When I was a kid I assumed ‘munging’ (soft g, like the bean) was a thing every family did. I thought the act of going to an elderly relative’s house and going through the contents of drawers and wardrobes and boxes in cellars and attics was totally normal. Hell, without munging no one would have ever found Narnia.
Although, not everyone had grandparents like mine that lived in a big house bursting with exciting stuff, mainly collected from jumble sales, auctions and house clearances. ‘You kids stop munging now, you’ll get yourselves hurt!’ was yelled frequently, and bearing in mind neither grandparent cared about health and safety (my granddad once let us drive along standing on the back seat with our heads out the sunroof) this was a strong warning. If only I had a pound for every time I’ve cut myself open on the ragged tin corners of a splintering tea chest, instead of just tetanus boosters. But, there was some order. They weren’t like hoarders on the telly with boxes of old newspapers lining the hall. It was all put away in spare rooms, dressers and wardrobes. When they had both died and the house was cleared about ten years ago, along with ASBO Betty I was sent a bag of assorted 1930-50s evening gloves, a shoebox full of paste brooches a purse full of pre-decimalisation change. I put this need to collect things down to their childhoods of post-WWI poverty and being bombed out twice during the second war. Having things was the opposite to their earlier life of having nothing, the tangible security of stuff.
What Cathal Flood, the sweary, cantankerous old man living at Bridlemere, a giant house full of junk in Jess Kidd’s The Hoarder, has in common with my grandparents is an unwillingness to let carers in the house. The stoic carer of the book, Maud Drennan, is Irish like Cathal, so the speech and prose in general has an entertaining, musical lilt. What my grandparents didn’t have was an exciting mystery, possible murder and an ice house (which is just as well, I think my brother and cousins would have seen the ice house as a convenient Lucy prison).
Maud also has her own past mystery to revisit, too. When she was a child her older sister Deirdre disappeared one day at the beach, and did something happen, or did she get herself into trouble in Catholic Ireland and have to go away? One of the last people to see Deirdre was Noel Noone-
Old Noel sold cigarettes, sweets, deckchairs (try putting one of those up; the wind would laugh its bollocks off) fishing nets with cane handles and buckets and spades…he had a kettle out the back and he’d make you a cup of tea but the milk was chancy and you had to stay and drink it in the front of him so he could have the cup back.
While the plot is engaging, the snappy writing and characterisation is for me the strongest part of this book, everyone is well drawn, even bit-part Noel. Maud lives above Renate, a fabulously-dressed transvestite who was once a magicians assistant, but now never leaves the flat, hoarding costumes and relics of her past, keeping up the ‘museum of the self’ and isolation themes. Cathal’s smarmy son Gabriel is trying to get him out of the house, with his fancy car and patronising manner. There’s also a motorcycling psychic/medium and a highly dodgy agency boss, all of whom are in glorious technicolour.
The house too has a personality, satisfyingly full of spooky, strange items and secret rooms, as well as numerous cats named after poets and a tame fox called Larkin –
I will kill Larkin, for he is driving me insane. Like his master he torments me…Both of them skulking and nosing in shopping bags, leaving their foxy reek in corridors and corners, tripping me up and watching me. I threaten them both outside. Mr Flood, in a coat and a pair of ratty slippers, roosts on the sunlounger. Larkin stretches at his feet.
They both seem immune to the smell emanating from the wall of rubbish bags I have stealthily been lining up along the pathway in readiness for the skip that is coming tomorrow. ‘Will you come out, Drennan, and sit with me?’ Mr Flood shouts.
When I take him his lime cordial he winks at me. Since Gabriel’s visit we have developed an uneasy sort of camaraderie. I laugh at his jokes and he tolerates my wholesale disposal of his possessions.
I got this book out the library without knowing anything about it, and even if I hadn’t spent large chunks of my childhood in a house with a huge collection of Murano glass clowns, teddy bears with missing limbs and ticking and chiming clocks everywhere, I’d have enjoyed it all the same. And because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, one of of my many collections is old photos, and unlike the many I have of unrelated sepia strangers, these two people below are my actual grandparents (Gladys and Leonard— they don’t dish out names like that anymore), taken in the late thirties.