11 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 11


What a load of old rubbish tells us about ourselves


How much is a bar of soap? 30p? 40p? 60p? It depends on the quality, but I think we can say with assurance that the value of one of those slivers too small to be of much use, but left disfiguring the soap dish, lies between half a penny and three pence. I have established as much by weighing a typi- cal sliver and comparing the weight with that of a new bar. I was provoked into this appar- ently obsessive behaviour by a long-running correspondence in the Letters column of the Times about the efficacy of microwave ovens in welding together soap slivers in order to form a viable chunk of soap. The exchange was provoked by a Dr Thornett of Stockleigh Pomeroy, who, hav- ing just bought a matching soap dish and toothbrush, wondered why the dish bore on its base the advice 'microwave-oven safe'. A few days later, Mr Dennis of Hampstead suggested the answer:

When the [soap] tablet wears thin, the upper surface is well wetted, last month's wafer is laid upon it, and the sandwich given a blast of radiation for a minute or so. On taking the dish out of the oven, the two tablets will be found to be neatly welded together and ready for further use.

Do not try this at home. Readers' attempts to follow Mr Dennis's instructions have resulted (according to letters which followed) in soap souffles, soap explosions and gigantic soap puffballs in grotesque shapes, all but bursting from the door of the microwave. I think the problems arose from the imprecision of that phrase 'a blast of radiation for a minute or so'.

I tried it myself, and can say with confi- dence that the operation is possible but del- icate, requiring a careful estimate of the combined mass of the soap slivers, a fairly precise deduction from this of the correct microwave time, and just the right amount of wetting. Undercook or underwet your soap, and fusion will not occur. Overcook or overwet, and strange sculptures may bil- low from your appliance. But I'll allow that, once you've got the hang of it, the opera- tion can be performed (from collection, through fusion, to return to soap dish) within the space of about ten minutes: a period not unattended by anxiety and risk.

Among readers of a broadsheet newspa- per there may doubtless be those for whom time hangs heavy. Among (for instance) the retired or temporarily unemployed, the min- utes are not costed; I concede that. Still, most of these folk will have university degrees, expert qualifications, or at least an interesting career or life's work behind them. They could begin a hobby, work for a charity, research and write a small local his- tory, or get all their old photographs proper- ly sorted and stuck into albums. They could make a start on their memoirs. For the more energetic among them, there is much com- munity work to be done outdoors. As I sit here, the whole of Narrow Street, London E14, outside my window, is strewn with lit- ter. Fitter readers with time to spare might care to bring a bin-bag and pick it up. This really would be useful. Instead, we stay indoors trying to weld together tiny pieces of soap. This really isn't.

For busier readers, time is money. Min- utes spent fusing soap are minutes lost from paid employment. Let's be modest and reckon on £15 per hour. Ten minutes of such a person's time is worth nearly a pound. With this they could buy two whole new bars of soap, perfumed and of very acceptable quality. And what, meanwhile, have they saved? A few pence at most, and that's without factoring in the cost of the power for their microwave. We are talking, are we not, about a mild form of mental illness? I myself am a suffer- er. I, too, hoard useless pieces of soap, wast- ing precious minutes in the shower (and gal- lons of heated water) trying to rub a miser- able lather from a tiny wafer rather than start a new bar. I, too, have a drawer full of useless pieces of bubble wrap, and hundreds of old envelopes in a cardboard box which (as Lord Beaverbrook described in Alan Watkins's A Short Walk Down Fleet Street) I feel should be reused. My father rummages through the kitchen bin in case my mother has thrown away any scraps of food that might still be edible. Another Times corre- spondent recalled exploring her deceased aunt's loft, to find a collection of tiny pieces of string in a box neatly marked 'Pieces of string too small to be of any use'. I simply cannot throw away candle-ends, and spend hours trying to melt them down to make new candles. I use for wicks those tiny pieces of string, and employ as moulds some of my vast collection of used card- board tubes for sending maps in, greased inside with scraps of the leftover fat that it seems such a waste to throw away. The candles never work and I get wax all over the stove.

But enough of this. We all have such sto- ries. The question is: why?

To answer it, we might perhaps first iden- tify the particular sorts of rubbish people find it hard to discard. I've mentioned string, wrapping, candle-ends, soap slivers, envelopes. I could add plastic bags, empty yoghurt pots, jamjars, bits of cloth, paper- clips, unmendable electrical appliances, bent nails, broken chairs and unwanted clothes that are not worn out.

Contrast this with some of the things we have less difficulty discarding: newspapers and magazines, perishable food, cardboard, pieces of metal, old mattresses. Some themes do begin to emerge. In the rubbish with which we have less difficulty in parting, one common theme is dirtiness, perishabili- ty or potential to smell. Another is the impossibility even of imagining that we could ever need the item again. Note here that I do say 'imagining', for our rational self well knows we shall never need the yoghurt pot or soap sliver again, but we can imagine circumstances in which it would be just the thing we need.

A third theme common to much that is easy to discard is that it never was the object of careful labour. Some items we are loth to discard were once valuable and took time and expertise to construct; though we know that is no evidence of present usefulness, it hurts to treat lightly what others have laboured to make or saved up to buy.

Here, then, are my tentative conclusions: a start to the study of irrational hoarding. We cling to objects that will not go off or smell, that were once indispensable or cher- ished, or that we have in the past been stuck for and can easily imagine (though not seriously predict) being stuck for again. The roots of hoarding lie in sentimentality and insecurity.

Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.