Desmond Morris has travelled to 107 countries in the course of his 91 years. But his latest adventure is, I imagine, the most daunting. The zoologist, author and surrealist painter is selling the house he has lived in for five decades, and getting rid of most of his possessions.
Grief is the cause of this dramatic dispersal: Morris’s wife of 66 years, Ramona, died in November, leaving him adrift in the marital home. “I have to get away from here,” he says. “Her absence is too acute. I keep wanting to ask her a question and she’s not there.” So he is moving to Ireland to live near his son.
To fit into his new house, Morris must sell thousands of antiques and curiosities picked up on his travels, as well as most of his art collection and half his 11,000 books.
What an extraordinary sensation that must be, to shear off the accrued possessions of such a long life. I find it painful to get rid of one book, let alone 5,500. But the newly bereaved often have violent reactions to their own belongings. Some can’t bring themselves to get rid of anything that reminds them of the dead. Every object becomes sacred, a physical proxy for the missing person. Others, like Morris, find the emotional weight of familiar things intolerable.
My house is encrusted with mementoes: baby photos arranged in tight formation on every surface; walls lined with novels whose plots I can’t remember but whose spines conjure an atmosphere; inherited paperweights, teapots, costume jewellery, jelly moulds and gravy boats.
Sentimental value is a misleadingly actuarial term for an almost supernatural phenomenon. What are these ties that bind us so strongly to inanimate objects? Things can’t love us back, or return what is lost. Things are often inconvenient, taking up space in our cramped homes, generating chores such as dusting or mending.
They may not meet either of William Morris’s famous criteria for household objects, to be beautiful or useful. They may not even, to use Marie Kondo’s decluttering credo, “spark joy”. But if they spark the slightest flicker of nostalgia, they are incredibly hard to shake off.
I consider myself a fairly efficient declutterer — you have to be, with three young children. Like a reverse Santa, I make monthly trips to the charity shop bearing sacks of neglected toys, outgrown clothes, decommissioned Nerf guns and other plastic tat.
Sentimental objects, however, remain stuck fast. And the older I get, the more there is to be sentimental about. My house is encrusted with mementoes: baby photos arranged in tight formation on every surface; walls lined with novels whose plots I can’t remember but whose spines conjure an atmosphere; inherited paperweights, teapots, costume jewellery, jelly moulds and gravy boats, none of which ever get used; box files full of my children’s drawings and stories and school reports; their milk teeth lined up along the kitchen dresser like a serial killer’s trophies. Great stalactites and stalagmites of accreted stuff, growing inwards from the walls of the cave.
Eventually I will have to don a hard hat and wriggle on my belly between rooms.
Objects become repositories of memory. Like music or perfume, they grant us sensory access to the past. I am about to spend a small fortune getting my grandparents’ ancient clock mended — not because I need it to tell the time, but because I hope its chimes will return me, however briefly, to my childhood.
Still, I admire the bravery and honesty of what Morris is doing. Nothing can bring back the dead. You might as well walk out of the cave empty-handed.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Jemima Lewis writes about Britain today, questioning social mores and the cult of celebrity.