I moved to Dalston in 2002 and took up residence on the top floor of a 30s built social housing block. The majority of the tenants had already left, either decanted or disillusioned by the council’s empty promises of regeneration (or at least repair). Many of the flats were boarded up, windows smashed to prevent squatting, once homes but now ghosts with net curtains. This relative isolation suited my neighbour, Charlie. A migrant from Malta, he had bought his flat from the council (his sworn enemies) in the right to buy boom years of the 1980s. Charlie had taken the phrase “An Englishman’s home is his castle” quite seriously and for the next 20 years had set about turning his English home into a fortress, clad in a distinctive armour fashioned from the discards of others. Charlie was, in popular culture terms, a Womble – making good use of the things that he found. Along with this ingenuity, he also possessed an iron will and an obviously super-human strength. How else would he have been able to drag not one, not two, but three rusting discarded washing machines up five flights of steep concrete stairs in just one afternoon? He was indomitable when it came to discarded goods.
Charlie and I were the only residents left on the top floor of Pamela House so, just occasionally, Charlie felt compelled to ask me in for tea. This was a complex event involving many logistical problems and in order that proper planning could take place my invite would invariably be issued several days in advance for it took this time for Charlie to clear an adequate space in which a visitor might sit. So on that occasional day when Charlie felt suitably in control of his collection to allow an outsider in, he would indicate to me that the best way to negotiate his flat was to turn to your side and shuffle in like a crab. The piled boxes lining the walls had created some very slim passageways and, given his modest three-bed flat, a rather cave-like quality. Nonetheless, spurred on by the thought of witnessing Charlie’s latest finds, I would ease my way in and perch on the edge of an overstuffed chair, on top of several folded blankets, sipping from a cracked Lady Di mug and try my best not to stare at the multiple stacked TV sets. To witness how he lived was a truly awe inspiring experience. Occasionally, Charlie would make a fleeting reference to the existence of a lock up unit that he rented further East. My imagination is doubtless insufficient to adequately conjure up the endless treasures stored there.
Occasionally, the council would take offence to the spread of Charlie’s stuff and things and send a stern letter, or perhaps an even sterner inspector. Luckily for Charlie, he was a leaseholder making eviction a costly and laborious process and as the estate was on the verge of being condemned, further action was deemed pointless. Instead, they wielded their authority by removing the stacks of rubber tires that Charlie kept amongst the pot plants on the stairwells, supplemented by the occasional dead toaster. He was not too bothered; he liked to confess to me that it was ok because he “kept all the really good stuff inside”.
Charlie died on Boxing Day 2005, leaving his grown up daughters to the unenviable task of taking the proceeds of 20 plus years of wombling back down the five flights of concrete stairs. It took quite a while and several skips. His eldest showed me the flat right before they rented it out. It was surprisingly big, very clean and very empty. They had painted it magnolia.
On occasion, I have been accused of being possessed by the spirit of Charlie. I have a funeral director friend who delights in relaying tales of call outs to the homes of pack rats who have suffocated under the weight of their collections. She seems to delight in the randomness, the craziness. I prefer to rationalise it as three-dimensional collage. So, perhaps I am a little like Charlie. My amassments, like his, both deny categorisation and defy possible completion. I simply cannot imagine that there would ever have been the intent to collect a whole in Charlie’s mind. Instead it was simply a very random snowball, starting out small and gentle and eventually thundering down hill in a very alarming fashion indeed, his life’s work; an admirable display of dedication and commitment. Perhaps I am more selective, limiting myself to snapshots and other sundry traces of otherwise lost and forgotten existences, but I might be doing Charlie a disservice in this assumption. It is possible his decaying electrical equipment was similarly selected, albeit to unverbalized criteria. Certainly, I am sure that he felt, like me, that he was not collecting these objects in an attempt to impose his order over them, to control through knowledge and possession like the butterfly collector. Rather our shared need to conserve, protect and care for our things clearly put us into their service, rather than them into ours.
Long live the Wombles.