Try visualising a small boy gazing through a shop window. It’s 1983 and he’s got hair that looks like it’s been cut by town council gardeners. His features belong on Mr Potato Head. None of them match. He has the legs of a giraffe, the arms of an orangutan and the ears of an elephant. His headshot could be confused with the English Premier League trophy.
But he doesn’t care, not on this particular sunny day in 1983, staring lovingly at an ISP-6 Imperial Shuttle Pod (yes, he still remembers the full name of the Return of the Jedi toy, despite now being a 44-year-old man child.)
As an adult, I hunted down the Star Wars toys, figures and rarities that my poor childhood denied me. Even the dreadful prequels were not beyond my pay packet.
He’s going to buy that toy. He’s going to shove his Darth Vader figure in a small, white plastic orifice and play with him for hours. He’s dreamt about this slightly sexual moment for weeks, something that disturbs him now. His weird dream about black helmets and white orifices is about to become blissful reality.
But he’s a pound short. The shop sale is over. The price of Darth Vader’s shuttle has gone up by a pound. He doesn’t have enough money.
He runs home and asks his mother for an extra pound, but she doesn’t have one. There is literally no loose change in the house. Yes, he really was that poor. He never did buy the ISP-6 Imperial Shuttle Pod from Return of the Jedi. So he swore to himself, on that very day, that he’d buy every piece of Star Wars crap on the market for the rest of his life.
Actually, he just swore and his mother whacked him across the head with a battered sausage (that’s a food in England, not a euphemism.)
And I did. I hoarded more shit than a hamster with diarrhoea. I became the prince of pop culture kitsch. As an adult, I hunted down the Star Wars toys, figures and rarities that my poor childhood denied me. Even the dreadful prequels were not beyond my pay packet.
I own Jar Jar Binks figures.
That’s the kind of sentence that should only be an introductory opener at a Hoarders Anonymous meeting. On a sliding scale of social respectability, it’s somewhere between sleeping with my best friend’s sister and molesting farmyard animals.
And I never stopped at Star Wars either. Like a psychologist’s cliché, a mild strain of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder kicked in, with a dash of bipolar, a hint of an inferiority complex (the need to make amends for a less than affluent upbringing) and a smidgeon of excessive perfectionism (must complete the collection, the box set, the limited-edition plastic thingy in McDonald’s targeted at pre-schoolers and a 44-year-old man with a tenuous grip on reality.)
Our apartment has always been a cluttered collection of collections. Vinyl records, Disneyana, classic movie posters, Monopoly board games from all over the world, weird memorabilia from cult cop shows from the 1970s, Swinging Sixties bits and bobs from The Beatles, fake furniture from the American diners of the 1950s and apes, lots and lots of apes.
The dystopian, half-buried Statue of Liberty ending of Planet of the Apes had a transformative impact upon my understanding of cinema, so naturally I had to celebrate by buying rare figures of men in chimpanzee make-up.
But hoarding itself is an environmental concern. We’re all stashing too much crap.
The thing is I live in a four-room flat in Buangkok.
And that’s just the non-essential hoarding. There’s also the educated, middle-class, guilt-tripping, environmental hoarding to contend with. Every straw is sacred. Every plastic bag beneath my sink is one less bloated whale washed up on a beach. Every plastic bottle in the cupboard is one less truncheon to beat an innocent penguin to death with (I’m not really sure how the bottles hurt penguins, but I know they’re better off beside my limited-edition Boba Fett mug.)
I can turn a show flat into a shoe box quicker than my wife can say: “Look, Neil, I know you love Star Wars, but should a grown man really own a pair of Chewbacca boxer shorts?”
She’s got a point there. All that excess hair gives the illusion of a baby carrot poking through a thicket.
But hoarding itself is an environmental concern. We’re all stashing too much crap. According to the International OCD Foundation, one in every 50 people struggles with severe hoarding. In fact, there are so many hoarders that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now defines hoarding as a distinct disorder. Previously, the hoarding was considered a symptom of OCD or depression (which it still can be of course).
In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in the United States, hoarders showed abnormal activity in decision-making areas of the brain (yep). Some patients began hoarding in adolescence (yep). Men and women are equally afflicted (yep, my wife has a pathological obsession with Mary Poppins gear. We’re the worst enablers.) And some refuse to throw away a single plastic bag (that’s me again. Just think of the poor penguins.)
Once a hoarder, always a hoarder. Or so I thought.
A sudden, shocking death in the family changed everything.
My life’s work of collecting Star Wars watches (unused, still in their packaging) and lightsaber chopsticks for toddlers moving onto solid food (don’t ask) no longer completed me. It was just stuff. It was aesthetically pleasing stuff that still looked terrific on the shelf, but it was just stuff nonetheless.
And the hoarding mostly stopped.
I’ll trample over my own daughter to get my hands on an ISP-6 Imperial Shuttle Pod.
Don’t get me wrong. Oprah Winfrey didn’t come round with her closet hanger experiment (look it up. It really is as feeble as it sounds for the smashed avocado generation.) The apartment didn’t undergo a staggering metamorphosis under the direction of a couple of execrable reality TV hosts, turning the shoebox into a Zen-like retreat for meditating minimalists.
But a gentle de-cluttering process began in earnest. The Salvation Army at Upper Changi felt like a more suitable destination for toys, games, books and clothes (but they’ll get the Chewbacca boxer shorts over my dead body).
It felt good and even necessary. Less really is more. The apartment seems cleaner and simpler. Besides, as time passes and globalisation tightens its grip on the less fortunate and social stratification becomes a daily, dispiriting reality, the excess in our home, in our society, must go to those who are a dollar short, just as I was in 1983.
Of course, no one’s perfect. That final demon still needs to be exorcised. I’ll trample over my own daughter to get my hands on an ISP-6 Imperial Shuttle Pod.
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