By Hannah Tyler
Yesterday, as the UK faced going into its second lockdown, I went on a buying spree. Books—several books—none notable or intellectually rigorous. Just fluffy, light-as-a-cloud books that I can escape into and refuse to come out of till the last few pages. I also got several records—real, tangible items that I can see making sound as I listen. A lovely smelling diffuser. A picture frame. I could feel the ridiculous nature of what I was doing as I tapped my card on the card reader. I don’t need any of this stuff. I just moved house, but I feel like if I can only get the apartment looking perfect—if it smells pretty, if it feels cosy enough—all of these things will insulate me from The Badness. I knew the emptiness of what I was doing as I was doing it, and it made me feel empty. My purchases have sat on the floor, unpacked, for the past day.
It makes me feel like a dragon slinking over a pile of lovely gold and delicious treasures. Or a bowerbird arranging its blue things in its nest—perfect bottle top, brilliant toy plane, plastic twine arranged like an up and coming curator in the finest art gallery. Just right. Or a pet cat presenting you with half a mouse, entrails out. Aren’t you grateful. Except, in this analogy I am both cat and person.
A month ago I moved house. It filled me with anxiety. I had so much stuff. I had to sort the stuff, pack the stuff, carry the stuff up stairs, unpack the stuff, and arrange the stuff. I still have too much stuff and it makes me anxious. What if we have to move again? What if I have to go back to Australia? What if I want to live at sea? The stuff is a chain around my ankle, a weighted deep sea diving suit, a roll-along suitcase on a gravel path.
My mother is about to move out of the home we’ve had since I was a teenager. I’m not allowed to return to Australia right now, so we sorted through a bunch of my stuff over video chat. I’ve done without these things for 6 years and don’t remember that I have most of them, but so many are imbued with meaning. I can’t bear to part with some. Why am I so scared that if I let go of an item, that the memory or idea it’s associated with will go with it?
Some of this comes from not having a huge amount of money and working on precarious contracts and hours for the past few years, until now. It’s not like I’ve been poor, exactly. It’s just that maybe money hasn’t always been available if I suddenly need it. I’ve always had enough to enjoy my life, but that involved a lot of planning, and work. I am a planner, a hoarder, a plan for a rainy day-er. There’s been no back up plan (well, my parents, and that is why I am an incredibly privileged person. I am also a very privileged person because mum lets me leave shit at her house). I might need this stuff. And sometimes I have needed it, which proves my ridiculous brain right and makes it worse.
Now I have a lovely flat filled with a lovely boyfriend and lovely things. Books filled with amazing ideas I need to read. Papers that could be used to make collages. All that potential. Free to do anything I want! I must put it on my to do list that I will make things that are supposed to be fun. My life is now almost perfect, I just need a dog! I exclaimed to someone the other day. A perfect little fucking life.
The idea that a lot of people don’t have any stuff is very pressing. Money is potential. It can be anything whilst it is money, and then as soon as you buy a thing, it is something and you can’t change it. It’s done. Like an atom being observed in the double slit experiment, it’s fixed. You can always obtain more money. But as many people know, this is hard.
I didn’t really buy things, before now. I bought pints and theatre tickets and gig tickets and movie tickets. And when I say I bought those things I mean I bought a treasured long conversation with a good friend sitting outside a pub, drinking and chain smoking. I bought the feeling that you get when you sit in a theatre and you all accept that the people that are pretending to be other people on stage are in fact other people. I bought the feeling of pure joy that is singing and dancing to a song you love in a group of people you’ve never met. I bought the feeling of the lights going down and the whole cinema silently being transported to another world, another time, just for a while. And now all that is gone. Mostly temporarily, but some places will close forever.
Every time I throw something plastic away, every time I buy something new that contains plastic, I think about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (both Eastern and Western patches). I think about how this thing is never going go away completely, but just get smaller and smaller and get eaten by fish, who then get eaten by bigger fish, who then get eaten by people. And I think about how 150 million years ago, tiny little organisms that could never conceive of me as a person died, lay on the sea bed, and were covered with mud and rock. Eventually, they became oil that was dug out of the ground, then moulded into plastic. They are now my TV, which makes me happy. I watch the TV shows everyone is watching and text my friends. Did you like that too? A delayed collective experience.
I’m very lucky to even be able to buy plastic. There are many people who can’t afford to be environmentally friendly. This is both true and an argument used by rich people to stop others from holding them accountable for buying plastic.
Ironically, I work in a museum. All the stuff we have makes me anxious, but mostly because it is stolen. Or it is lost and it cannot be returned. When I say this, I mean that people will not make the effort to find where the stuff is from to return it, which is an idea I got from the artist Errol Francis at a talk today. He also talked about the idea of accumulating things as an expression of whiteness. The ‘encyclopedic museum’ is an expression of white supremacy. Because who else can acquire these things?
Who makes the things that I buy (relatively) cheaply? And whose bodies does Britain use to deal with our rubbish and process our unwanted things?
It’s a sickness—and I’m sick, we are sick. I need to throw out the junk in my drawers because it’s dragging me down and also I need to buy a new picture frame that is the right kind of pretty to frame a photo of me and my boyfriend on my beautiful desk, where I work alone, from home, in my beautiful fucking flat, that I am genuinely so lucky to have.