In my experience, in most marriages or partnerships one person is almost always far more untidy then the other. It is very rare to find two partners who are chaotic, and although it is less rare to find a pair who are both obsessively tidy, it is much more often the case that one is tidy while the other lives in a clutter.
My mother was neurotically tidy. I remember, once, as a boy, chucking a crumpled up bit of paper in the sitting room waste paper basket.
‘Miles, don’t put that in there,’ she said. ‘I’ve only just emptied it.’
Maybe it is in reaction to her that I have become used to living in a state of wild untidiness, and maybe it is because of that that I have twice been married to women who set a far higher premium on orderliness than I did. My first wife was spared some of it because for most of the time I was married to her I had an office at Punch magazine, and all my working clutter was confined to the office. People at Punch saw I worked in a pigsty and assumed I was the same at home, so were quite surprised when they came to my home and found it pretty tidy.
My second wife has not been so lucky, because I have worked at home for ages, so I cannot conceal my tendency to let things get cluttered.
‘It’s good thing I am married to a tidy person,’ I told her one day. ‘If we were both messy, this place would be awful.’
‘Ah, but I’ve never had the chance to be untidy,’ she said. ‘I would actually like to be a lot more untidy than I am. But I daren’t, living with you. One of us has got to be tidy, and it looks as if it will have to be me.’
That was a sobering moment, to find that I have unwittingly blackmailed my wife into being tidy when she doesn’t really want to be. Well, I say “untidy” but there is more to it than that. Along with not putting everything away neatly, there is also the tendency not to get rid of everything. Or indeed anything. Some of it dates from very early days. I used to collect cigarette cards in a desultory sort of way, never quite achieving a whole set, always being left with 23 great left-handed batsmen, 13 monarchs of England or nine common butterflies, and I guess that an incomplete set will never fetch much on the open market, but still I hang on to them.
(Actually, I have a sinking feeling that nobody buys and sells cigarette cards any more, so I may have hung on to them too long. Not so long ago I was at a gathering of philatelists who were all bemoaning the fact that young people did not even collect stamps as they used to, and the bottom would soon drop out of the stamp dealing trade.)
But yet I still have my stamps, and my cigarette cards, and my 1953 Cup Final ticket, and the wicked African knife that my grandmother brought me back from Kenya in the 1950s, and an ostrich egg housed in cotton wool in a State Express 555 tin, and even the different kinds of chewing gum I bought in America on my first visit there over forty years ago, and that’s just stuff from my childhood, so you can see there is no hope for me at all. Being a journalist, I also hang on to papers and magazines and cuttings, which all vegetate in what used to be called our bicycle shed until my paper archives forced the bikes out into the open.
(A journalist friend of mine called Alistair Riley, who shares the same distressing habits, once sent me a cutting with a stark message in it. It was a news item about an elderly American actress who lived all alone in New York with a huge pile of her theatre reviews, which fell on her one night as she slept and crushed her to death. I think Alistair was trying to hint at the awful risks of not going to the local paper recycling centre, but thinking about it now, I rather fancy being crushed to death by my cuttings when it’s my time to go.)
Nor have I told you that several years ago we hired some storage space in an old farm near here. The owners had been keeping chickens all their life, and had had the great idea of getting rid of the chickens and converting the sheds into storage, and we rented one of the units for domestic overflow. (The next time you drive past a sinister row of sheds, and shudder at the thought of the cramped battery hen space, think for a moment that it might not be hens at all; it might be old tax returns, decrepit standard lamp-stands, out of date computers and boxes of superfluous biographies.) So, although we try not to think about it, we already have a room somewhere else, which is full of our stuff.
Actually, as we have packed it quite carefully, it is probably the tidiest room we have. Sometimes, as I look round the mess in my own room, I think wistfully how nice it would be to pop out to the farm where all my stuff is so neatly packed, and do my day’s work there in the storage unit . . . Yes, next time you see a lonely light on in a sinister row of sheds in some remote chicken concentration camp, think that it might be nothing more than a writer, desperate to meet a deadline . . .
It is just possible, however, that a change of life may be upon me. I was talking over these things the other day with a friend called Richard, who hoards things just like me. Well, not just like me. He is very good with his hands, being a professional carpenter and woodsmith, so he keeps things in case they might be useful in some future job, or for making something. Our family was on holiday with his family three years ago, so I used to accompany Richard occasionally down to the town to jettison bottles and tins and papers, and I noticed that he would sometimes go “Aha!” and pick up some little bit of moulding or soldering or piping or ornament that someone had already discarded and that I wouldn’t look twice at, and pocket it “just in case”. I can see the point, but at least I don’t go to the paper bank to get newspapers out.
But even he confessed the other day that he was conscious of having too much junk, and that the time had come to start clearing out his clutter. As both our wives nodded vigorously in the background, I said I felt the same, and that perhaps we should form a two-man support group for each other. Perhaps take communal vows to throw something away every day. Exchange daily emails on progress, and encourage each other. Specify things we had thrown away, and how good it had made us feel, and how liberating it was to be free of possessions . . .
‘Tell you what,’ Richard said, ‘we could do it very ecologically. You could write a letter to me on the back of something that needed recycling – a paper bag, or used envelope, or old invitation or something, and send it to me. And I’d respond. Maybe on the same letter!’
‘Not a bad idea,’ I said. ‘It might build up into a most illuminating correspondence. Very collectable. Entirely written on recycled paper objects.’
‘You’re not meant to keep it!’ said my wife. ‘The whole point is to throw stuff away!’
I’ll let you know how I get on.
The Oldie Monday Jan 8 2007