The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.

Congratulations! Your life now no longer has meaning!

Hey dude, sup. Just chilling. Word.

So, I did it. I sat a full degree’s worth of final exams and they are now completely behind me, never again to be touched until the examiners get their mitts on them. I revised for about 11 weeks, got through three books of lined paper, developed a variety of stress-related illnesses and wrote a blog entry about cheese graters. It was like wading through a swimming pool of congealing cold porridge, desperately trying to reach the sympathetic-looking lifeguard beckoning from the other side of the pool; and when you finally do get to him, you realise it was just a high-visibility vest propped up on a broom. The problem is that Oxford was always perfect for me in one way, in that I have to be busy and partially under stress at all times in order for me to really do or be anything worthwhile, and four years of marching about producing essays and library-hopping and running societies was the ideal habitat for a busy-body like this. Revision and exams was just a slight elevation of this, really. Then there is a sudden and almost surprising spurt of exhausting activity which really does feel like a spontaneous purgation of built-up mental fluid, and then all of a sudden, you’re on your own. You can relax!!


Except: what does that mean? For a start, it means gazing watery-eyed around my room regarding the sheer casualty of living that developed while I was glaring at irregular verbs. There are sacks of laundry, dirty and clean, everywhere; piles of mugs in every corner; incongruous things in all kinds of incongruous places (hiking boots in the recycling bin, mp3 player in a slipper, gloves in my bed); folders and notebooks smeared all over the floor and desk like the residue of autumn leaves that cover the street. My supplies-cupboard (which I like to call ‘the pantry’) used to contain most of my food and ‘supplies’ but now has been reduced to some Ryvitas, half a jar of pickles and thousands of dark chocolate Tunnocks teacakes which my mother brings me every time she comes to visit once a fortnight. My right eye is a large throbbing growth which arrived the day before my last exam and apparently is going to hang around for a few more days to soak up the atmosphere before it leaves me alone and returns me back to looking like a real human being and not half of Admiral Ackbar. Needless to say, some things need sorting out here before we can properly move on.


Then I suppose I’ll just be doing everything I’ve wanted to do for the past two months and haven’t been able to. I’m going to go to the garden and dig some things, go to the shops and buy more than just milk, maybe even find the time to treat myself to a trip to the doctors to deflate my eye. Go punting and visit the botanical gardens. Make some jewellery and paint my toenails. Collect some stories for you lot.

And beyond that, what? Are we adults now? Was that the poison-arrow-frog initiation test? You’d think it was from the way you emerge from the final one: blinking in the sunlight and hand still aching, you find a thronging crowd outside the exam building held back by riot gates, poised with tubes and bags of silly string and confetti and gooey things and powdery things and stainy things all waiting for their own one friend to come out so they can smother them with the stinking, crusty coating of ‘trashing’ ingredients that is their own way of saying ‘We love and admire you for your bravery’. The medics finished with me and of course got the royal treatment, which I can only imagine was the precursor to sheer apocalyptic hedonism because we all know what medics are like. I got flower garlands and one made of lined paper because I’m a classy gal and because we were once sent a very threatening email from our college warning us not to use food products for trashing because it’s offensive to homeless people who might look on in jealous peckishness (“I’d give anything for a raw egg mixed with cocoa powder right now…rich bastards…”). The weather is blistering, the day is young and there’s still one more box on the exam schedule that needs crossing out with a big red pen. I’ll catch you all later, bunnies.

I wonder if revision is detrimental to the kidneys…

Cup of tea no. 134. Of this day.

Writing a blog entry after an exam? Wow, now that’s a professional. That’s a real writer. That’s a blogger we want to employ for our television and soup making business, they’ll say.

Or maybe not. Either which way, if you deciphered the slightly cryptic previous post, the reason for my absence was the down to my exams FINALLY starting. Thanks to the preposterous system this university insists on keeping going from the early middle ages, my (and most other people’s) final year exams make up the entirety of their degree grade for the entirety of their course. Four whole years worth of reading and typing and scrawling and lecture-sleeping and small-child-humouring have gone towards these few precious hours in which I get to prove that I’m not a true moron, after all. The system is so amazingly wrong that I am going to have to explain it to all of you who are not aware of what happens here when the final exams begin for the first time to flicker their shadows over the distant horizon.

Ok, so first things first. We’re doing our final year at Oxford. That means that from the very start of term we’re going to have to endure a lot of ominous and frankly unnecessary warnings from our professors that we simply have no time to lose at this point. This, of course, is patently a lie as these professors are the people who are going to spend the next few months wasting our time with vigour and aplomb. We’re also going to have to contend with the fact that us fourth-years have just been on a year abroad and now are going to have to have a quick read over everything we studied almost two years ago – oh yeah, and then sit entire papers on it. We’ve got to do a break-neck dash through a few new topics, spend two eight-week semesters lurching from essay to pub, and then finally get down to revision in the Easter holidays when everything is finally starting to not be cold, grey and just so damp all of the time. 

Then we have to get our Fusc and Sub Fusc sorted. Sub Fusc is our exam uniform: a white shirt, black skirt/trousers and black shoes with a black ribbon tied around the neck for the girls and a white bow-tie for the boys. Oh, and why is it called Sub Fusc? Because it goes ‘sub’ (under – come on!) the ‘Fusc’, the big, black, flappy, pointless gown that undergrads have to wear to add the misshapen cherry to the clumsy-looking cake. If you did ok in your first year exams you get a funny square sleeveless gown with long straight strands hanging down from the shoulders which sort of makes you look a bit like you’re wearing a broken set of window blinds. If you managed to get good grades in your first year exams you have the privilege of shelling out almost fifty quid for a big billowy gown with sleeves which is a cross between the lovely drapey things they wear in Harry Potter and the enormous decomposing carcass of a bat. It is important to note here that the first year exams count towards absolutely nothing beyond the question of whether or not you will be allowed a gown with sleeves. You will also need a mortar board, which you will have to carry around like a clipboard but YOU MAY UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES PUT IT ON. We joke, but there are actual monetary fines in place for the wearing of your mortarboard before you have graduated. I have never even let my mortarboard anywhere near my scalp because of the sheer taboo of it, as if simply putting it on on my own in a locked room would nonetheless incur some kind of destructive karmic revenge. 


Next, it’s time to throw away all of the lecture notes you ever made, because unlike most universities where lecture series are given depending on what might be of most use and interest to the students according to what they are studying, the lectures given here are more a selection of unrelated and strange themes brought to you by the few members of the English Faculty who are devoted, chatty or in-trouble-with-the-faculty enough to feel the urge to get off their arse and actually do a lecture series. Every term reading the lecture list is like being offered a chocolate from a 4/5ths empty box of Celebrations: “Oh…umm, aren’t there any Maltesers ones even? Ok, thanks I suppose I’ll have a Seventeeth Century Fungus Ballads on Stage and Screen if that’s all there is…” 


And now you will work, and once you’ve finished working you will work some more because this is the one chance you get to use all of that knowledge and reading you accumulated over this brief but intense period of scholarly dilettantism. Friends of yours will look at you with sad and sympathetic eyes as you shuffle mournfully into the kitchen to microwave your seventeenth cup of tea, you will perhaps stop shaving your legs and you will spend your children’s inheritance on coloured stationery items in the dogged belief that the more rainbow fineliners you have the higher your mark will be. And then things will begin, slowly but steadily, to go wrong.


During the revision period or any period of intense personal effort and struggle, small and isolated things choose that moment to go tits up, in the determination to rob you of your time, energy and mental integrity. One morning’s revision was interrupted by the disheartening sound of my mini-fridge grinding to a sudden death; another morning I awoke to find that my eye had swollen to a squidgy red golfball-size, to the horror of the poor tutor I had to see that day; my radiator broke and flared to the temperature of the molten innards of the sun…another recent joy is that my alarm clock has begun to stutteringly break down but only on certain unpredictable days, meaning that some days I am woken up to the interesting mixture of John Humphrys, Classic FM and some traffic radio bint from BBC Oxford, and on some days I am not woken up at all. Like today, when I had a morning exam. Not to worry, chums, I have been setting another alarm clock to go off five minutes after the first one just in case, but I mean it really is the living end.

Now you have to sort out your carnation. No, not the condensed milk, the flower – it’s tradition for students taking exams here to wear a carnation to their exams pinned to their gown, for the double joy of having a bulky floral pompom on your breast and an open needle ready to snag your tender skin. You are given your pompom – sorry, carnation – by your college child, who is the student allotted to be under your maternal care when they begin their time at college and whose carnation you bought when they sat their first year exams. If you are a returning languages student your child becomes your colleague and it all gets very complicated and in the end some flowers somehow arrive at you by wonderful underground clockwork. Complicated? Well, it doesn’t stop there, because of course there is also a colour code, white for the first exam, pink for the middle, and red for the last one. It symbolises – and this is true – the blood gradually shed by the student as they fight through each paper, one by one; although I prefer to see my pink carnation as a metaphor simply for my own sanity as it gradually gets withered and mushy over time. In my first year exams my pink carnation actually shed petals onto the paper as I closed the booklet of my penultimate module, a poignant reminder that life is an endless but slow march of decay. As I say, it’s a charming tradition.


Then – oh, then – you have to go to your exam. You stick your pens and university card into the hat-bit of your mortarboard because it’s really only useful as an inadequate pencilcase, and then you enter the colossal exam room, an elaborate hall with huge Hillaire Belloc-style clocks and lion sconces and incongruous pulpits all over the place. The chief examiner will read out the exam regulations and then, in the couple of minutes before you begin, say something jovial and sweet like “And now…think beautiful, restive thoughts…” 


Then threehoursofsolidwritingandnotverygoodquestionsandnotbeingabletorememberandrememberingotherthingswhichyoucanwritedownandparaphrasingandalmostherenowonemoreessaytodothreeessaysinthreehoursmyhandmyhandohgodmyhandohgriefwriteaconclusionanyconclusionandfinish.


And then you go home. Let’s do it again tomorrow!