Ian McMillan: Why I just can’t keep myself from collecting

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I’VE got a confession to make, and I’m going to write it down now for the world to read. The thing is, I don’t know which pen to use: this one that I got from a stall at a conference? This one, that I got from a hotel? This one, that somebody gave me years ago when I was short of a pen? This one, that I found on the table on an Inter City train? And which piece of paper shall I write it on? This one? That one? That one? I don’t know. There’s just too much choice.

You’ll probably have guessed the confession by now: I’m a hoarder. I keep things just for the sake of keeping them. I’ve got books I’ll never read again or, worse, books I’ll never read once. I’ve got pens that are so old the ink in them dried up long ago and notebooks that are older than some of my children.

That’s true: I found a notebook the other day with a slogan on it from 1982, and my eldest was born in 1983. It’s a nice notebook, though. Just the right size to fit in a jacket pocket. If I can squeeze it in beside the other notebooks without tearing the pocket. You see my problem?

There must be a tipping point. There must be a fulcrum, a moment in time, where keeping becomes hoarding. Maybe there’s something fundamental in the emotional make-up of us humans that makes us reluctant to chuck anything out because evolution tells us everything is useful to us.

You read in the papers about those people whose house is so full of stuff that it looks like they’ve got black bin bags for furniture and their drawers are so full of rubber bands that if you drop them they bounce. But at one point they were just people who put magazines on chair arms to read later and had a little bag full of rubber bands just because they might come in handy. And the problem gradually grew until you couldn’t see the chair arms or indeed the chair, and you needed to buy bigger drawers just to keep the rubber bands in.

In these acquisitive times, we define ourselves through things. We see ourselves reflected in the objects we buy: the clothes, the books, the furniture, the CDs tell the world who we are and the kind of people we’d like to be. But the notebooks? The rubber bands? What is the flawed mechanism in my brain that thinks if I don’t have three hundred pens in a drawer I’ll never write anything worthwhile again? Is it a manifestation of some kind of primitive hunger-gatherer instinct where the notebooks have replaced the sabre-toothed tigers that my ancestors hunted and gathered? I don’t know, but it’s gnawing away at me.

On the other hand, there’s something glorious about keeping things, so where do we draw the line? My wife came downstairs the other day with an old suitcase full of cards and telegrams that my parents had sent to each other during and after the war and we sat and read them all evening, piecing together hidden lives from the few words on old pieces of paper.

And they were so fragile, so ephemeral, that they could have been thrown away so easily, and so much would have been lost. I remember, decades ago, the daughter of one of my neighbours swallowed a threepenny bit and somebody (A doctor? A parent? A passing good Samaritan?) fished it out before she choked and for years they kept that bloody coin in an egg cup in the china cabinet when it would have been just as easy to rinse it under the tap and give it to the milkman when he came for his money on the Friday. But they kept it as a visible reminder of a chunk of family history.

So, keeping is good but hoarding is bad, and nobody is sure where one becomes the other. But the issue is more complex: will hoarding and keeping become things that simply happened in a pre-internet age? If my parents had been separated by the current war in Afghanistan rather than by the Second World War, they’d have been emailing each other not sending telegrams and cards.

The primitive vinyl record that my dad recorded in a booth in Singapore in the 1940s, sending greetings to my mother from across the sea would these days have been a voicemail message. A love letter is now a text that says ‘miss u’, and I’m not sure about the technology but I’m pretty sure that you can’t keep texts. Or you can, but you can only keep them on your phone: you can’t keep then in a suitcase in the attic to be brought downstairs years later and pored over with wonderment.

Anyway, I’ll buy two copies of the Yorkshire Post today. One to read, and one to keep. In a plastic bag, which I’ll file in a box. After all, I’m a hoarder.