The catacomb of cuttings I call home

Click to follow
I GREW up in a house large enough to accommodate my father's obsession with newspapers (my own house is far too small to accommodate mine). I thought my father odd at the time. Well, he was odd, but in retrospect, and by comparison with me, his insistence on keeping old newspapers hardly warrants being listed as one of his major eccentricities. After all, he took only 10 newspapers a week, and he kept them for only three months.

Compared to the pretty pass to which I have come, he was a mere dabbler. Admittedly, he kept the Times Literary Supplement for decades, but that was not unreasonable behaviour in an academic.

I observed that his newspaper stock occupied a lot of space and that he rarely seemed to consult it, but I concluded that this was simply another mysterious example of irrational adult behaviour. When from time to time I was dispatched from the dinner table to find the interesting article on neolithic remains that one or another parent thought had appeared in the Irish Times on perhaps the previous Tuesday fortnight, I so loathed the heaving and searching and putting papers back in order that I put high on my list of joys planned for my future - not far below unlimited chocolate bars - a newspaper-free life.

For years there were no danger signs. Even though I became interested in current affairs and lived for some years with a husband who took 24 newspapers a week, I had no urge to store them up: what wasn't read in a day was discarded. So what went wrong? How did I, in turn, become a standing joke as a newspaper hoarder?

Unlike my father I don't keep papers I have read. But I keep those, or the bits of those, that I haven't. My friends gaze incredulously around my house, saying things like: 'Just throw them out. That's all it takes. A clear living-room floor can be yours. Try it. You'll enjoy it.'

'No,' I whimper. 'Honestly, just another couple of weeks and I'll have had a chance to catch up.'

But I am no Hercules, so the Augean stables continue to be full of musty, yellowing newsprint.

One can never discount the genetic factor, of course, but there are other reasons for my condition. The first is simply that my interests became increasingly eclectic.

Instead of just reading about books, cricket, feminism, movie stars (my only party trick is reciting the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor) and politics, along with profiles of almost anybody, I became professionally interested in business, economics, management and all sorts of other subjects that in my youth would have languished unread at the back of the papers.

The real disaster came when several years ago I became seriously interested in Irish politics, and doubled my intake by taking seven Irish papers. Because I read the Independent, consistency demanded that I add the Independent on Sunday. Later, my beloved niece became a journalist on another Sunday paper, so that made a tally of four broadsheets on Sunday alone.

Simultaneously I was developing an increasing tendency to live culture vicariously. Nowadays, what with the demands of my professional and social life - not to speak of my newspaper reading - I never get to either the cinema or the theatre, and the only television I watch is an obscure Californian soap opera. Indeed, I am able to read for pleasure only on holiday - when I read no newspapers at all.

But not wishing to be out of the cultural milieu of my friends, for years I have had to read the review sections thoroughly.

I know the pros and cons of Robert Stephens's Lear, I know how moving the WH Auden reading was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, I am aware of the criticism of the last Royal Academy Summer Exhibition; I know that Absolutely Fabulous was a triumph - although the second series was less good than the first - and I am surprised that John Bayley should be chairman of the Booker Prize when his own novelistic debut was so disappointing.

I don't pretend to have any first-hand information, but I can show informed interest on almost anything except ballet.

Egalitarian as I am, I like, too, to know what excites the majority of my fellow citizens, so I have to drop by my newsagent's every day to find out from the tabloids who is cheating on whom in Coronation Street, EastEnders or Emmerdale Farm, and if the Sun has yet advocated cutting off the hands of young offenders.

The monstrous growth in the size of newspapers has, of course, made me fall further behind. Am I the only reader to have been moved almost to tears by the Independent splitting into two sections?

Others can throw them away: my warped psyche thinks I have to read them in case I miss something.

My friends are not without blame. Callously they come to stay bearing newspapers different from those I take and naturally I cannot bear to throw theirs away until I've read them, too.

While I lived with someone, there was a brake on my neurosis. I am a reasonable woman who would not expect a chap to sacrifice half his living space to housing old supplements about nothing in particular. But he moved out and my upbringing reasserted itself: I reverted to my parental vision of all flat surfaces as places to house things to read.

I grew ever busier and hence had less time to read the daily delivery. I began to travel a lot, but naturally I never cancelled the papers - some of which, at my lowest point, went back 18 months. I had a two-day reading blitz recently and proudly cleared all the newspapers - but naturally not the colour supplements - up to last December. But other piles are nostalgic reminders of a happy Christmas holiday, a three-week business trip to America, a five-day idyll in the west of Ireland and so on.

Oh, and of course there are the magazines - two weeklies, three fortnightlies and two monthlies - and various occasional learned journals. None of them goes back further than 1992.

I have glimmers of normality. Sometimes, as I read last November's living supplement, I realise wistfully that it would be quite nice if my chaise-longue could have people on it and if one could reach the piano without risking breaking an ankle. Is there a support group? Not that my reading would permit me the time to join it.

Mark Lawson's column will appear tomorrow.