Review: Britain's Biggest Hoarders (with some reflections on the pathological nature of banking)

Jasmine Harman with her mum Vasoulla Savvidou at Vasoulla's home
Jasmine Harman with her mum Vasoulla Savvidou at Vasoulla's home

Hoarding

There was an interesting programme on the TV recently. It was called Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. In it the presenter, Jasmine Harman, the daughter of hoarding-mother Vasoulla Savvidou, took us around the houses of various chronic hoarders. Aside from her mum, we were also introduced to Alan Burgess, and Richard Pout, both of whom are (or were) badly out-of-control hoarders.

Firstly we have to be clear what we mean here. This is hoarding on an epic scale. It’s not just a case of having a box or a wardrobe or a shed full of stuff which you don’t like to throw away. This is hoarding gone pathological. Hoarding as a compulsion. Hoarding as an illness. Hoarding to the point where the person’s health and well-being is threatened, and which impinges upon their loved-ones and their neighbours and even, in some cases, threatens their life.

It is hoarding which fills up every room in the house, from floor to ceiling. Hoarding which fills up the halls and the bathroom and the bedrooms and which means you have to pick your way through minute passages between overweening mounds of stuff in danger of toppling over. Hoarding which spills out into the garden, which moulders in the damp air; or hoarding in the kitchen, so that out-of-date food falls on the floor and begins to rot, creating a health hazard, as the floors become slimy with composting food and packaging, with disintegrating newspapers and discarded carrier bags.

Hoarding, in fact, which is a form of mental illness, not unlike anorexia or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; only where Obsessive Compulsive Disorder leads to a life of pathological cleanliness, compulsive hoarding leads to clutter and mess and dust and spoors and germs and infestations and filth. Imagine someone with OCD having to live with a compulsive hoarder! It would be like matter and anti-matter coming into contact. It would lead to one mighty big explosion.

I recommend the programme highly, not only because it allows us a peek into the lives of people with this very strange disorder, but also because the presenter, having grown up with a mum with the illness, is deeply compassionate with her subjects, so we are given a real insight into their illness and what it means to them.

It was, indeed, compulsive TV, and, were it only available in box form, I would feel compelled to keep a copy of it in my own hoarding wardrobe. As it is, it is currently available on BBC iPlayer, and I would recommend you go and see it while you can. After that you will have to nag the BBC to show it as a repeat.

But the thing which strikes you the most about the problem is that for those who suffer with it, it is normal.

It is sane.

It makes sense.

Jasmine and Richard Pout at Richard's home
Jasmine and Richard Pout at Richard's home

Normal

Take Richard Pout. He is the one whose life is threatened by his hoarding, as he is recovering from a serious illness, and the state of his house is now a hazard. He has a rat. He understands that his house needs to be cleared: or at least that the floors need to be cleared so that he can walk properly without danger of falling down the stairs. But when the presenter introduces him to someone to help clean up, the work goes painfully slowly because he has to inspect everything as it leaves the house. Boxes and boxes of newspapers pile up to await his inspection. He cannot let them go until he’s looked through them to see if there is anything interesting in them. The theme then becomes persuading him to allow a single box of newspapers to leave the house without his prior inspection.

You see, that is normal. In his head, it is normal. There might be an interesting article in one of those newspapers, who knows? And who hasn’t kept newspapers or magazine articles with the thought that you might want to read them again one day?

The normal description of someone who hoards magazine articles and newspapers and books for future reference is a writer; only these days us writers do most of our work on-line on that vast treasure hoard of information known as the internet.

Or Alan Burgess. He’s a compulsive collector of things. He doesn’t like useful stuff being thrown away. He collects things that other people discard, and which he thinks could come in handy one day. He picks them up out of skips or from charity shops. And meanwhile he has filled up every room in the house, and has now spread out and filled both the front and the back gardens too, and he and his wife Marion only have half a bed to sleep on, and the only place where Marion can sit down to eat her dinner is on the toilet!

Obviously the neighbours have complained about the state of Alan’s gardens, and the local council are threatening to prosecute him, so he is forced to rope in some friends to help clear up the mess. But when Marion shows him a pair of plastic bar-like objects with wheels and asks if she can throw them away, he is unable to let them go.

“You want these?” she says.

“Yeah.”

“For moving a fridge?”

“You can move anything with them.”

“Oh anything. When are we going to be moving anything,” she says, with more than a touch on irony. It’s obvious that nothing has got moved in this house for many years.

At which point Alan loses his temper. “For God’s sake!” he says, threatening to storm off.

“Don’t go,” says Marion, defeated. “I’ll find somewhere to put them inside if you really want to have them.”

“Put them under the bed then,” he says.

We’d been shown the bed earlier, and there wasn’t even room for them to sleep on it, let alone store yet more things under it.

Alan and Marion Burgess outside their home with Jasmine
Alan and Marion Burgess outside their home with Jasmine

Accumulation

On the other hand, you can see where he is coming from. This is only a few steps away from normal behaviour. Who knows when we might need to move a fridge, or when a pair of dedicated fridge removers might not come in handy? I know quite a few people who would store fridge removers if they came across them. In Alan’s head, everything has a purpose, everything might come in useful one day, and the only problem is lack of space.

Jasmine asks him if he thinks he has a problem with hoarding possessions.

“Hoarding it?” he says, as if not recognising the word. “I know it looks higgledy-piggledy at the moment, but tidied up and put in its place… You see nothing’s in its right place. It’s just lying about.”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with his things, all he needs is more space to put them in.

It was on watching this programme that I came up with the thought: to an insane person their insanity is perfectly normal.

And the follow up thought: to the insane person, it is sanity which appears abnormal.

To Alan and Richard their behaviour is entirely rational. They are making rational decisions about things they want to keep, which might, at some point, have a purpose.

We all make decisions like this, but for most of us the bounds of what we can cope with in the form of clutter is much more limited. The instinct to keep things is tempered by the ability to live with the mess. There is a boundary line between the accumulation of things and our tolerance of the chaos that too many things can cause. In Alan and Richard’s cases, that boundary-line has disappeared.

However, it would be unfair to describe either of them as insane. They are not insane. What they have, rather, is a form of pathological normality.

It is normality gone off the rails.

And don’t they have a point? Don’t we throw too much away which might come in useful? Someone somewhere made those fridge removers which Alan is reluctant to lose. There are lots of fridges in the world: why get new fridge removers when he has a set already? And, as he points out, they can be used to move other things too: washing machines and cookers and furniture and other heavy items.

Aren’t we just as crazy for throwing everything away?

In other words, Alan’s particular form of insanity throws a light upon our own.

Loss

The other thing that the programme highlights is that chronic hoarding has its origins in some kind of trauma. In Alan’s case, it was two redundancies in succession which knocked him off kilter and starting him along this road to compulsive accumulation. It isn’t made explicit in the programme, but it's a fair guess to say that to Alan what he is doing is like a job. It represents his value to the world, his business.

In Jasmine’s mum’s case it was the loss of her father, who was murdered during a period of political unrest in her native Cyprus. The family was forced to emigrate, leaving their whole lives behind. Jasmine’s mum has been filling up the void ever since.

In Richard’s case it was the departure of his father when he was 13, which turned his whole life upside down. Richard was forced into a situation of premature responsibility, seeing himself as the man of the house. Money was tight, his mother got into debt, and Richard had to be conscious of the value of things. He learnt not to throw anything away.

In all of these cases we can see a clear line between the trauma and the hoarding. As Jasmine’s mum’s psychologist said: there is a theme of loss implicated with hoarding.

None of this is particularly surprising. What is surprising is that we don’t see more pathological behaviour than we do, or that we don’t recognise it when we do see it. Because my next point is this: that actually our whole world is insane.

Compulsive accumulation: isn’t this what bankers and hedge-fund managers do? They’re not accumulating things, they’re accumulating wealth, but it has the same compulsive quality. They are accumulating wealth way beyond what they need to live; way beyond, even, what they need to live luxuriously, fulfilling their every possible whim. The richest 1,000 people in Britain– 0.0003% of the population – have accumulated more wealth in the last three years than the entire national deficit. In fact they could pay off the deficit and still have £30 billion to spare. £30 billion is a hell of a lot of money. And that’s only in the last three years.

This is accumulation gone pathological, accumulation gone insane, but whereas Richard and Alan are only hurting themselves and their immediate circle with their compulsive behaviour, our crazy banker friends are hurting the whole damned world.

What is even more mad is that this pathological way of acting is not only considered sane – admirable even – but that as a nation we have legislated to encourage it. We consider banking an “industry”. It contributes to our national wealth… or so we are told. But while the bankers themselves are getting richer, the rest of us are getting poorer. And while it is these self-same bankers who created the crash that lead to the borrowing that lead to the deficit in the first place, it is the rest of us who are expected to pay.

As Michael Meacher MP said, in a recent letter to the Guardian: “77% of the budget deficit is being recouped by public expenditure cuts and benefit cuts, and only 23% is being repaid by tax increases. More than half of the tax increases is accounted for by the VAT rise which hits the poorest hardest. None of the tax increases is specifically aimed at the super-rich.”

In other words, we are encouraging these pathological hoarders in their behaviour.

Richard and Alan are sane by comparison.

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Comments 12 comments

Jon Elliott profile image

Jon Elliott 4 years ago

I know 2 people at least with this problem but didn't think of it as a mental illness until recently because the people i knew seem fairly normal until you take a closer look at their lives.

what can start of as an innocent past time or an investment idea especially for those who have time on their hands and nothing to do with a little money in their pocket can roll into something bigger that makes life a bit of a nightmare for those who live around them.

i've experienced 2 people with this problem one who got a flat full of stuff and a garage he rents full to the brim.

i have to say though that i didn't help matters as at the beginning it was a little venture of his to make some pocket money by doing boot fares which happened near him and occasionally i would give him something that i thought might be worth something that i could not sell to him and it steam rolled.

A relative of mine pick up a habit of looking at stuff in charity shops in whitstable as we seem to have a lot of them for some reason or maybe its because rents are reduced for them.

anyway he would pick up something that amused him or he thought was a bargain and bring it home even to the point were he would foist his bargain onto me thinking i must need it which i never did and he never did.

We used to laugh at the antics of an old polish fellow on a life of grime called Mr trebous who filled his house with newspaper and i would say i thould it would never happen in my house but you end up feeling simpathtic to what they are doing as it makes their lives interesting even just for a short time.

it's a sign of the times i think when people start doing this to themselves and usually happens to those who live alone i've noticed to and more of us live alone nowadays than at any point in the last 100 years.


Syzygysue 4 years ago

Excellent point Chris. The basic difference between those outside of the normal range who are diagnosed with a mental disorder and those who are not diagnosed, is the level of distress that the individual or their relatives experience. Bentall considers that there are at least as many undiagnosed as diagnosed. For example those who 'know' that they have been abducted by aliens have a significantly higher 'happiness' quotient.

A cursory investigation of quotes from any of the 'Masters of the Universe' indicates that they have a very unusual take on the world and other people. Empathy is not a strong suit for any of them .. and most would fulfill the DSM IV criteria for Narcissistic &/or Antisocial personality disorders. Most people just want to get on with their lives and cannot imagine that anyone would want to set things up to ensure that more and more wealth was diverted to them.

Assuming that the power elite are like ourselves, is the trap that facilitates "our crazy banker friends hurting the whole damned world."


CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

I agree Jon, it's a sign of the times, and, as you say, many more people are living by themselves than they used to. It's a lot harder to keep a track on yourself when you don't have anyone else to refer to.

Sue: "Narcissistic &/or Antisocial personality disorders" is that the same as psychopathy? The problem is not so much that such people exist, as that our legislation not only encourages them, but actually gives them precedence over the rest of us. We have legislated to make our whole culture psychopathic.


kathryn1000 profile image

kathryn1000 4 years ago from London

I like the way you wrote that...you gave it that wonderful twist.But intriguing it's linked to loss.What have we lost as a society.

On a more personal note,I have more books than many people but not as many as Michael Frayne who was interviewed in the Guardian recently,But alas I don't have a house as big as his

and my sister came in and cried,"Compulsive Book buying"

If I were rich I would have a big study.And to me,it seems very sane to have every poetry book I want.Though having dropped my mobile behind a pile of books by the bed I did wonder......

I use to teach a maths course for final year Economics students and i feel training in judgment and studying philosophy would have been more beneficial.Indeed I wonder whether the collapse of the Economy is down to Mathematics used without judgment.On a really bad day,I blame myself.

No,I'm joking.But .....

As usual very easy to read.I was drawn along easily into the surprise of the latter part.I shall look at the programme as I love human interest stories.If you see this in time watch BBC1 tonight when our friendly chiropodist and her husband with Motor Neurone Disease have their home extended by local builders etc all filmed by the BBC.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Yes it's all your fault kathryn. There would have been no credit crunch without your damned mathematics classes.

Actually there is a partial truth there. The problem has been that economists have thought of their discipline as a branch of maths when it's not. You actually need some sociology in there too. You can't separate the economy from the rest of society. Back in the 19th century the discipline was known as Political Economy, and that is a more accurate representation of it. The truth is that wealth is created by society as a whole, but the wealthy elites think that, because they are in a position to syphon it off, that it belongs to them. Maths is one of the tools they use to do this.

Glad you like the writing. I see my job as being as easy to read as possible.


kathryn1000 profile image

kathryn1000 4 years ago from London

I totally agree that studying sociology/philosophy/history would have been better.I was teach them quite advanced mathematics such as a physicist might use.But physics theories can be tested in a lab or in other ways.Economics can't be tested experimentally,alas.

I also try to write that way except for my obsession with Wittgenstein.I have read his biography seven times [by Ray Monk]It is an era that is very interesting and also I began to grasp his ideas better.I tried the life of Russell by the same author and didn't enjoy it.Yet Wittgenstein had in many ways a very unhappy life but it was authentic.He led his own life.....not common,I feel.

I am quite entranced by short stories now...you'll have to write some more.


John Holden profile image

John Holden 4 years ago

I was about to launch into "but what about hoarders of money don't we look up to them blah blah blah" but you beat me to it!

Another top hub.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Great point about the correlation between people who hoard things and bankers (and others in the financial "industry") who hoard money. Yes, the two have MUCH in common.

I'm anxious to see if JPMorgan's $2 billion "Oops" is only the tip of the iceberg - another financial meltdown - and if so, with NO possibility of another taxpayer bailout, how soon Wall Streeters will be bailing each other out with the hoards of cash they've been stashing away for the last 5 years.

The whole lot of them are one sick bunch of puppies (as my uncle would say). Can't believe Jamie Diman was re-elected CEO after a (so far) $2B loss AND got a $23 million "bonus". For what?


CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Thanks for your comment John. Yes, it was that old bait and switch.

Yes JamaGenee, I was thinking of using JPMorgan as my example, only that wasn't hoarding as such, but compulsive gambling with other people's money. $23 million bonus for losing $2 billion. I wish I had a job like that.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Sadly, a job that pays a $23 mil "bonus" even after losing $2B would require suspending one's conscience, and I wouldn't be able to do that. The money would be nice, yes, but I don't want it THAT bad. Like hoarders who hoard things to fill a void elsewhere in their lives, how much money does one REALLY need to live "comfortably"? When one hoards things, he/she is surrounded by proof that "need" has turned into addiction. Not so much when the addiction is hoarding money.


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

Brilliant hub, Chris, for which I have voted up! I used to hoard all sorts of stuff in my house in Ely as you saw. I even hoarded images and plastered my walls with them!


CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

I remember Steve, but your hoarding was nothing compared to these people. I wouldn't call celebrating your achievements pathological. Thanks for the vote Steve.

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