13. Less is More, more or less.


Another shop you don’t need to go in.

A sunny, windy Saturday morning. A queue of cars waits to turn right into a muddy field, creating a hold up on the A60. Each car is full of junk. The people from the cars unload their junk onto trestle tables and tarpaulins. People exchange items of junk and money. This is not a film crew re-making ‘Grapes of Wrath’ on location. It is a car boot sale, and it’s a tragedy.

You have a car that is 99.9% working. The part that isn’t working is a warning light that comes on when it shouldn’t. Ironically, the warning light is a faulty alarm, giving warning only of its own falsehood, but it is enough to fail the MOT test and render the car worthless.

The car must be recycled, and it is not a tragedy. Gordon Brown used to pay people to dispose of cars, successfully stimulating the Korean economy. For a while cars could be handed in for a bounty, like coyote pelts.

In our town centres, piles of junk are decanted into vacant shops under the guise of charities and sold on for slightly more than you might pay at Primark, if only you weren’t phobic and dared go in.

No disrespect to charities. It is just a pity that they have been sucked into the landfill business.

One of the best things you can do to help yourself is to throw away half your stuff. So, lots of lifestyle gurus have latched on to ‘decluttering’.

However, as Tony Blair didn’t say, its not enough just to fight clutter – we have to fight the causes of clutter also, otherwise it will merely return in a new and terrible form.

Why do we have so much tat?

The economic answer is that our society values economic growth above all other measures of civilisation.

The evolutionary answer is that for most of human existence it has really paid to hoard stuff away. Our grandparents, who lived through wars, failed to adapt to the disposable society and proved unable to dispose of their empty yogurt pots and biscuit tins. Many of them were killed in hoarded item landslides.

The psychodynamic answer is that we invest emotion in objects, so that they acquire a sentimental value. Under this heading we include whatever defence mechanism is responsible for Collecting Things.

The cognitive answer is that we hate waste. In particular we hate to lose stuff that we already have.

I don’t doubt for a moment that already there are huge land fill sites, and that a lot of land fill should really be recycled, and that land fill is problematic from an environmental point of view.

It’s just that, judging by the state of many people’s houses and sheds, the land fill sites should be so much bigger. Somewhere around the size of Bedfordshire, as a rough estimate.

Borrowing a bit from Escape from New York, why not declare an area – such as Bedfordshire – an official landfill site and build a tall fence around it? Gradually, Bedfordshire would grow taller and mountainous and probably beautiful in due course – if you could find it.

I would like to see a huge re-cycling plant for vinyl records where they can be turned into food by a special fungus.

I’d like to see all the remaining cathode ray televisions collected, melted into a giant saucepan and made into comfy chairs .

And all the books – after digitising – can be made into a new Hadrian’s bookcase along the entire Scottish border.

All the coins and money could be melted down and made into the kind of shiny foil clothing people in the 1960s imagined we would all be wearing by now.

And most of all, I’d like to see all those cardboard crowns that litter the window sills in Burger King, collected, pulped and made back into trees.

Architect and designer Mies Van der Rohe is credited with the saying ‘Less is More’. He would have been a little disappointed to find so little evidence of minimalism or even room to swing cats in our houses today. Though modernists would probably have expected people to swing their cats in verdant communal parkland between the high rise blocks, or in high quality piazza spaces, rather than indoors.

Some architects have even gone as far as to question whether cats need to be swung at all.

Digitisation seems to give us the opportunity to miniaturise the storage of all our music, video, art and documents to a card the size of a postage stamp. Using ‘the cloud’, we do not even need the little card any more.

Sadly, one has the impression that the space vacated by digitising records, books and pictures will quickly be filled by gym equipment and antiques.

It is tempting to hold the media – particularly the Sunday Times – responsible for the clutter epidemic. For instance, yesterday, the paper carried an article about buying a Victorian bidet, allegedly haunted, for £325. ‘Its sad to part with it,’ the article concluded, ‘but I’m downsizing’. What, do without a bidet! However will you manage?

In truth the blame lies closer to home. Yes, psychiatrists are to blame for the landfill explosion and thus, soon, losing one of our treasured counties. This is the reason:

Some how or other, psychiatrists have convinced the world that tidy people have something wrong with them. Tidy people are called ‘anankastic’, which sounds suspiciously like ‘antichrist’.

The word ‘anankastic’ means something similar to obsessive.

Psychiatrists have not explained very well that the anankastic personality is not the same thing at all as obsessive compulsive disorder.

Implicit in OCD is the acceptance that the thinking and behaviour is silly. Whereas the anankastic person does not think there is anything wrong with what he regards as being extremely well organised.

Psychiatrists have hinted that tidy people are repressed in some way. Something to do with anal retentiveness.

Tidy people will never be competent painters, jazz musicians or good at sex.

Look at how they are portrayed in movies and television. Radar, from Mash; Dwight, from The Office; Mr Gradgrind, from Hard Times.

Psychiatrists have been generating bad press for tidy people for over a century. There is no range of perfume called Anankast, not even in Superdrug.

There is no Anankastics charity shop in town, though by now  it would have been renamed Spick and Span, to reduce stigma.

In the Mr Men series – pretty much the bible when it comes to personality classification – Mr Neat and Mr Tidy are only minor characters in the book devoted to Mr Messy.

Looking back to the late 19th / early 20th century context, when the analysts were most active, perhaps this is more understandable.

Freud and his colleagues had no PIN numbers to remember, no car insurance to renew, no DVDs to take back to the library.

They did not have to use mobile phones to pay for parking. They did not even have land lines. They had no need to keep a range of spare batteries, chargers and light bulbs, or gas cartridges for their Braun Independent beard curlers.

They had no need to use their Tesco voucher within a specific 7 day window.

Freud never had to find a 13mm ring spanner or a 30 amp fuse.

He never had to worry that Jung had hacked his facebook page.

Today’s world is so different. The need for organisation is so acute some households should think about appointing their own executive boards, complete with Venn diagrams and Mission Statements.

As a psychiatrist I feel guilty about what we have done to besmirch tidy folk, and offer the following solution:

Since we have invested a lot of emotion in objects, we cannot simply dispose of them as the de-cluttering guru suggests.

No, each item really needs a decent send- off, with a few kind words and reprisal of happy memories. This way the grief can be channelled and worked through.

The actual process would be quite like Antiques Road Show, but featuring a conveyor belt and incinerator.

That way Bedfordshire can be saved.


9. The Optional Illusion.


Facing my inquiry panel.

It is bank holiday weekend and I am waiting for the news to show the usual rioting in Brighton, as rival gangs of philosophers – down from ‘the smoke’ – fight each other with motorcycle chains. The battle between Positivists and Constructivists continues more ferociously than ever.

It’s all to do with the way you like to see Reality. The R word is an issue for mental health specialists, since mental disorders are loosely defined as a breakdown in reality testing. Positivists like to measure reality with a ruler, whereas Constructivists like to feel it through their sensory experiences.

Positivists are quite certain you have a dining room table made of wood, whereas Constructivists aren’t even certain they are in your house at all.

Having watched the Matrix, there has to be a chance that we are all just brains in buckets being fed information via the higher number Sky channels.

There are times when Positivism is essential, like measuring the dose of insulin and checking the blood sugar level, or flying a jumbo jet. When it comes to appreciating a restaurant or a book, it is probably better to judge the overall experience than rate it with a star scale.

Consider this experience: a car goes past you. There is a large dog sitting in the passenger seat, facing forwards. The dog has the window slightly open and a serious look on its face.

Why is that funny?

The humour is at the expense of the dog. It thinks its a human. It probably thinks it is driving the car. Sadly, the dog probably does not possess ‘theory of mind’. It is happily oblivious to its station in life, which is having no rights whatsoever and certainly no vote, not even for the European parliament.

Pets are big business in the UK. How much of the supermarket is devoted to pet food? How much greenhouse gas is produced by pet related activity?

What are pets actually for, if we exclude working sheepdogs and guide dogs?

OK, horses are arguably a form of transport. And I believe ferrets play a vital role in carrying cables through underground pipes. I think there are mites that play a role in cheese production, oh yes, and the little worm that goes in Tequila, though I’m not sure what it does.

I ask just to get some comments from pet owners and tequila experts.

If the answer is ‘for company’ then I’m thinking do pet owners display the same kind of obliviousness as the dog in the passenger seat?

Treating dogs and cats as people is a strange distortion of what animals really are. But in a way, we are all like the dog in the passenger seat. We construct a view of the world, but the view has many blind spots, illusions and distortions.

If the world was presented to the senses in a completely clear and unfiltered stream, it would probably seem unbearably harsh. Nature can appear very cruel if we don’t give it a bit of positive PR, which is when it becomes all things bright and beautiful.

You would like more friends so you create an imaginary friend in the shape of a grey cat. It has a droopy moustache and its name is  Zorro.

How many movies, how much merchandising, has gone into ‘anthropomorphism’ – projecting human characteristics on to animals?

The brain seems to have a tendency to attribute human like characteristics to natural phenomena and even inanimate objects such as steam engines and curling tongs, so its not surprising that creatures with two eyes and four limbs are treated as though they had finer feelings.

How much are you really empathising with a dog if you regard it as your loyal friend?

By now you have guessed that I just don’t ‘get’ animals as pets, and not much really as food. Some time soon I hope the genetic engineers will be able to make fillet steak from cell culture on a giant loom in Milton Keynes, and our cows (and horses) can relax again.

Animals have a key role in the eco system and they are incredible in how they can look and behave. They are magnificent creatures. I nearly said they are magnificent pieces of machinery (they are). I love Disney films, and Tom and Jerry, but I think I have placed these firmly in the Fiction section.

I just don’t think Toads can really buy motor cars and get put in jail for dangerous driving. Not even in Hartlepool, where they allegedly hanged a monkey having mistaken it for a French spy.

Just to leave the pet lovers alone for a while, let us turn our attention to motorcycles. From a positivist perspective we find that these accelerate very fast in a straight line. They are very cold and noisy, don’t really go round corners as fast as cars, use more petrol and tyres than cars, and are quite dangerous.

That’s if you actually ride them outside their safe operating radius of one mile from Cafe Nero. As a form of transport they get only one star.

But to counteract this, using a constructivist method, we temper our initial experience of noise, cold and danger with a range of romanticised imagery borrowed from Marlon Brando, Bruce Springsteen and Ewan McGregor, that sets motorcycling into a grainy black and white arts movie with a working class hero.

So Pets. And Motorcycles. The fantasy does not match the reality. We use ‘sentimentalisation’ to reduce the discord between the ways things are and the way they really ought to be. War has probably been sentimentalised more than pets, and slightly more dangerously.

And luckily, there is an absolutely huge industry whose job it is to help us not see things correctly, spanning politics, advertising and business. Advertisers construct chains of feel good imagery and attach them to our perceptions. Yogurt and Skiing, for instance.

In the motor industry engineers try to reduce what they call ‘NVH’, noise vibration and harshness. Sentimentalism is a defence against NVH in the personal environment. It’s a cosy room with cats and cuddly toys, where Liberace plays Candle in the Wind.

Consider this statistic:

Of the 26.4 million households currently in the UK, 7.6 million – or 29% – are made up of only one person, with the growth in single occupant households owned by the middle aged creating extra demand for homes.

There are many reasons for this social trend, but it seems we are becoming increasingly intolerant of living with other people. This trend has also been termed ‘schizoid society’, where we all inhabit a little bubble, and our only contact with others is as spectators.

Such a process was well anticipated and described by Isaac Asimov, in his novels about the planet Solaria. People, in proximity, just cause too much NVH. People – most people – just wouldn’t fit in the yogurt commercial.

Some of the most attractive, well thought out and effective types of therapy have devoted themselves to seeing the world more carefully and sensibly. Some nice examples include rational emotive therapy, now called REBT; personal construct psychotherapy, and Karl Rogers’ person centred therapy.

Interestingly these were all developed in the 1960s and 70s. Sadly none of them are really available much now, not in a pure form at least, though they continue mainly through strands of CBT and counselling.

I don’t think anyone has invented an anti-sentimentality tablet. Nor can I find a sentimentality rating scale to measure its effects. The lifestyle advice is relatively simple however.

Avoid sending cards for anything apart from birthdays and Christmas. Better still, avoid sending cards at all. Avoid most of Steven Spielberg’s output, and anything with James Stewart in it. Rationalise your yogurt buying to the 1000g ‘Eridanous’ pots from Lidl.

Sentimentalism is a kind of emotional clutter. There is a lot written about ‘decluttering’ your house, most of it rather obvious. First order a skip, then rescue ten things you really need.

Not you Tiddles.