One of the Times pieces I included in my latest book - Days Are Where We Live - is one I wrote some years ago about losing almost all of our things in a fire.
I've been asked by BBC Woman's Hour to join a studio discussion about the experience, tomorrow morning, Friday August 28th. If it happens, it will be between 10 a.m. and 10.45 a.m. UK time.
Here is the piece:
Home is where the clutter is
Next time you open that kitchen drawer full of jumble and groan, don’t even think of calling a clutter consultant or a Feng Shui space clearer. Just be thankful instead. When I lost all my things in a fire, there were times when I yearned for my very own tangle of fossilised rubber bands, ancient postcards, last year's advent candle, furry balls of Blu-tak, crushed paper flowers from playgroup, tatty plant labels, tacky plastic novelties from Christmas crackers and old matchbox cars with scratched paintwork. The relics in that drawer are symbols of your family history, and in their own way are as precious as the antique oak bureau in the dining room or the original oil painting over the mantelpiece. Only when your belongings are snatched away do you learn which ones are irreplaceable.
When we sold our house and temporarily moved into furnished, rented accommodation I didn't think twice about putting our things into storage with the removal company. But my 10-year -old son refused to store a single item, and took every last Lego brick, four years worth of Beanos, and his complete rock and fossil collection.
We were still renting 18 months later, when we received a letter from the removal firm informing us that a fire had completely destroyed all our things. For me, it took a week for the reality to sink in, but my husband – ever practical, resourceful and proactive - came round sooner. He went to the warehouse with a garden fork and spade to sift through the ashes in search of any traces of our former existence, anything to soften our bereavement. When he arrived, he found a blackened shell of a building knee deep in filthy sludge, with burnt out washing machines and fridges poking out above the surface.
We had a brief summary inventory of what had been stored in our six containers and my husband set about locating the detritus from them by looking for a large non-flammable object from each, such as our tandem, my daughter's bicycle, a stone garden trough. He managed to position all but one of the containers and retrieved just a few things from the disgusting, sodden ashes.
Most of these objects were pathetic items, but to us they were treasures. Amazingly, the plastic twin dolls I had dressed and played with as a child were there, twisted and deformed, but still dressed in the clothes I had made for them and to me, still loveable. He found his father's old spring balance and the disfigured brass face of one of our grandfather clocks. He discovered a handful of blue and green marbles from the collection I had kept in a carafe on the windowsill for the sun to shine through. They were blackened but reclaimable, and although they were not unique or valuable, to me they were priceless. At that time, with no tangible past, and no concrete future in the shape of a new home, the marbles gave me a link with our previous existence, and in a strange way, a feeling of security.
He managed to find something significant belonging to each member of our family, except for my daughter. She was living abroad when we moved and I had spent hours packing up her many books, unusual art posters, distinctive art deco furniture, and all her photographs. We searched painstakingly for something of Zoë's, but found nothing. The most heart-wrenching loss was the three storey Victorian dolls house my husband had made for her, and which she as a girl had decorated and furnished and cherished.
When it came to the insurance claim, having to list every lost item was a torture in its own right. Falling asleep at night I would remember something else, and think "oh no...." Trying to list our hundreds of books became a black parlour game. Lying back in the bath I would remember yet another book, and rush naked onto the landing, shouting a title down to my husband before I forgot it. We did get up to 637 books, but since then have missed dozens more.
Four years on it is still too painful to recall all the irreplaceable items that we lost. It is not the money, although we did lose out financially to some extent. What is painful is the loss of all the trivial and substantial accretions of 25 years of family life, our books, and some inherited antique furniture, all with family connections and sentimental meaning. The plain, modest grandfather clock we had bought for my father-in-law when he first became a grandfather, and which we gave him a week before he unexpectedly died. The small chair my adored grandmother had been given as a child, and which my sister and I would race to sit in when visiting her house as children.
As an only child, and with no living family, my husband feels as though he has let his parents down by losing their things. He feels brutally cut off from his childhood and his roots, with nothing tangible remaining to connect him to his past. Gone is the oak swivel chair which his father sat in when he was resting from serving in his shop. Gone is the barometer that his father used to tap first thing every day. Gone are his family photographs.
But the most bitter loss of all is that of the albums containing all the photographs of our adult children when they were young. I can still close my eyes and see many of these photographs, but I will not be able to turn the pages and share them with our children and their children in later life. Friends and family have kindly raided their albums and old packets of photos for replacements for us, and this has been a great help. But so many favourite family photographs are of unposed moments, of funny games in the bath, dressing up in the back garden, or a child fallen asleep in a high chair, with a face sunk into soggy Marmite fingers. Photos from others are posed family groups. They don’t appeal like the tasty memories committed quickly to posterity by a quick snap with that cheap camera you keep in the kitchen cupboard
I am sad we have no things with family associations to pass on to our children. I had hoarded for any future grandchildren all the favourite pre-school books, and the best wooden bricks and toddler toys. I thought I was being frugal, and that in the future they would remind me of my children’s babyhood. I had packed away the Moses basket I had lined for my youngest child, and writing this I am in tears again.
It's common on suffering traumatic events to look for lessons and meanings in the hardship. The practical lessons for us are easy: don't trust anyone else to look after things that are irreplaceable, and be properly insured for what you do put in store. I have also learned what is precious and what is not: I can throw things away more easily, but what I keep I treasure. Any other lessons are more difficult to work out. Two months after the fire, I was diagnosed as having breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Compared with the fire, that felt like a piece of cake. Does this mean I am an unredeemed materialist? We didn't lose any of our family, so why are we grieving?
But I have learned another lesson. As an irrepressible optimist I subscribed to Adrian Henri’s sentiment “Don’t worry, baby, everything’s going to be all right.” Now I can admit the possibility that pessimists might sometimes be right. I am more sensitive to others’ anxieties, more moved by others’ hardships, more empathetic to others’ losses.
Our new house is now fully furnished, and I'm pleased with the effect. And although it will be a long time before it truly feels like home, my cluttered kitchen drawer is coming on a treat.