Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A good throw-out

Home Front by Sarah Johnson
There is nothing so therapeutic to domestic harmony as a good old throw-out. I say this as I stand and survey three children’s bedrooms with a roll of black bin liners menacingly gripped in one hand.
Now, whenever we come back from holiday I fully expect to find the garden in some disarray, with the self-seeded elderflowers and buddleia happily spreading themselves, regarding all empty space as requiring only to be filled with foliage. These are living things, and they grow.
What I don’t quite understand, on the other hand, is how within 24 hours of our return, the same thing happens inside the house, not with plants but with what I had thought were inanimate objects - largely crayons, clothes, card games, piles and piles of books, quantities of stray elastic hair ties, yet more clothes - in particular socks - which multiply and spread like buddleia.
Much of this stuff is what the transatlantic cruise ships would have designated “not wanted on voyage”: no longer wanted on this particular family voyage through life, at any rate, and must go - as much as possible to the local charity shops, to be found by others who might find them useful on their voyage.
So as I steel myself for one of my periodic throw-outs, to be conducted as soon as the dear darlings are back at school, I am alarmed to read an appeal from Oxfam imploring us to stop donating unsaleable stuff to their shops. It seems that the charity is spending between a half a million and a million pounds (they are rather vague about the true cost) on disposing of items which are too scruffy to be resold. In future, says Oxfam snootily, only quality items will be accepted.
Well, hoity toity! I have always maintained that a browse in the thrift shops of Chelsea or Hampstead is well worth the bus fare: now it seems that even those with less glamorous addresses are too grand to accept any old stuff, so I shall save my bus fare in future. This must be the mark of an affluent society indeed.
I would say “and jolly good too” but for the fact that we have noticed lately that Oxfam shops are not quite the treasure troves for the bargain hunter they used to be. Books and music are marked at ridiculous prices that few really hard up people could afford. And for some years now, neither Oxfam nor any charity shop I know of will accept either electrical goods or children’s equipment of any kind, however lightly used, for “health and safety” reasons.
Thus, thousands of expensive, hardly used coffee makers, vacuum cleaners and car seats have to be thrown away every year because the charity shops will not accept them, citing the possibility that they “could have been damaged in an accident”. Even many toys are turned away, depriving children of another range of items on which they can spend their pocket money.
This is annoying enough when you are trying to get rid of your hardly-used car seat or baby-gym but it is even more hard on anyone in financial straits who is in need of the same item, and who might be willing to make their own personal judgement as to its roadworthiness. As usual, the real losers are the poor.
What can we do for New Orleans? For a start, we can jolly well stop being smug. Let us not forget all those modern housing estates dotted around the UK, built by our greedy developers on ancient water meadows and flood plains.
Mind you, it’s not easy, this not being smug business. For example, I have to fight down the feeling that a nation which enshrines in its laws the right to carry a gun should not be surprised when its youth grow up thinking that firearms must be the only way in which law and order can be maintained.
The gangs who terrorised and looted the devastated city have learned, erroneously, that since guns are regarded as necessary to keep order, then they must be the only necessity. If you discipline children with no sanction but violence, they will learn to respect not love, not pride in helping others, not compassion, but only violence.

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