The madness of crowds: hoarding

Compulsive hoarding is pretty out there, no? I mean what kind of a weirdo saves all that cardboard and bubble wrap, ties it up with string and wedges it in on top of crappy old wing chairs and fake-veneer TV cabinets stacked high with bundles of old newspapers and books, then tops the whole teetering pile off with 30-or-so cat litter trays (full), leaving the felines themselves – perhaps 40 of them – to smarm along the alleys carved through this dreck (for this is but one room of an entire semi so engorged), shitting and pissing wherever?

A complete weirdo – that’s who. And these people, together with their odd pathology, are of increasing interest to the general population, as is evidenced by the arrival on these shores of the British version of Hoarders, a US documentary series about compulsive hoarders that has already been running over there for four seasons and is currently embarking on its fifth. Not that this is Brit TV’s first foray under the sinks of the seriously possessive – there was a stand-alone docco, Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder on Channel 4 back in 2011 – and it may be because I’m taken by the phenomenon (a hoarder of programmes about compulsive hoarders) that it seems to me that I’ve snapped on the set on a number of other occasions only to find the camera’s lens nosing along a skirting board behind which are stuffed sheaths of old discount coupons.

Wherefrom comes this urge to expose such traumatic interiors? After all, hoarding can be nothing new – it’s easy to imagine a Cyclops’s cavern stuffed to the roof with sheep bones, cheese rinds and the remains of hapless Argonauts. The splurge of reality obesity shows that the explanation is simple: schadenfreude. We look upon those poor wobblers being shaken to their core by life coaches and think to ourselves, I may be a little on the tubby side but – Jesus! – I’m not that bad. Actually, my suspicion is that the compulsive hoarder craziness is an even more craven attempt to affect such a catharsis. As the crack team of cleaners goes into the bungalow, black bags and bug spray at the ready, we sit on the sofa watching and, for a few dreamy minutes, can forget all about the landfill-in-waiting that surrounds us.

Every morning of my serene existence I open the door to my writing room and think, I can’t stand this! It’s an avalanche crushing me! The box files full of papers, the shelves piled with books (the floor piled with books), the desk stacked with unanswered correspondence, the desk lamps corralled by tchotchkes – old toys, plastic figurines, broken watches, stones I’ve picked up as mementoes of the places I’ve been and yet forgotten, foreign coins, pine cones – the space below the desk humped with boxes full of camping gear all coiled in dust-furred computer cabling . . . Aaaargh! I want to scream, because there’s no point in turning away from it, for there are scores of books not simply unread but which I will never read. Just as in the pantry there are bay leaves I will never put in a casserole, and in the shed there are trowels that neither I – nor anyone else – will ever delve with.

Yes, I know there are those who exhibit a different pathology: their homes are pristine, their socks are colour-coded, the second they acquire something superfluous they organise a tabletop sale. But the rest of us are charged with some sort of unearthly static electricity that makes paper clips, hairpins, half-used Sellotape rolls (especially the ones where you cannot detach the tape even after hours of flicking at it under operating-theatre-strength lighting), local newspapers, tins of baked beans missing their labels, jump leads, hair rollers, half-used tubes of athlete’s foot cream, half-popped packs of headache pills, broken folding chairs, Jiffy bags, VHS tapes, etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera cling to us with terrifying inertia.

If you stand on the banks of the Thames east of Gravesend, roughly where Pip met Magwitch and Boris wants to build an airport, you can watch as giant container ships loaded with discarded electrical goods set out on the ebb tide for China, where all these washing machines, computers and consoles will be recycled into useful appliances for their upwardly mobile rural poor. Some might take heart at this – not I. I see the earth as a compulsive hoarder, spinning through the endless night of space, snaffling up meteorites as she goes.