My uncle was a hoarder. But the rubbish he kept provided a glimpse into his soul.
My uncle led a kind of double life. He wasn’t quietly gambling away the family silver, or keeping a string of secret lovers hidden from our view. His private world wouldn’t make a mini-series. But given the amount of time and detail he put in to it, a double life is what it was.
He lived alone in one of those suburban comfort zones which circle London, a non-descript blur of high street chain stores and identikit Italian restaurants. He’d moved to the unremarkable detached house with his mother, my granny, in the mid-1970s. Granny wanted to be closer to the West End and the theatre land she stalked as a debutante and occasional actress in the 1930s. It also made sense for my uncle to be nearer to his work in the centre of London. The two of them lived together until granny collapsed and died in the house in 1998.
Last year, a few months before what would have been his 80th birthday, before Covid-19 came to haunt our lives, my uncle died in hospital. Over the course of the months which followed, as I helped my dad and brother to sort out his affairs and clear the house, my uncle’s hidden world opened up.
It was kept close to home, in every dusty cupboard in every room of the house. It was piled on the spare beds. It filled the drawers of desks, bedside cabinets and wardrobes. Some of it was lined up neatly on bookshelves. More still was in a locked closet in what had been his mother’s bedroom.
It was a life of apple pips, brown envelopes and till receipts. Of old newspapers and railway magazines. Dry cleaning receipts, cheque books and undelivered political leaflets. Paper clips, pens and pins. The wills of great aunts, bills and egg boxes. Vegetable cartons, plastic bags.
Letters, bank statements. Unopened Christmas presents and freshly laundered handkerchiefs. Hundreds of keys to old houses and even to my granny’s Mini, which had been sold 20 years earlier.
The man who came to unlock one of the cupboards (none of the keys fitted it) said this wasn’t unusual. He came across this instinct to hoard, to find it almost unbearable to throw things away, regularly in his line of work. But if you’ve never seen anything like it before, it feels extraordinary, like opening a window into a soul. It was also incredibly sad, a life lived through scraps of paper and the bits left behind from a otherwise quite sparse existence.
And my uncle kept absolutely everything. I found exercise books from his austere 1940s boarding school, junk mail from the 1970s and and thousands of takeaway menus. There were old cheques, some dating back to the 1950s. Every single piece of mail he’d ever received, some of it unopened, was either stuffed in a drawer, piled up on top of wardrobes or among great sheaves of paper lying around the house. I’m pretty sure he had also kept tickets from every railway journey he’d ever taken. The railway timetables stretched back to his childhood.
The apple pips were in one bowl. In another were the stalks, and in yet another there were apricot stones.
But it wasn’t just that he kept everything. It went further that. If you looked hard enough among the dust and chaos it was possible to find a record of his life, as though intended for others to find. Not though, how he felt about the world and his place in it, but just the names and numbers which pointed to his existence.
In the back of his diaries, he had recorded how many times each year he’d eaten out. There were no clues as to whether he was alone or not, or even where he’d gone: just the number.
He’d kept hundreds of paper bags from bakeries, some of them held together with bulldog clips. On each he had written the date on which he’d bought the pie or bun it had once contained. Some were from the 1970s. There were thousands of scraps of paper, some held together in elastic bands, on which he’d written the date at the top and then a line down the middle. On the left, the names of the people and organisations from whom he’d received post on that particular day. And on the other side, a similar note of the the post he’d dispatched that day.
There were Christmas and birthday cards going back to his childhood. And on some he’d added comments, corrected spelling mistakes and — often — added letters: where he’d been called Tim, he had added “othy.” He hated being called Tim.
He’d kept till receipts going back decades. And on every single one he had written the first name of the cashier, or where he didn’t know their name, a description: «holiday girl», «student» and, memorably, ‘horse face’.
On some of the newspapers he had kept, he had added his own commentary. One, for instance, recorded William Hague’s desire to be leader of the Conservative Party. My uncle has written: “His ambition was realised”. I’m not sure who he was talking to. On a letter inviting him to drinks with his bank manager, he’d written: «I’d rather stay at home with the cats.»
Timothy John Sevier Davies — known as George — was born on the shortest day of the year in December 1939. His brother, my dad, had arrived four years earlier. Their father, who died in 1968, had been a commander in the Royal Navy, decorated for his service and role in the sinking of the Tirpitz in the Second World War.
His presence loomed still in a house he’d never known. His suits were still in the warddobe, while his ceremonial swords hung in the hallway, along with the caps he’d won as an accomplished rugby player. There were photographs of him everywhere.
Not that Timothy had let his mother’s memory fade. She stared down on him from an imposing photograph he’d hung above his bed. Her chair was just as she’d left it when she died in the house 20 years earlier, the unfinished letter she was writing at the time still there on the table next to where she sat. One of her 78s was still on the turntable of her little record player. None of the furniture had been moved.
It’s not a staggering insight to say it, but my uncle struggled with life, and all the more so after his mother died. I’ve no doubt that the loss of his father also cast a shadow over his life from which he struggled to find the light. And it was almost as though he also felt compelled to record the certainties of his life to counter the losses he’d suffered: the numbers and names provided a reassuring sense of certainty in a world he must have found difficult and confusing. Maybe he was trying to counter the unpredictability of the world around him: from wartime evacuation to boarding school cruelty (one of the few things he would talk about with emotion and occasionally even anger) to family life where his mother was loving but also erratic and his father had gone when he was in his late 20s.
There was more he might have recounted: travels to Israel, the US and Morocco. But of them he left no accounts. And it was only after he died that I discovered he had been the key witness at the inquest into the death of a close friend who had not only taken his own life on a nearly railway line, but told my uncle that’s what he was intending to do. Of that, he had never spoken.
There was lost love too. One Saturday as I was sorting though the mound of papers which he had piled on his mother’s bed, a letter, two pages in blue biro, fell to the floor. It was a love letter to my uncle, a declaration of the deepest affection, from a woman he’d known the 1960s.
And I also found my uncle’s dreams. Lots of dreams. Not chronicles of his aspirations, of thwarted ambition, of hopes dashed, but accounts of actual dreams, the nocturnal dramas which took place in his mind almost every night, written out the next day in his diary or in old exercise books. Pages and pages of them,
«You must all read these dreams of mine,” he wrote at the beginning of one collection, which spanned from 2010 until 2014.
In many ways they are unremarkable: some are absurd or outlandish, as dreams often are, and others are mundane. Sometimes where his dreams trigger a real life reflection he provides a few tantalising details, sometimes dates, sometimes flickers of emotion: “It reminds me of that bleak time in my own life”. “My father could be stern” He categorises them — “family dream”, “talking dream”, “vivid dream”, “nightmare”.
All are carefully recorded and dated, sometimes in remarkable detail. If you run your hand across the page you can feel the way the pen nib has dug into the paper as he poured out vivid detail in a way he was unable to do in conversation.
I found the process of clearing my uncle’s house unbearable at times. I felt a huge sense of loss, but also guilt: guilt that this life was there to be lived but that somehow it had not been able to find its way. I wondered if there was more we could have done. I remembered the times when his face did light up with emotion of some kind, on talking about his school, or the Crystal Palace football results or some key date he was able to remember when everyone else was foundering. And I wished that I’d tried hard to talk to him, to bring the hidden world into the open. As someone said to me recently, we all carry a hint of loneliness within ourselves, an inability to truly express ourselves, whether through fear or anxiety about what the truth might reveal beyond our private world. For my uncle it must have been an unbearable daily burden.
I’ve kept a few things from the house to remind me of a man I loved but never really knew. There was a tiny toilet by the front door in his home and in it hung a faded picture of a bridge. On it, my uncle had written, in capitals, THIS IS NOT THE TAY BRIDGE! While I have no doubt that he was right, this frankly unnecessary clarification, in slightly agitated screed, captured much about my uncle.
I’ve put it in my loft.