Messy? I'm an artist!

As a footballer is caught out over his slovenly home, one self-confessed slob sticks up for untidy men everywhere
Mark Barrowcliffe, The Times

Jan. 30, 2009

The Newcastle United footballer Shola Ameobi opened his front door on returning home recently and immediately phoned the police. His house had been ransacked, he was sure - belongings were strewn all over the place. The thieves had apparently taken several items, including his chequebook. Later, he called to apologise. He hadn't been burgled at all, he explained. The house was just very untidy.

There was a story a few years ago about some men who broke into a house, demanding the keys to the owner's car and hitting the hapless chap until he provided them. If they did that to me, I'd be killed. I wouldn't be able to find them. “They're in the drawer. Oh, er, no... where are they? Let me check my coat. Can I go through the clothes on the bedroom floor? How about in the bathroom cabinet?”

I am extremely untidy - not quite the most untidy person I know (that accolade belongs to a friend whose wife cleared out his study to discover a decomposed bird beneath a pile of paper) but getting there. I have even won prizes for it. I can still recall the glow of pride at school when we returned from assembly to find the inside of our desks marked with chalk stars. No stars meant that the desk was exemplarily tidy. One star was “terrible”, two “beyond description”. Then the teacher said: “And stand up the boy with three stars.” I was on my feet quicker than Cristiano Ronaldo at the Footballer of the Year dinner.

Not everyone views my untidiness as positively as I do. My wife, for one. Messiness, of course, is a classic source of friction for couples. Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate, says that this is something she often encounters and that it represents deeper problems in the relationship: “If she is being obsessively tidy or he is being very slovenly, it usually points to some underlying problem to do with anger or trying to have power over the other person. It can stem from unhappiness.”

Even in the absence of underlying causes, negotiations between the tidy and untidy are rarely smooth. The tidy person, for instance, tends to assume that he or she is right. But look at tidy people in history and who do you see? Dictators, secret policemen and oppressors. Hitler was known for his love of neatness and order; Mussolini kept an immaculately tidy desk. Saddam Hussein's guards have told of the former Iraqi dictator's obsession with cleanliness - he washed his hands after every handshake.

Organisations that put the greatest premium on tidiness put the least on creative thought - the Army, for instance. Advertising creatives, visionaries and academics (and, er, tramps) are notoriously scruffy.

Dr Roderick Orner, a consultant psychologist and expert on obsessive compulsive disorder, says that tidiness is fundamentally about control - whether you want it and why you need it: “Some people find disorder a threat, others are much more comfortable with it. Artists often find that mixing things up, having things collide, is where they get their most inspirational thought.”

Francis Bacon was famous for his filthy studios (see picture, above). “I work much better in chaos,” he explained. And Pablo Picasso forbade his studio to be cleaned, so that “I would know at once if somebody had been meddling with my things”.

So I am not a slob, I am an artist. But this doesn't quite hold up because, like most untidy people, I prefer things tidy. It's just that I am always being distracted, then forgetting that I was meant to be clearing up. This is what life is like with an untidy mind; one that is focused inwards on its own thoughts rather than outwards to meet the demands of the exterior world. Tidiness is a priority - just a very low one; behind, say, looking out of the window blankly.

The accommodation that I have reached with my wife is this: if clutter is drawn to my attention, I will do something about it. The trouble is, I've never quite worked out what that “something” is. “Put it away,” she says. Where is this “away”? Where do you put a jumper that you have worn twice? You can't put it back in the clean-jumper drawer, can you? The back of a chair seems as good a place as any. What do you do with continual-use items? You leave them where you use them continually.

Tidy people, of course, put them back where they got them from. However, last year, a study by researchers at Columbia Business School found that people who kept a neat desk spent 36 per cent more time looking for things than people who kept a “fairly messy” desk. Filing and retrieving things from files takes time. My study, on the other hand, looks like a landfill site. There is a reason for this: my wife keeps handing me things while I'm in here.

Just now, she came in and gave me two books, a brochure and a jumper. What am I supposed to do with these? I put them on my desk, on top of the pile of other books, papers, receipts, T-shirts, newspapers, keys, bank cards, pens, coins, screws, bootlaces, coffee cups and tubes of dog ointment that she has handed to me in the past week.

Why does she keep passing me these things? No wonder I can't find anything. When I leave my keys on the arm of the sofa, that is where I expect to find them again - just as, when I leave my shoes by the front door, I expect them still to be there when I come back. That way I don't need to spend half an hour searching for them before I go out, only to discover that they have been shoved into the black hole known as the “shoe cupboard”.

This is where the battle between the untidy person and the tidier becomes sanity-threatening. You see, my wife isn't what I call “Hannibal Lecter tidy” - a polished exterior covering chaos within. She is concerned only that the parts of the house that you can see are free from clutter. Open a cupboard, however, and you risk death. A hotchpotch of socks, books, umbrellas, coats, dogs, cats, essential medicines, bits of the car, old computer monitors and DIY equipment teeters, threatening to spill over you like some giant metaphor for the repressions of the unconscious.

I know it may sound as though there is some reason behind my untidiness, that it's part of a plan to have everything “on hand”. It isn't. This is what makes tidy people so exasperated with us slovenly sorts. They have a strong connection to the world outside and think we have the same connection. They assume that we have taken that coffee cup and thought: “Shall I put this in the dishwasher? No, I can't be bothered”. But, as soon as we have finished with the coffee cup, it is invisible to us. We simply don't see it. It's like that stage of a baby's development at which, if something leaves its grasp, it ceases to exist. Some of us never got beyond that. Of course, when the mess reaches a certain point, even untidy people begin to notice - though normally it dawns on us more slowly than Shola Ameobi's sudden revelation.

Before I moved in with my wife, I would notice that my house was untidy at about the point when walking became difficult - guitars, trousers, Pot Noodles and papers catching at my feet as I moved, the crunch of CD cases dogging my steps. Now I have been trained to clean out the study at least once a fortnight, so the mess seems to rise and fall like the tide. There is a great sense of peace that comes from looking at the clutter-free shelves, the clean expanse of desk - particularly as it means that I won't have to think about tidying for at least another two weeks.

Neat freaks

David Beckham

is a neatnik, according to wife Victoria. He likes to colour co-ordinate the fridge and vacuums only in straight lines.

Martha Stewart

is obsessed with neatness and is said to run a tight regime in her new offices: only red or black ink pens are allowed, and all essential stationery has to be placed in a metal basket. “Life is too complicated not to be orderly,” she once said.

Charles Dickens

was said to have an obsessive need for order and neatness. He loved to clean his own home and the homes of other people.

Mucky pups

Harold Wilson

claimed to do his best work when “in a messy, middle-of-the-road muddle”.

Albert Einstein

The great theorist's untamed hair signified his attitude to neatness. “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” he declared.

Alexander Fleming

was teased by colleagues for his disorderly desk. He kept everything - notes, slides, test tubes - for at least two weeks after he had finished working on them, in case he had a new idea or noticed a change. He was clearing his desk in 1928 when a dot of mould in an old petri dish led to his discovery of penicillin.

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