IF you’re buried under wrapping paper and unwanted presents, now is an ideal time to take stock and clear out all the stuff weighing you down, says Aggie MacKenzie.
Why do we accumulate so much stuff? Why is it so emotionally wrenching to get rid of it? These are pertinent questions in the aftermath of Christmas, when our houses are awash in seas of wrapping paper, cardboard, and – yes, already –broken bits of plastic. New acquisitions jostle for space in already crowded wardrobes and drawers, half-eaten food clutters the kitchen and, who knows, careful inspection might turn up stray relations lurking in dark corners!
Aggie MacKenzie – of Dirt Detective, How Clean is Your House, and Dancing on Ice fame – is fascinated by our relationship to things. Her ITV1 programme, Storage Hoarders, had a successful run in December, and returns to television on 7 January, with another fortnight of daily episodes. In it she explores the phenomenon of people who put things into storage for what is intended to be a temporary period that often extends into years: “Some people have loads of items and still can’t stop buying. They have garages and storage units and keep things in their lofts, too.” And storage doesn’t come cheap. One man she worked with had spent in the region of £80,000 on storage fees.
She says: “Anthony, who’s 71, has masses and masses of stuff. He calls himself a collector but he knows he’s a hoarder as well. He said repeatedly, ‘It’s my soul in there. It’s really part of me.’ Even though he never sees it or uses it or gets it out. Some of the things he has are extremely valuable. He could do with selling some of these pieces: he’s still working really hard, and living in a rented flat, because he’s basically been diverting his income to pay for the storage.”
We are surrounded by stuff, but what does it actually signify, she asks? “Some of it does mean your past, your stories and identity, but actually a lot of it is superfluous to your life, and meaningless in many ways. Once we’re dead it’s useless anyway. People hanging on to stuff, it’s almost like a guarantee against mortality – like, ‘If my stuff is here then I’m here and everything will be OK.’ It’s a funny thing.”
The programme appeals on several levels, beginning with downright nosiness, since we’re peering into others’ lives and examining their neuroses and psyches. And anyone who loves programmes such as Antiques Roadshow will enjoy the element of discovering that some of the items being stored are beautiful and valuable collectibles, pieces of furniture, or art. MacKenzie encourages participants to pull out every single item before identifying those they will keep, those they will consign to the skip, those destined for charity shops, and those they will sell.
“Often what happens is that people want to get rid of this stuff, but getting rid of it causes quite a lot of emotional distress. It’s attached to guilt, whether you think it’s part of you, or you feel it cost you a lot of money so you can’t throw it away, or it belonged to a parent who’s now dead and so it can’t be thrown away. Or they say, ‘Maybe one day this will come in useful.’ It’s all bollocks, basically. Eliminate these thoughts. You have to realise it’s just stuff, and people are more important than things.
“In many ways it’s easier to hang on, because you haven’t got to face up to the pain of letting go, and all those emotions. Then there’s a whole thing about people being in a muddle about what to keep and what to chuck. I think some people use things in order to remain static, because it means that nothing awful will happen if you just stay the same.”
In other words, we’re choosing the devil we know? “Exactly. It’s easier and less frightening to keep the status quo.” It’s also a way of keeping others at arm’s length, she speculates. “Sometimes stuff is a substitute for connecting with people in real life. If you concentrate your mind and your feelings on things, then it pushes people back a bit, though I think that is very extreme.”
As we greet the post-Christmas apocalypse making our lovely homes resemble bombsites, we can apply some of these same concepts to the process of cleaning up and clearing out. When I ask about the Scottish tradition of a pre-Hogmanay clean up, MacKenzie originally from Aviemore, laughs. “Oh god I know, I grew up in that house! Opening the front and back doors is a superstition about letting all the bad air and the bad vibes and bad spirits out, and the new ones in. My mother used to get the vacuum cleaner out about 11 o’clock on New Year’s Eve – it had been out that morning already, but it was really bad luck if you entered the new year with a speck of dust! I suppose, also, it probably wasn’t going to be done the next day, because New Year’s day really was a day of rest. So it was probably a way of feeling less guilty.”
Ideally, we should do the big clean out before Christmas, to prepare for the onslaught of new arrivals in the form of gifts both wonderful and appalling. But it’s never too late to live a less congested life, says MacKenzie.
“What you do, first of all, is be quite ruthless. Take those unwanted gifts, the ones that you will never use and you don’t even want to re-gift, straight to your favourite charity shop. Don’t hang on to them. Everything else – cardboard, paper, food packaging – get it down to the recycling centre, what used to be known as the tip.”
Adopt a determined attitude, she advises. “Think about doing one room at a time, so it’s not this massive mountain you have to climb. Do it section by section, and get everyone involved. Get all the members of the family to take responsibility for their stuff and put it all away in their rooms.
“Set a stopwatch as well. Otherwise things can go on all day. It’s like when you’ve got too much time on your hands, things take forever to do, but if you’re on a deadline, you can be more efficient. So say, ‘OK kids, for the next hour we’re just going to mad and clear this room out.’ You can do an amazing amount in a short time if you really focus on it and don’t get diverted with sticking things in the washing machine and making phone calls. Once you’ve done one space and can see the results that will spur you on.”
For a quick psychological boost, address your taps. “That’s kind of a cleaner’s secret. I remember a cleaner telling me that if the taps were shiny, it made the customer feel that you’d done a brilliant job. Just get a damp towel and go over them. It doesn’t take any effort. And if your stairs are dirty, what I do is go after them with a dustpan and brush. It takes minutes, and eliminates the possibility of falling down the stairs with a big machine, or chipping the paintwork because you’re hurrying.”
As far as actual clutter is concerned, she says, “You always get presents you don’t want, which someone else would like. I do occasionally re-gift, but not often. There’s something lifeless and lacking about it. And I don’t make lists of who gave me what, though I should. It’s like putting things in the freezer unlabelled – you think you’ll remember. But somebody can always benefit from the things you don’t want. And charity shops really need a lot of stuff right now, because with the recession, people aren’t donating as much, so this is a good time to be able to do that.”
She’ll be practising what she preaches by having a kitchen clear-out between Christmas and New Year. “It’s a great time to open all the cupboards and clear them out, and clean out the fridge, too. Look at the appliances you don’t use, like that bread-maker you got three years ago, or food processors. What about that cupboard under the sink, where you keep all those cleaning products and laundry aids? If you haven’t used something for the last twelve months, chuck it. The more stuff you have there, the less likely you’re going to use what’s at the back.
“My kitchen drawers are full of implements that I haven’t used since god knows when. I’m going to heave the whole lot, honestly. I’ll donate it all to a charity shop, only keeping the things I use always.”
As far as leftovers are concerned, if you’ve refrigerated them properly, they should be safe to eat. “This is where a freezer comes in very handy. Portion things up and put them in the freezer. Try to use them within the month so you’re not so tired of the festive flavours.”
Considering that she writes about food for Good Housekeeping and Sainsbury’s magazine, and in 2011, published Aggie’s Family Cookbook, does she have favourite uses for her own leftovers?
“Well, this is a bit naughty, but since Christmas pudding is thick and solid, you can slice it up and fry it in butter. Then it’s really nice with vanilla ice cream or brandy butter, or both – and then just call the ambulance! It’s a bad start to the year, isn’t it? So the only condition is you have to go out for a run first before you can have your treat.
“I have turkey and ham at Christmas, so I like to make a pie with the leftovers. Sauté shallots or a leek, then make a nice creamy sauce and put in mushrooms, tarragon, cream and parsley, maybe a few capers, and a little bit of Dijon. Throw it in some puff pastry – that you’ve bought, because it takes too long to make from scratch – then stick it in the oven and invite everyone round.”
Ultimately decluttering boils down to a few simple questions. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I actually need and what do I use, and what’s superfluous and just sitting there doing nothing apart from taking up space?’ If you shed clutter it frees you up, clears your head and makes you feel lighter and more energetic and less pinned down and congested.”
• Storage Hoarders is on ITV1 daily at 2pm, from 7 January.