Losing Everything In A Fire Made Me Realise How Little 'Stuff' We Need

Photographed by Matilda Hill Jenkins
It takes less than five minutes for a tiny spark to grow into a roaring fire and engulf an entire home. I know this because years ago it happened to mine and, in that five minutes, I went from being a girl in her late teens who loved things, to one without a possession to her name.
I vividly remember the call from my mum telling me not to come home, because our house was on fire. It’s not exactly the phone call you expect when you’re out with your friends. In a state of panic, I repeatedly got her to reassure me that everyone was okay. They were; my whole family had escaped safely and as she spoke to me the fire brigade was there, doing everything they could to put the fire out. That no one was hurt is something I will be eternally grateful for.
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Not one of my belongings from the home that I had grown up in was salvageable.

It started because my older brother was smoking in his room (no, he wasn’t supposed to do that) and didn’t put out his cigarette properly before going downstairs. Because the fire began in his bedroom, the entirety of our upstairs was destroyed by the flames, and the ground floor was pretty much wrecked too, from the smoke. This meant that nothing – not one of my belongings from the home that I had grown up in – was salvageable.
I was devastated to have lost everything I owned, because I had an undying love for my things. My drawers were stuffed with scrapbooks I’d made with friends, plus years’ worth of diaries that I kept locked with tiny keys. I had small bits of paper on which I’d written what I wanted to achieve by the time I was 25 (married with two dogs, I believe), and my shelves overflowed with photo albums, favourite books, and ornaments that had been passed down to me. My wardrobes – well, they wouldn’t even shut properly because of all my clothes.
I didn’t need any of this stuff – and I definitely didn’t have room for it all – but I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with a single item. Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is the Netflix show of the moment, and her decluttering method is being debated left, right and centre. The jury might still be out as to whether you should get rid of your things, but as someone who once had that unwillingly happen to her, I know that Kondo is right. The fire taught me that. We categorically don't need all this stuff.
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I’d say it took me about a year to let go of everything I’d lost. As our home was rebuilt, we stayed in a hotel and then a rented place. When it was finally ready to be lived in again, I stood in my empty bedroom and had no idea what I wanted to put in it. I’d lived for the better part of a year without all my things; why did I need anything now?
It made me realise just how much our society values material belongings (that’s capitalism for you). As I went back to 'normal' life, I approached the world with a whole new attitude. I kept my room relatively clear of stuff, and I no longer held on to things I didn’t need, or bought anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. It was actually quite refreshing.
Now I’m an adult and have a home of my own, I stand by the same ethos. I know if the fire hadn’t happened I’d be the person who can’t walk past Oliver Bonas without going in and buying something, let alone resist a Zara sale. But that’s just not me – in fact, I hardly ever go shopping at all.
It becomes slightly more complicated with the sentimental stuff. Sure, I’d like to still have my baby photos, and I wouldn’t mind having a laugh at my teenage diaries. If I have children, I would have liked to pass down my favourite toy from when I was a kid. But there are worse things in life, and while sentimentality can be nice, there are more important things to worry about.
The thing is, in those five minutes I lost all my belongings – but I didn’t lose my family, when I very easily could have. That’s something I had to hold on to, and still do. If the fire taught me one thing, it’s that we need to stop caring about the stuff we have, and pay far more attention to the people around us. For they are the ones who can bring you joy.
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