I still find myself thinking about the boy’s family and the friends who witnessed this terrible accident.
This photo of ‘Ladies’ Day’, at Aintree Racecourse, has the epic grandeur of a canvas by William Powell Frith.
Ladies’ Day began as a highlight in the social calendars of the middle and upper classes of Liverpool, Cheshire and Manchester, but over the years it has descended into a booze-up for Scousers, with dresses that exhuberantly defy the accepted rules of good taste.
I found this baby frog on the floor in my book shed. It was the the most recent addition to a menagerie of animals that includent a mink, several rats, a robins’ nest, a crested newt and hornets’ nest. It probably wasn’t the best place to store books.
This is my older son’s hand gripping my finger, a day or two after he was born. I never ceased to be moved by the minute perfection of a newborn baby’s hands.
For my sons, the highlight of the festive season is a box of very cheap Chinese Christmas crackers, with their abysmal jokes in ‘Chinglish’.
This Stanley Spenceresque painting by Osmund Caine (1914-2004) is of the entrance to St Mary’s Parish Church, Twickenham, where my parents married and I was Christened. I love this painting and would like to get hold of a print, as it reminds me of the place that still feels like home, in many ways.
For people of my generation, Top 20 hits were often recorded with a microphone in front of a radio. The microphone would pick up any background sound as well as the song, so occasionally Stevie Wonder would be accompanied by the sound of our dog barking, or my mother telling me that tea was ready.
Another picture of St Mary’s Church, Twickenham. I can be seen cycling behind my friend.
The Thames regularly broke its banks (the white plaque in the wall, to the left of the photo, marks the high water mark from an 18th century flood) and on the way home from school, we often had to cut through the churchyard to stay dry. My friend and I knew the road well enough to know that we could cycle through the water and a driver watched us, clearly thinking that if we could do it, so could he. He was wrong.
A touching photo, taken on an autumn day in Brighton. This young couple were clearly on a date and were struggling to find things to say to each other. I imagine that the lad bought or won the cuddly toys for the girl, in an attempt to impress. Sadly, he wasn’t able to follow this up with scintillating conversation and the meal was largely spent in silence.
It reminded me of my first date, which was equally successful.
How you see this photo will partly depend on whether the name Ena Sharples means anything to you, but even if you’re not familiar with ‘Coronation Street’, it’s a marvellous image that captures the end of an industrial era.
This is what a tonne of books looks like and it was almost responsible for my early demise, when the pallet was being unloaded. It was at this point, while I was standing in the rain, trying to stop a tonne of books from falling on me from the back of a lorry, that I asked myself if this was a business I wanted to pursue into my 50s. I realised that it wasn’t.
It’s a pity in some ways. I’d developed a business model that worked well as long as I had a constant supply of stock. Sadly, that turned out to be the weak link. When two of my main suppliers went bankrupt, I could no longer afford to employ anyone and tried to continue on my own, but it was too much.
Finally, another picture I know nothing about, although I think it might be related to the Landmark Trust:
This selection only goes from A to E, so perhaps I’ll share some others if anyone has enjoyed some of these.
Last month I decided to do something I’d never done before and didn’t think I ever would. I don’t know whether the decision to do it was the result of becoming more broad-minded, or simply because I’ve given up caring.
I read a Stephen King novel.
I picked ‘The Stand’ because it was a post-apocalyptic story rather than a supernatural one. At least, that’s what I thought. Sadly, after reading several hundred pages, the Devil appeared and it all got a bit silly. But King can write and I can now see why a friend at university decided to make him the subject of his dissertation, even if I probably won’t try another of his books.
I decided to try ‘The Stand’ because I wanted a big doorstep of a novel that would provide some escapism from the stresses of daily life, particularly the recent death of a friend. Sometimes I worry that I’m turning into my father, whose tastes became increasingly lowbrow with age.
On one occasion, when I was 15 or 16, I was enjoying watching an interview with Jonathan Miller when my dad suddenly muttered something under his breath and changed channels, to a programme featuring dancing girls. I was furious.
“But I was watching that! It was…educational” I said, trying to imply that my exam results might be vaguely compromised unless we switched back to Miller.
My dad sighed. “It was flippin’ talk talk talk. I don’t want to be educated, I want to be entertained.” I felt a visceral horror at his shameless philistinism.
I can’t remember what I said in reply, but I have a feeling it reached new heights of pubescent prigishness and pomposity. After making an eloquent defence of western civilisation, I stomped out of the room and played Beethoven, loudly.
Over three decades on, I’m now the man who often can’t face watching an hour-long BBC4 documentary, but will happily make time for ‘The Walking Dead’. I don’t want to be educated. I want to be entertained.
Of course, that’s not strictly true. I still read challenging books and enjoy listening to BBC podcasts of programmes like Start the Week, but there are other areas where I feel I don’t want to know any more, because what I already know is depressing enough. Indeed, there are some things that I wish that I could unlearn.
My friend’s funeral took place a couple of weeks ago, in a wood in Surrey (designated for burials rather than just some random woodland – you can’t bury bodies anywhere as that might spark a murder investigation). We were asked to wear stripes rather than formal clothes and I donned a Breton fisherman’s shirt for the first time since 1992.
I was dreading the funeral, but also looking forward to the opportunity to share our grief with others. Sadly, less than 20 minutes into the journey, my car came out in sympathy and also died. We never made it to Surrey.
My car was in good condition and should have had several years ahead of it, but by some stroke of bad luck, a seal broke and the oil started to leak into the fuel. This caused the engine to start burning the oil as well as the diesel, so that even when I took my foot off the accelerator pedal, the car kept getting faster and faster. At one point, I felt as if I was Keanu Reeves in Speed.
Luckily, as we edged towards 100mph, I saw a layby up ahead, and was able to flip the gear into neutral and coast to safety. My wife was thankfully oblivious to how much danger we were in. The AA man was clearly bemused to find two middle-aged people dressed like pirates, but he was the epitome of quiet professionalism.
The car was towed back to Lewes and later I received the good news, “Yes, we can replace the engine” followed by the bad news, “But it will cost twice the market value of the car”.
In the end, I sold a perfectly good car (engine excepted) for scrap. I received £300.
I did contemplate replacing my car with something completely impractical but great fun (I saw a lovely 2001 Jag on sale at an affordable price). Then I remembered that a friend had bought a Saab convertible (with 130,000 miles on the clock) to cheer herself up. She enjoyed ten blissful weeks of driving around Brighton before the car blew up.
I think that was also sold for scrap.
By now, you will have realised that there is no theme to this post. It is just a stream of consciousness, typed in haste before one of my sons issues a request for either food or company. That is my entire life at the moment, but come September, when they will both hopefully walk to school and college, I will be free to start doing things again and clear away the cobwebs.
I met a very interesting woman in the pub the other day who asked me what I liked about my jobs. I told her and without pausing for thought, she replied “You should be a life coach”.
I was baffled. “Surely there’s an element of ‘Physician heal thyself’ isn’t there?” I said.
“It doesn’t matter. I can tell you’d be good at it.”
There are three possibilities. One is that she’s wrong. Two is that she tells everyone that they should be a life coach. Three is that she has a point. But I’d always dismissed it as one of those silly, made-up jobs, in which the bullshitter preys on the gullible.
Perhaps that was her point. I hope not.