After 20 years of accumulating detritus on a ridiculously wide range of subjects, I have finally been forced to clear out my study. It’s a grim business that I’ve been postponing for months. This is my private sanctuary, the room of my own where eight books have been written, and it’s the only room where the muse strikes, since I believe a muse is nothing more than concentration, wide reading and being near the laptop at the critical moment. But the builders are arriving tomorrow so no further delay is possible. I have done mini culls before; in fact there is a sort of ritual clearance after each book is finished, putting the mounds of documents and letters into a big plastic box away in the attic hoping no one will ever ask me to search for some obscure reference. But they invariably do and it’s not fun searching on my knees in the dark and dusty attic where wasps make their nest among a different set of rafters every summer. These days there is much less paper generated per book as so much of the information comes through email and is stored on various obsolete hard disks, so why do I feel the necessity to store the old paper version at all? Is there a cut off point, say five years and then shred? But in truth it’s not just the documentation for the books that I keep…I am guilty of keeping hundreds of copies of old magazines (or I did until last week when almost all found their way into the recycling lorry). And I cannot read a newspaper without tearing out pages, half pages or just a column making it impossible for anyone else to read a newspaper if I have got there first. But the trouble with old newspaper articles is that once you have kept them for a few years they acquire a hallowed importance way beyond what is actually in the words or story so then they cannot be thrown away. Mostly these articles go into a pink box labelled: ‘Keep for the novel’. But I have not yet written a novel. Is it because I know real life is always stranger than fiction.The box is staring at me now as I type this. Perhaps this is the moment?
Last week I threw away dozens of cuttings detailing heart rending and gruesome domestic dramas. Each one, I thought at the time, would provide the germ of a novel, a short story. I have spent a happy few days rereading and reconsidering… not always able to remember what it was that persuaded me to keep particular items. I do know that the story of the seaside village in England where a young German naval rating swam ashore in 1917 and was taken in by two kind spinsters would make a gripping and revealing children’s book. Why have I failed to write it? But where on earth did I think the Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 in New England, fascinating though it has been to read, would lead me? There is correspondence with English Heritage about my attempt to have a blue plaque erected to Jennie Churchill and Francis Hodgson Burnett who both lived, 25 years apart, at 37, Charles Street. “We never put two plaques on one building,” I was told and in any case Hodgson Burnett already has a plaque in London while Jennie is not renowned for being anything other than the mother of a famous man…How that made me boil with fury. And now the blue plaque scheme is no more. Perhaps too many people felt frustrated with it like I did. But seeing who had once lived in a particular house is always the most extraordinary instant history lesson.
I have been good about whittling down my huge pile of obituaries, because those you can now find these on line. But you need to know who you are looking for and who today remembers Alexander Baron, who died in 1999 described in the yellowing pages of the Guardian as “the greatest British novelist of the last war and among the finest most underrated of the post war period?” Often the Obits I kept are stories of unbelievably brave men and women who risked their lives in their twenties to save us from Hitler. Mostly they lived on another 70 or so years but how can anything have matched up to the extraordinary battles they fought often when they were little more than the age my children are now? Throwing away their record of achievement feels shockingly disrespectful. Yet can I justify continued retention on the grounds that perhaps this life story will provide a vital clue in my search to understand another character in whatever book I am currently writing?
And at the bottom of the pile I discover a page devoted to the Sovereign’s Parade at Sandhurst, the traditional passing out parade before the men and women go off to join their regiments. How many of those hundreds of names never returned from tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. I cannot bear to linger here. So now I have cleared it all out, and moved upstairs to one of the grown up children’s deserted bedrooms, I hereby make a promise: I shall not keep so much ephemera in my new study. There! I have said it!