Tag Archives: Quentin Crisp


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.


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In my teens I believed fashion was about following herds, and style about rising above them.   As that superannuated teenager, Quentin Crisp, put it, ‘Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.’   My ‘look’ was lots of black, the odd army surplus shirt, and eye make-up like  Zorro’s mask.  I thought it individual, until I went to the Glastonbury Music Festival and met an army of identikit indie snobs.  

Few dress with huge originality, and it would be exhausting if we did.  Clothes are visual autobiographies, their job not only to keep us warm but to tell the world how to handle us.  Hence many societies had sumptuary laws, restricting certain clothes to certain persons, ensuring everybody knew their place.  But fashion’s haters shouldn’t imagine that Vogue took over where laws left off.  Fashion is not style’s enemy or arbiter, but a resource.  Style is what we do with it.  

Coco Chanel said, ‘Fashion fades, only style remains the same.’  Certainly, many women stick to the same hairstyle – often from their happiest period – as if by Elnett alone, they can halt time.  Take Pauline Prescott’s crash-helmet (circa 1986 or whenever John began his rise to power).  But style must evolve, with our needs and ageing bodies.  The one transcendent element in all successful styles is they suit their creator’s purpose.  

What does style look like?  Nobody would hesitate to call Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, chic, but her chief stylist, frizzy Grace Coddington, could be taken for a cleaner.  Yet Wintour admits she has none of Coddington’s style ‘genius’.  Yes, her baggy black attire is light years from her stunning images, but it’s as effective as a cloak of invisibility, freeing her to feast her eyes on the world and decide how it could look prettier, and sparing long hours that Wintour spends under hairdryers.  So both women’s style works for them.  Both are stylish.  

To find your style, look not to Vogue but yourself.  An eye for image helps, and a feel for the signals that clothes send.  For a distinctive style, the message should seem consistent – the quality that makes a novelist’s voice or Van Gogh’s convulsive colours so recognisable.  But your look can change daily and be stylish.  However hard you work it, the key is to be happy in it.  As Epictetus advised , ‘Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.’

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