In Praise of Hoarding? – January 2016

The title of this essay may arouse astonishment. If there is anything to be condemned in our present society, beyond “obesity” and “clutter”, it has to be “hoarding”. My contention is that while there is much unhappiness and disorder associated with hoarding, there is also some merit in some practices that can be deemed to be hoarding.

I can claim no expertise over hoarding, except that, by some definitions, I am a hoarder. I retain items that others would dispose of without hesitation, and, while this causes me some problems, it feels like a better way of being than to be a chronic disposer.

Let me firstly dispose of one image, that of the pathological hoarder. If access can be gained, and assent given, it is easy to make a popular television programme about hoarders and their homes. I suspect that such hoarders are few and far between, but there are a lot of people who, at least tacitly, sympathise with the chronic pathological hoarder. There the resemblance ends. The “TV hoarder” is often a person whose life has got out of control, retaining items in a disordered manner, with homes strewn with items, such as decayed food and food containers, housing occupants in filth and often in danger. I suspect that most such people suffer from depressive and other mental disorders, and need to be treated with great sensitivity rather than to be subject to the intrusion of TV cameras. There is no need to visit my home with fumigation equipment and a brace of skips, or indeed the homes of many who could be seen as moderate hoarders. I do share with the pathological hoarders a very strong desire not to be judged, and visitors who wish to comment on my home should not anticipate a further welcome.

There seems to be an unwritten, non-statutory norm of order, such that someone’s personal space can be described as “cluttered”, and shame applied to their characteristics as “untidy” and “hoarders”. Putting “untidy” to one side for now, I want to suggest that it is wrong to shame anyone into “getting rid” of items that are seen as “hoarded”, especially when they are their items in their own space. Public space is something different. There are few things more satisfying than picking litter, of bringing about some sort of order. I should perhaps leave this paradox to a later essay!

I feel that two distinctions need to be made; the first between the “happy hoarder” who enjoys having may items around them, and the “unhappy hoarder” who clearly does not, but is unable to find a way of not keeping what could be the subject of disposal. I am largely focusing on the latter, and of course one category can slide into another with time. The second distinction is between a “keeper” and a “hoarder”. The former may be someone who carefully weighs what should be kept, or may be someone who simply retains most items with which they are involved. The latter can become a “hoarder” if keeping is deemed to be excessive or uncontrolled, but the borders are hard to discern or, sometimes, maintain. So, some people deemed “hoarders” may really be careful “keepers”, who can have very good reason for keeping items.

The first of my scattered reasons for non-condemnation of hoarding centres round the later public value of what might be described as hoarded collections. In their different ways, the late Raphael Samuel and Ray Gosling were both collectors of vast amounts of written ephemera, kept with an obsessiveness that could be overwhelming. Ray Gosling, bankrupted in later years, had to try to find a home for his collections, which filled whole rooms in a large house, while he himself ended up in an old people’s home. An archive, somewhat gingerly, took part of Gosling’s materials. These were valuable to him, an observer (and celebrant) of the quirky, but they may well prove valuable to future researchers. Gosling and Samuel shared one feature of the keeper/moderate hoarder: items may well be of future value, to others if not oneself, but noone can be sure which items will prove valuable and which will not. Thus, when in doubt, it may be best to retain all.

I spend a fair amount of time in archives, primarily ones relating to waterways history, and I feel perpetually grateful to people who kept items that are now of interest, particularly those who kept records of no monetary value, but thought it best to bear the cost of retention in the interests of future researchers. It should be borne in mind that there are costs involved: directly in the costs of storage media, less directly in the form of storage space, which has to be rented, taxed, heated, lit and furnished; even if it is owner-occupied, additional capital may have to be invested in larger premises. There is a less obvious cost in the oppobrium attached to the label “hoarder”, and in the burden that so much material, and its often disordered state, carries. However, it is not just official records in archives that bring forward history. It is also the apparently ephemeral, the papers, letters, bits of shaped timber, engine parts, obscure books, leaflets, diaries, logs of journeys, photographs…that can bring new feelings about past worlds that are fading.

I should write separately about my experiences of archives. Usefulness need not relate to others alone. It may be (and many hoarders would agree with this) that there is a sense that an item will be useful to them, one day. Once again, there is great uncertainty. One small anecdote, about a tiny item, may illustrate this. I never knew my first father-in-law, who died before I met his daughter; if he was alive today, he would be the oldest man in Britain, as he was born in 1902. He had very little in his rented home, and much of that was soon cleared after his death in 1977. He did, however, have a tea caddy full of miscellaneous screws, nails and bolts, which my wife and later I kept out of sentiment. Recently I decided to dispose of a darkwood Welsh dresser that my late first wife had bought. One drawer had a loose handle, and I decided to tighten this by the provision of a small nut (the original had long been missing). A search of various stores proved fruitless, until I emptied the old tea caddy. This had a small bolt with a nut attached, and the nut proved to fit the handle, at least 35 years after it was stored there by my father-in-law. To my mind, there could be much larger objects that might be kept in case they came in useful. Down that road lies the lure of hoarding, but also the prospect that, indeed, something kept will prove to have a use.

This leads to a third justification for hoarding: as an understandable reaction to the clear knowledge that we live in a world in which very much that is made is wasted. Indeed, since the 1950s some commentators have bemoaned the way in which capitalism depends on waste, in the creation of commodities that are rapidly consumed and destroyed. It is hardly a political statement to insist on retaining what others would deem to be worn out and thus waste, but it is a psychological response that is not entirely irrational. Again, there is much uncertainty. Holding on to old computers in a protest against Microsoft’s planned obsolescence is likely to prove a gesture only, given the uselessness of most old equipment. However, there are whole categories of goods that could find a valuable future use, but which are devalued both by regulation and by the obsolescence brought about by that incredible waster of resources, “fashion”. I won’t rant about the latter, but some regulation, entirely understandable, has made items like furniture that lacks fire labels untradeable. (A simple regulation to insist upon permanent labelling rather than bits of card held on by string would save a lot of furniture from landfill, even if IKEA’s profits suffered). Some hoarders hold items for themselves, but others would pass them on if they knew items would be put to good use. The various online services that put owners of useful but untradeable items in touch with those who would benefit from those items (Freegle and Freecycle, for instance) not only keep much from landfill, but may help to relieve burdens felt by one kind of hoarder – the need for items to find a good home.

This neatly meshes with one simpler reason for hoarding – memories of, or a current position, of extreme lack. Simply, if at one time you have had nothing or almost nothing, it may be very hard to part with something for which you have no immediate need; and it may induce unease to witness others throwing away materials that could be useful. The hoarder may not just be a one-person crusader against waste, they may find it hard to shake the feeling that, having once been poor and in serious lack, they might be again, or indeed might feel that they are so in their present position.

This brings me closer to my own position; a deep emotional sense, not of practical lack, but of past and prospective loss. I suppose that most people would concur with the following classification. There are items that may be treasured because of their monetary value, and such value may be transferred to others, through sale or inheritance. Other items are treasured for their emotional ties, perhaps because others, now gone, valued them, and they are a pleasant or poignant reminder of that person. Or they are valued for their associations with the past, or with the present (as with consciously acquired collections), or with the future that they represent. I suspect that there would be a consensus about these motives, albeit that they would be attached to varied types and quantities of objects and with different values. There would also be a consensus that many items are fit only for disposal, comprising waste from the outset, or waste once their purpose has expired. I take great satisfaction from throwing away some items, sometimes for recycling, because I know that they are waste, to me and to others.

It is those items that remain that pose the greatest problem and lack of consensus. These aren’t obviously useful, have no clear emotional connections, and are not waste. It is unclear what they are, in contexts, personal and socioeconomic, that change. It is uncertain how, if they are treated as waste, we will feel about the lack of such items that once we stewarded. All of us could regret disposing of something at one point in our lives. The true hoarder is not someone who is stupid or possessed by some sort of mania; they simply put a very large number of items, perhaps whole houses-full, warehouse after warehouse if these could be afforded, into this category of uncertainty. Others feel that uncertainty but attach it to smaller (much smaller, usually) groups of objects, and take a clearer attitude to risk; the risk of regret at loss can be weighed, informally, against the risk of regret that one might be burdened by continued stewardship. The “hoarder” is, I feel, often a person who is trying to deal with a deep sense of bereavement – regret over past losses, and possible regret over future losses. To retain items, even at major personal inconvenience (and even sorrow to others) may be preferable to the anguish of loss; and some control over that possible loss can be kept by keeping the items.
Well, why write this? Why write this about a group of people with problems, people whose position and motives can be scorned, or at best pitied? One reason is that I am not writing about a mysterious “them”, but about “us”. There is a hoarder inside (almost) all of us, and that aspect of our being needs to be acknowledged, not “managed away” by some psychological patrol force. The underlying feelings need to be stabilised, not removed.

We all experience vast numbers of objects throughout our lifetimes, most of which are destroyed through consumption, wasted and discarded. As individuals, we are enmeshed within systems whereby materials are moved, objects fashioned, and environments adapted and altered. The only areas which we control, except when there is sufficient public interest to secure conservation, are those objects that we can retain within whatever personal space we can control. When I look back over five conscious decades, mine is a life littered with countless encounters, with people now lost through death, dislocation or changed relationships; and with material objects (and environments), most forgotten, discarded or destroyed. If those encounters with people induce occasional unease, so too do those relationships, mostly vanished, with objects. There is a process of slow and subtle, if not minimal, bereavement; I am not alone in this, and it is not pathological. To acknowledge it is to develop sympathy with the hardcore hoarders, to wonder how they can find peace with objects with which they have such an uncertain relationship; one that would rarely involve external intervention from the professional “clutter-clearers”, with the shovels, the skips, bonfires, a cleansing of what is not unclean or unholy.
Perhaps a world in which emotional connections with objects was not as important as (non-existent??) emotional connections with other people would be desirable, but to attack hoarders on these grounds is to deal with symptoms. Maybe a world in which commodities were not produced and destroyed with such contempt would also be a better one. And finally, a world in which keeping was more conscious, careful and valued might produce less hoarders and honour more keepers. Keeping, hoarding and curating need not be so far apart.