Why are some people tidy, and some people not? Is it nature or nurture? This is one of those great philosophical debates that one never sees the finest minds turning their brains to. I am, for instance, chronically untidy, and it seems to go back a very long way. At the same time, I am chronically obsessed with things being in order. I love clean, organised houses, rooms in which every line is straight. But my own inability to find even the smallest thing, despite having some occasional systems (alphabetised records, an organised filing system on my computer), drives me witless.
I know that I was untidy as a child. I went to boarding schools fronted by cruel (it was in their job spec) matrons, who routinely tipped out my drawers (as teachers did my desks) and said ‘Sort that out NOW’ (cue for a clip round the ear). Now I am preparing to run a workshop tomorrow. There are a couple of essentials I need to run a workshop, these being VS Pritchett’s short stories, Raymond Carver’s ditto, and a DVD with some clips on which I find useful. They are the tried and trusty tools of my trade (too much alliteration there – a subject for another day). But can I find Pritchett and Carver? Or, rather, the replacement Pritchett and Carver, since I did definitely leave the pair lying around when I worked at Falmouth (I hope someone’s ears are burning!)?
Could they be a) in the pile to my right, where all the ‘essential’ creative writing books are? Or b) to my right, where all the ‘essential’ handbooks etc. are? Or c) in that heap behind me, where the family history spill-over is? Or d) wait on, by the bed, where 250 books are stacked precariously between a table and the ceiling? Or e) yes, yes, in the kitchen – says it all, doesn’t it – with that plastic box of necessary books, that will be it.
a) No. b) No. c) No. d) No. e) No.
Of course, I have found several other Important Things on the way, including the tape of Plath reading ‘Fever 103’, with her commentary, the one I lost last summer, and had go to eBay for a replacement, and when it came it had her reading the poem but not the commentary (very interesting, actually, since she is always thought of as apolitical, whereas she specifically says in her introduction to the poem that she cannot write in the post-Hiroshima world without alluding to it).
When I was freelancing (2002-6 or so), and had perhaps 11 jobs – which, believe me, was terrific after 28 years doing just the one, although obviously much more poorly-paid – I took to buying plastic boxes. One box a job. My colleagues at Falmouth laughed at them, but I turned up one day to find that they’d bought in a job-lot for themselves: perhaps the one occasion in my life when I have been influential in any way in the issue of tidying-up.
But the boxes, which are opaque, but not opaque enough, are not labelled. Suspicion of Pritchett and Carver being in a box means checking each one. It also means Going Out To The Shed. The Shed is a whopping 15′ x 15′, and was originally walled by shelves containing books (in order, sort of), and tapes (no, let’s not go there) and some other simple stuff. Now it is full, of boxes, of bags (my wife – she bags, I box), the contents of my late mum’s house, and Other (unclassifiable). To reach the fiction requires climbing over boxes, tables – indeed it requires the stamina of a hungry mountain-goat in search of grass.
Yes, they were there. Thank goodness. As Beckett’s tramp said, ‘That passed the time.’ Unfortunately, it was time I wanted to use for something else. What was it? The something else? Can’t remember. I’m forgetful, too.