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Lucy Mangan: If it’s not beautiful or useful, get rid of it

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"Every time I walk from my house to the train station I pass a Big Yellow Storage building. I find myself increasingly drawn to it. Part of me wants to rent a small unit therein as a place to hide from the world when it all gets too much (I figure, a Thermos full of coffee, a beanbag, a laptop, a small pile of books and I’m golden), part of me wants to write a play about what’s secretly going on in all the little lock-ups within British suburbia’s answer to the Chelsea Hotel, but the slightly more normal, if not necessarily larger, part of me just wants to rent one and shovel all my household crap into it.

What a dream! What a delight! Maybe then I could even enjoy being at home instead of wanting to live in solitary confinement in a pseudo-cellblock!

Self-storage is literally and metaphorically a big business these days. The BBC is about to devote a whole series – with the determinedly asinine title Real Storage Wars – to the industry and the men (and it is pretty much all men, sorry) behind it. Over the last 25 years it has gone from virtually nothing to a business worth an estimated £500 million a year, with around 1,000 hangar-like buildings providing 30 million square foot of storage space to about half a million of us.

This new space-age has been prompted by several factors. For example, people tend to live alone for longer so when it comes to merging households there are two sets of everything to find homes for. And if one of you’s a hoarder and the other one’s an ardent minimalist, a few hundred quid in storage fees a year might be preferable to divorce. Divorcees-and- downsizers of course are another ready market for extra storage facilities while they sort themselves out.

Plus properties are getting smaller and more expensive so we can no longer afford spare rooms or abundant cupboardry – or, if you’re in London, a spare corner of the shelf in the cupboard you now live in – in which to keep the likes of extensive hobby equipment, say (pity the poor kayaker or committed surfer dude whose income cannot keep pace with the size of their kit), or seasonal accoutrements (we have a barbecue in our bathroom at the moment, which is both unhygienic and deeply disconcerting for guests).

But the main use for them is simply to store our great surplus of… of… stuff. Not specialist kit or temporary overflow – just… stuff. I’ve got too much stuff, I know I have. You have too, almost certainly.

It’s estimated that we own on average six times more stuff than our parents did. Looking round my parents’ Spartan home, where they have lived for the last 45 years, I suspect this is a conservative estimate indeed. I make periodic resolutions to stop buying things and just wear the clothes and shoes and use the moisturisers, shampoos and other lovely things I’ve already got instead of keeping them to look at (YES, a Bobbi Brown eyeshadow palette is a thing of exquisite beauty, BUT IT ALSO HAS A PURPOSE) or getting distracted by the next new incarnation or sensation.

Or why not sell some of it or take it to the charity shop? Well, honestly, who has the time? That’s one resource even more precious than space these days. Also – I love my stuff. I couldn’t possibly put a price on my books, even though £2.81 was what Amazon Marketplace charged me for most of them. (Economists call this ‘the endowment effect’, by the way – the hypothesis that you value something more highly than it is worth simply because you already own it. I think it’s useful to know the name of something if you want to try and overcome it.)

And of course I have bought in as readily as the rest of us to the insidious modern idea that we are what we own, confusing what we have with what we are.

But 30 million square feet of spare stuff? What we have is madness and what we are is mad. Time to take ourselves in hand. Let us stop using ‘stuff’ as a psychological prop and adopt the old William Morris maxim instead and have nothing in our homes that is not either beautiful or useful. Not just because that way my palettes can still stay, but because when we've reached the point of paying rent for our own possessions, it’s time to take a little space to think about doing things differently."

(Images: Rex Features)

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