On the telly tonight, Top Of The Pops, The Story of 1985, 9pm on BBC4 if you’re interested.
On the telly tonight, Top Of The Pops, The Story of 1985, 9pm on BBC4 if you’re interested.
Taylor Jones & Son is one of my favourite shops on Deal High Street, and the place to go if you want to buy quality art by local artists, well-chosen gifts and home items, or just have a friendly chat and a love-in with the gorgeous family dog, Lila, a well-shorn Old English sheepdog. So it was a pleasure to write about Richard and Sonja and their lovely home facing the sea in the January issue of Coast magazine.
It’s not often you can justify a headline like that, but William Thomson’s debut, The Book of Tides, lives up to it. I first met William in my home town of Deal, and loved his entrepreneurial spirit. He made beautiful furniture out of driftwood and volunteered for the local lifeboat ran a weekend gallery supporting local artists out of their rented cottage near the seafront, and William also designed clear, useful and also rather beautiful charts to enable swimmers, sailors, surfers and divers predict which way the current would be flowing along the beach at different times of day.
Then, at the end of 2015, the couple converted a cheap van into a camper and set off with their six-month-old daughter Ottilie and their water spaniel Alfie to travel round the British coast. The idea was to live as cheaply and as off-grid as possible for a year or so, to have fun surfing, paddleboarding and exploring, and to free up time for William to make new Tidal Compass charts for the places they visited, as well as finding new shops and galleries to help sell them. Soon after they set off in 2016, I wrote an article for the Saturday Telegraph magazine about William and the growing numbers of digital nomads who are able to travel or live anywhere while still running their businesses using a laptop and internet connection.
The feature led to a book deal, and this is the first product of it. Drawing on experiences from their travels and beautifully illustrated by William, the book examines the key features of tide, stream, rapids, whirlpool, tsunami, bore, wave and rip. Each chapter focuses on a feature, giving examples of where to find it in Britain’s seas and clearly explaining what causes it, how to have fun with it – and how to stay safe.
It’s worth reading this book just to find out how to get out of quicksand, and how to escape the rip-tides that drown at least 10 people a year on the UK coast. But it’s also a beautiful object – a book you want to own and enjoy, not just download in digital form. It’s made me look at the sea with fresh eyes, and would make a great gift for anyone who likes messing about on or in the waves.
“It is preoccupations with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” – Bertrand Russell
I once interviewed the British artist Michael Landy. I liked him a lot: he is a charming man, thoughtful and interesting, and able to laugh at himself and at the absurdities of his world while still putting out brilliant work. When I met him in 2010, he was making fantastical machines from junk in a pristine white studio in East London. But he made his name with a piece called Break Down in 2001, in which he took over an empty shop front at one end of Oxford Street, one of London’s busiest shopping areas, and after carefully cataloguing absolutely all of his possessions – 7227 of them – he systematically destroyed them. His car, his clothes, his art collection, his credit cards, his clothes – everything he owned was reduced to dust over a two-week period, and at the end of it he owned nothing except a pet cat, and the boiler suit he’d worn for the installation.
‘My stuff wasn’t that different to anyone else’s stuff,’ he told me. ‘When people saw it, they then started to make a mental inventory of how much they possessed. And suddenly you start to think about how much stuff you own, and how you end up owning 7227 things. It was about consumerism, but also about self-identity.’
It stuck with me, this conversation. Sometimes, when my stuff gets overwhelming – which is often – I find myself counting the number of items on my desk, in my handbag, and wondering how many of them I really need, what they say about me – and why I find it so hard to let them go. It’s also interesting, when I bring it up with other people, how extreme their reactions are to what Landy did. Some people get very upset and angry. Others admit they feel envious, and say they’ve fantasied about starting again, wiping the slate clean of possessions.
I think many of us in the developed world, feel anxious about our stuff, hampered by it even, and we’re constantly decluttering even while we’re compulsively buying more. We’ve been trained to believe that our happiness depends on consuming, and we tend to measure our self-worth in terms of what we own. Yet on a deeper level, this makes us uneasy. Many of us now feel that we’d like to own less, and experience more. Witness the huge success of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, with its new ways of folding clothes and insistence that you should only keep things if they bring you joy.
I read it, of course. I got rid of bags of stuff, I fold my jumpers differently now, and it changed my sock drawer forever. But there is a lot in my house that is never, ever going to bring me joy, but which is necessary. My tax returns and receipts, for instance. Although Michael Landy did manage to talk the Inland Revenue out of prosecuting him, he also had an awful lot of press to prove he’d shredded his paperwork for his art. I suspect the tax inspectors would be less flexible if I argued that a cool Japanese author and organiser had told me to get rid of mine, just for the sheer joy of it.
Anyway, it’s time for yet another blitz on clutter. And this time I’m trying an experiment suggested by Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus in their popular blog The Minimalists, ‘about living a meaningful life with less stuff’. Every day, for the next 31 days, I’m going to get rid of something. One thing the first day. Two the second. And onwards till day 31, when I will have shed at least 496 items. I’m seeing it as a kind of reverse advent calendar, removing stuff before the consumer frenzy of Christmas begins. And I’m going to write about each day here, to keep me on track.
Day 1: This carpet beater was bought for me by a friend a few birthdays ago, as a joke. (You had to be there.) It was thoughtful and funny, and I like the friend. So I kept it, gathering dust in a corner. Even though we have no rugs to beat. Now Oxfam has it, and I have this photograph instead.
Day 2: Found this coat hanging up in the cupboard under the stairs. I haven’t worn it since we moved here, five years ago. It’s far too big for me. Always was. So it’s gone to Oxfam. The odd sock I found in the pocket went in the bin. And no, I can’t explain what it was doing there.
Day 3: Back under the stairs, I find a waterproof jacket that is no longer waterproof because the lining is ripped, and two pairs of rancid beach shoes. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to the refuse collectors who had to take them away.
Day 4: Found some tiny incense-stick holders sitting on a shelf in my study. Was about to throw them away, but remembered how much I used to like the ritual of lighting a candle or incense before starting work. So ferreted around and found incense and matches. As I write this, lovely lavender scents are wafting round the room. Meanwhile, threw away two broken necklaces, a stained T-shirt, and a swimsuit that I’ve never liked.
Day 5: Digital camera, case, leads, instruction manual sitting in a drawer in my study, and long since replaced by my phone camera. All donated to Oxfam, in the hope someone might have a use for them.
Day 6: We no longer use our DVD player, because we can’t work out how to make it work with the smart TV we bought. Meanwhile six DVDs I’m never going to watch again even if I do get it connected go into the charity shop bag.
Day 7: Time to get the dusty boxes down from on top of the wardrobe. In a box marked ‘summer’ and untouched for at least two years, I find a pile of tops and T-shirts for the charity shop bag. And two really good shirts that I’d forgotten about go back into the wardrobe.
Day 8: More clothes into the Oxfam bag, a few more in the bin. This hanging shelf that was very useful in our old house, but is now just gathering cobwebs on top of the wardrobe, goes too. The cat is staying, for now.
Day 9: Even more clothes go. Three boxes and a huge, very ugly bag gathering dust on top of the wardrobe have become two satisfyingly neat, well-labelled boxes of out-of-season clothes. I’d take a photograph to show you, but unfortunately, we are also storing some oak floorboards up there, a hammock, and a lot of luggage. So nothing to brag about. Yet.
Day 10: This is why I never open the drawers in my study. And why I can never find leads and chargers when I need them. Threw away a big tangle of obsolete leads, ordered a drawer organiser online.
Day 11: A pile of credit/store card bills had gathered next to my desk. They are not needed for my accounts, but contain too much information to go into the recycling bin outside the house. Ripped them up and put them in with the garden compost, mixed in nicely with kitchen scraps and chicken droppings. An easy one. Then I noticed what they were sitting on: a paper shredder that had jammed yet again, and actually quite a faff to use even when it did work. So that goes, too. (To the dump, not into the compost, in case you were wondering.)
Day 12: The drawer organiser arrives. I can never find the right cable or charger, because they are spread all over the house, with no logic at all. As I’ve sorted, I’ve thrown them all together, and today I go through them, finding more obsolete leads. What is left gets clearly labelled using the Dymo label maker acquired during my last mad bout of decluttering.
All my computer stuff is now in one, organised drawer in my office. Other chargers have been labelled, and put away in the room where they’re most used, which will hopefully stop us losing them, and buying new ones.
I also find five quite nice, but not-quite matching old knives in a drawer in our bedroom. I should have a story to explain where they are from, or how they got there. But I’ve got nothing, nothing at all. They go into the Oxfam bag.
Day 13: Random stuff. A pair of Uggs that have been worn to death, but were a present from someone I love so hard to throw away; a mail order catalogue hiding under a magazine on my bedside table; a curtain tie-back hidden in t-shirt drawer; two shapeless old t-shirts; a pack of screen-wipes for my iPad that would have been really useful if they hadn’t somehow found their way into the back of a drawer and completely dried up.
This is getting harder now. But then I go to grab a clean tea-towel in the kitchen, and realise I have a drawer stuffed full of shamefully shabby and stained cloths. So I throw them away, easily making today’s count. I don’t even have to buy new ones: there are several already there, hiding under the ruined ones. As I’ve gone through cupboards and drawers, I’ve started to see that I do this kind of hoarding a lot. In the past few days, I’ve found scented candles, luxury toiletries, a new fluffy towel and crisp new bed linen, all being kept for some undefined special occasion that never quite comes. So I’ve started using them. And guess what? They bring me joy.
Day 14: I am trying not to look at the bookcases. I used to define myself more than I like to admit by the records and books I owned, but then the iPod and iTunes arrived, and gradually the record collection that tookup a whole room in our last house has dwindled to one cabinet of dusty albums and singles that we can’t quite let go of. The books, too, have stopped increasing so rapidly since we acquired Kindles. Now that I can replace most books instantly if I need them, I’ve sent hundreds, possibly thousands to charity shops in recent years. But there are still shelves groaning with books in every room, plus piles on the floor. Do I need them all? Probably not. Am I ready to shed more? My soul screams no. Instead, my eyes alight gratefully on the CD racks dotted around the living room, with drawers that have rarely been opened since we moved here. One contains eight long-obsolete computer games, and a pile of empty CD cases. And my work here is done.
Day 15: Back to the CD racks, where another drawer turns out to be packed with cassette tapes of old interviews. I’m a journalist. I need to keep recordings of interviews, in case the person I’ve written about suddenly decides to sue for libel. But not for this long: I’ve used digital recorders for all my face-to-face interviews for at least 15 years now. The next drawer contains.. yet more computer leads. Older ones, this time, from long-dead laptops and iMacs. It seems I have a pathological fear of throwing out leads. Plus a habit of hiding them away. So in the unlikely event that I do ever need one, I have to go out and buy it, because I’ve no idea where the old ones are.
Day 16: Cassette tapes of old interviews: how did I not notice that they are everywhere? Until quite recently, I did still use an ancient cassette recorder that had been modified to record phone calls. So most of the tapes I find today are of short phone chats: secondary interviews, when I was after a nice quote about the main person I was writing about, or just checking to confirm a story. I don’t need to keep them. I find two in an otherwise-empty drawer in my study. Three in my bedside cabinet. A couple on the floor, behind my desk. And then, on a shelf in my study, a box marked ‘interview tapes’ that I’d long since stopped seeing. They’re all brief encounters that I’d forgotten even happened: fashion folk and film directors, authors and artists. Una Stubbs! Ruth Jones! Elmore Leonard! Jake and Dinos Chapman! Beyonce! Tinie Tempah! Natalie Portman! Cheryl, who was then Cole! Geri, who was then Halliwell! And Simon, who remains Cowell!
Day 17: Yes, more cassettes. This is getting embarrassing now.
Day 18: I was busy today, so just did a quick sweep of random stuff. Quickly found six more old computer games. Two books of raffle tickets from 2015. Four out-of-date discount vouchers for car insurance and supermarkets. Two pedometers, replaced some time ago by a Fitbit. A pink ink cartridge for a printer I no longer own. And two really good cassette recorders, once used to record interviews, long since replaced by smaller, lighter digital recorders.
Day 19: I sift through a drawer stuffed full of instruction manuals, to see if I still have them for the pedometers and cassette recorders before donating them. Unbelievably, I do. Along with instructions/guarantees for all sorts of things we’ve long since stopped using. I quickly lose count as they fly from the drawer into the paper recycling box.
Day 20: More random stuff, all from one, over-crowded shelf by my desk. Twelve business cards from people I know and have in my contacts. Two more cards from people I’ve long since forgotten, and will never need. A card from a designer I met a couple of months ago at a party, and really liked. I add this to my contacts, then impulsively email her, asking if she’d like to meet up.
There’s also a 2013 catalogue from a furniture store. And two posh fountain pens, a gift from a bank a few years back, and never taken out of their box because I’m left-handed and can’t use them without making a smudged mess. I email a friend, a writer who likes to get down his first drafts in ink, to see if he’d use them.
There’s a rhythm to this now: every time I think I’m running out of stuff to get rid of, I notice a pile that has been sitting for so long it has become invisible to me. On this shelf there are also three old VHS tapes. We no longer have a VHS player. But one tape is of our wedding. The others are of our son, as a baby. I find a company online who will convert them to a digital format so that we can play them again, and post them off. This costs £33, but will be worth it just to embarrass our son when he’s back from university. It also frees up space to move some books from the floor onto the shelf.
Day 21: The designer emails back. We’ve arranged lunch. My writer friend is delighted with his new pens. I take two large bags of stuff to Oxfam. It feels good. Meanwhile, a basket in the living room is overflowing with old newspapers and magazines. It takes 10 minutes to sort most of them into the recycling. Then an hour to leaf through the recipes in some old food magazines, and scan the good ones into Evernote for later use.
Day 22: I went through the kitchen quite thoroughly earlier in the year, and donated bags of stuff. But these Le Creuset saucepans were hard to let go of: they’re great quality, and still in great condition, but I rarely use them now because they’re so heavy. So I put them up on eBay. Along with a winter coat I’ve never worn, and a framed picture that we took down some time ago, then hid behind the sofa. (As you do.) I also take the random collection of broken picture frames lurking under our bed to the dump.
Day 23: A bag of spent batteries, tucked into a drawer. Plus a tea-light holder and two old purses. Easy!
Day 24: Am I alone in having a Drawer of Shame, full of unworn clothes bought with the best intentions? I’ve carefully avoided mine when sorting out my wardrobes, but finally face it today. It
is stuffed full of gym clothes, some still with the tags on. I try them all on, find one pair of yoga pants that fit well, and three tops. The rest go into the charity shop bag. Afterwards, I feel inspired to tackle another over-stuffed drawer, this one full of nightwear. This is more about comfort, and packed with well-worn things I once loved to lounge about in, but which are now just too shabby to really use. Deep breath, and I throw most away. Also threw away a cracked bowl, and three decks of Uno, all mixed up with cards missing.
Day 25: Remember I mentioned no longer having a useable DVD player? So I probably don’t need this lot, then.
Day 26: All this came out of one drawer in the sideboard in the living room. How it all got there, and how I’ve gone so long without noticing it, is a mystery. It’s now all gone to the place it should have gone in the first place: the bin.
Day 27: And this is from the drawer below it. There are bits of old mobile phones here, unwanted headphones, defunct chargers, batteries, and light bulbs, transformers for ceiling lights we changed at least a year ago, shoelaces and stuff I couldn’t even identify.
Today, I also posted off all of the things I sold on eBay, and ordered a case of good wine with the proceeds. This will not turn into clutter. But it will undoubtedly turn into a few good nights in with friends over the next few weeks.
Day 28: Another roundup of random stuff. A backrest, for a chair we no longer have. A couple of ornaments we’ve never liked. More old magazines and newspapers, plus an out-of-date IKEA catalogue. Press cuttings read in preparation for an interview nearly a year ago, then left in a drawer. Flooring samples for a redecoration we finished a while back. Fabric samples for a sofa we bought this summer. Scales that no longer work. A big pile of financial papers I felt I should read, that in fact contained nothing of relevance at all.
Day 29: Did you know that medicines expire? So did I. Which makes this pile of out-of-date stuff in our medicine cabinet just a little bit embarrassing.
Day 30: Some books. Another pedometer. Another DVD. And yet more interview tapes.
Day 31: A final batch of spent batteries. Nearly 40 of them.
So how did this one-month experiment work out?
This is the bit where I’m supposed to say that the house feels clearer, cleaner, and that I’m far more at peace as a result. But the truth is, we have so much stuff that it’s barely made a difference. I went over the count on some days, and I reckon well over 500 things have left the house. But I could repeat this for months: it’s just a case of actually noticing the clutter you’ve accumulated, because much of it becomes invisible after a while.
There are still some big things to tackle. The hundreds of CDs that we never play, the dusty vinyl collection, and the books. Most of all, the books. We were about to have some new storage built in our living room, but we’ve delayed it for another month or two, while we decide what we want to keep, and where we want to keep it. There are still files full of paperwork that need sorting, and I don’t want to think about the garden shed.
But I do now know where all the chargers and leads are. We have a drawer for tools that were previously scattered all over the house, and I can quickly find a needle and thread, a pen, tape or scissors when I want them. There are even a few spaces on shelves and in drawers.
It’s addictive, shedding stuff. I’m tempted to repeat the whole exercise again in the new year, but it was time-consuming, especially towards the end when the obvious junk had gone. So instead, I think I’ll try to get rid of at least one thing a day for the next year, to buy less so it doesn’t all build up again, and to process papers more quickly, before they turn into daunting piles.
There’s another, unexpected bonus. I don’t live alone, but I’ve deliberately avoided my husband’s clutter this month, and been careful not to mention it. But magically, he has started to notice it, and to clear it. Both of us have a long, long way to go before we could ever call ourselves minimalists. I’m not sure I even want to. But this month was a great start to feeling less oppressed by the stuff we’ve accumulated.
I appear to be having a fashion moment, at The Guardian at least. These two both written at speed: just over four hours in the case of the first one, about the absurd – and thankfully now withdrawn – burkini ban on some French beaches. It was a great commission, giving me the chance to look at other historical attempts to attack clothing choices, from the belts of Victorian youths to hip-hop hoodies, and finding a champion swimmer who was arrested on a Boston beach because her burkini-style swimsuit was considered too revealing. Read it here. Then there’s The Collection, the new Amazon series set in Paris just after the end of World War 2, which promises to be the best-dressed TV show since Mad Men. The dresses are great, and it’s set at a time when designers like Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain were setting up their own houses, exploring fresh directions and putting the years of Nazi occupation firmly behind them. Read my take on it here.
One of the highlights of my summer was a quick jaunt to Paris to meet the fabulous Carine Roitfeld, former editor of French Vogue, current global director of Harper’s Bazaar, and a woman as warm and funny as she is feted and fashionable. We met on August 1, and the streets of the French capital were already eerily empty, with Parisians making their annual exodus to the coast. Carine and her lovely PR Remi were almost embarrassed to be caught there, with both hastening to tell me, as we made our introductions, that they were off on their separate holidays the following day.
For the next couple of hours, we chatted about her new fashion line for Uniqlo (in the shops in October), her fragrance range (not due till late 2016), her grand-daughter Romy, working with everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Beyonce, Lady Gaga to Kim Kardashian. Plus, of course, her friendship with Karl Lagerfeld, who thought Carine looked chic in a wheelchair while recovering from back surgery, but not in a hospital bed because the lighting is all wrong. For the fashion mavens among you, she also confessed to wearing Victoria Beckham sunglasses: ‘I am no snob!’
The interview appeared on the cover of the New York Observer, and you can read it here.
I first came across Andy Weir in episode 154 of the Self Publishing Podcast, where he talked about his failed early novels, and about posting his novel The Martian as a serial on his website, long after he’d given up on the idea of writing for a living. Which was fine, because he enjoyed his job as a computer programmer anyway. But The Martian slowly gained traction as an e-book, then as an audio book, and finally in print form, where it climbed into the New York Times best-seller list while also becoming a Ridley Scott/Matt Damon film.
He was an engaging interview, so I downloaded the book to my Kindle, fully expecting disappointment to follow. Instead, I found a gripping story in which a loveable hero saves himself with science, bad jokes and 70s disco when accidentally left behind on the surface of Mars. I read it in two sittings: once you start it, it’s to put down.
So I went to Mountain View, a two-hour train ride outside of San Francisco, to meet him, and it turns out it really couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Andy is a nerd. (His description, not mine, though I’d have to agree. There really is nothing, for instance, that he doesn’t know about Doctor Who, a series he has watched avidly, ever since it was shown on US TV.) He’s also very funny, self-deprecating, and also refreshingly sensible about all that has happened. He’s now writing full time and pitching ideas for TV shows, but he’s still living in the same rented condo and if success has gone to his head, he’s hiding it well.
The film opens in the UK this week, and it’s great, but I’d urge you to still read the book, because there’s lots of great material that was missed out. My article on Andy appeared in the Telegraph magazine, and you can read it by clicking here. I’d also urge you to read his 2009 short story The Egg, which went viral and has been translated into many languages, posted on his website.
William Thompson is well known around my home town of Deal for his lovely furniture, his driftwood Christmas trees and more recently his innovative tidal compass prints. His plan to travel round the UK coast in a camper van with his girlfriend Naomi, their baby daughter and their dog led me to thinking about digital nomads – people who can live and work anywhere with a wi-fi connection because they can conduct their business online. So I started talking to people living the lifestyle for the Telegraph magazine, and what an inspiring bunch of folks they turned out to be. Had great fun talking to William and Naomi as they embarked on their travels; to Erin McNeaney and Simon Fairbaim of travel blog Never Ending Voyage, who have been practicing their brand of slow travel for six years now; to Lea Woodward, a pioneer of location-independent working (who unfortunately didn’t make it into the finished feature for space reasons); and to the team behind Zoku, the first hotel aimed at these nomads. You can read the full feature here.
One of those days when I love my job. On the set of the new Luther series, to be shown on TV this autumn. Today, the set was a side-street in the Barbican. Lots of people doing their job brilliantly, but without fuss. There were spectacular explosions. Rose Leslie – Ygritte in Game Of Thrones – plays a tough new officer. Idris Elba – King of East London – walked down the street through the debris, to applause from onlookers in the offices and in the high-rise estate that flanked the street.
Other than that, I can tell you no more, or Luther would kill me. And you know he’s not a man you want to cross.