There are three kinds of person: the happy-messy, the organisers, and the conscience-stricken slatterns who periodically reform, only to resume the slow slide into chaos. Unsure which you are? Then consider Quentin Crisp’s defence of not cleaning: ‘After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.’ Do you cringe? Envy his laissez-faire? Or does this sound like home?
‘Westerners have different standards, we have different standards,’ said an organiser of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, defending the stray dogs and piles of rubbish in the athletes’ accommodation. He was right, mess and hygiene are relative values, shaped by culture and upbringing.
Many doze oblivious to mugs sprouting cataracts of mould beside their bed. Meanwhile their loved-ones fume at being forced, as they see it, to tidy after them. It feels a power game, and what makes it so upsetting is that mess is more than a question of health, safety or respect. It both embodies and creates chaos. It not only echoes but shapes our ability to cope with life.
I know because I spent my teens in a stew. My bedroom, worse than anything Tracy Emin’s spewed, symbolised my misery and provided evidence I shouldn’t bother getting better. Today I’m better at being messy in moderation (my husband might disagree), and at life. When I see friends knee-high in debris, it seems all too eloquent of their inability to make choices, to let go of the past.
Okay, I’m smug. You may reject equations of tidiness with goodness, like committed idler Tom Hodgkinson, an author who expends vast energy on informing us he’s happy. But his partner looks tired. And ask yourself why we have metaphors like ‘messing up’ or ‘don’t mess with my mind’. Indeed, social research proves that mess, mental and moral behaviour are intertwined. Ingenious tests found that in squalid environments, people are likelier to act dishonestly.
You may never be as lucky, lucky, lucky as Kylie Minogue, for whom tidying is a choice not a necessity: “I like to clean my cupboards. Hours go by. I get my Marigolds on and have a fantastic frenzy,” she trills. But believe, like her, that cleaning cupboards is therapy, and I guarantee you’ll feel better.