‘If there’s such a thing as healthy mess, there’s also a deeply therapeutic aspect to clearing up.’ A kitchen drawer in the home of minimalist Saeko Kushibiki. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
Three coffee cups jostle with a pile of unread books, a tangle of chargers and a small avalanche of paper perilously close to sliding on to the floor. Somewhere beneath all this junk is my desk, and somewhere on that – maybe behind one of those dried-up tester pots of paint, or underneath yesterday’s newspaper? – is a letter that needs signing. Somewhere.
But it’s fine because, according to the economist Tim Harford, a tidy desk genuinely is a sign of a wasted life. Well, sort of. In his new book, Messy, he explores the eternal cliche that creativity springs from chaos and concludes that tidying up too much – either literally, or figuratively by creating overly rigid systems or ways of thinking – really is counterproductive. Take that, so-called decluttering experts, with your endless guff about the right way to fold T-shirts!
Tidiness often masks fragility, the book argues, and a nagging anxiety about things spiralling out of control (which may be why teenagers, who crave being out of control, so often choose to live in squalor). And besides, a bit of chaos fosters resilience. Put a few obstacles in your own way and you’ll be inspired to improvise – and to think innovatively.
This seems the clearest explanation yet of the government’s approach to Brexit, but as lifestyle advice, I have my reservations. It does, at least, beat the former Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom’s misplaced enthusiasm for women cleaning behind the fridge.
Like helicopter parenting and overly competitive school fete baking, the cult of Marie Kondo – and if you’ve never heard of the Japanese decluttering guru, be thankful – is all about women making unnecessary work for themselves. (Be honest: how many men spend Friday nights rearranging their sock drawer, just because someone wrote a book claiming it would bring them joy?) And it’s not as if there isn’t enough damn housework to do already.
Mess is freeing, playful, joyous, the province of people with more exciting things to do than the vacuuming; tidying looks prissy, sterile, servile by comparison. Everyone should have the freedom to make a mess occasionally, just as everyone should have the chance to live alone at some point in life. But ideally the two would go together, because the trouble with mess is that it’s so much more liberating for its creator than for anyone forced to live alongside it.
So much of family life seems to be spent resentfully shunting piles of stuff from one room to another: sorting laundry, reuniting shoes and headphones and tiny Playmobil people with their owners; tripping over the pile at the bottom of the stairs. This kind of tidying is indisputably the enemy of creativity, since by giving it all up you’d probably claw back enough time to write a novel (at least, so long as you could clear a path to the laptop).
How much more fun to be the merrily chaotic one – who cannot possibly be expected to do the washing-up or write stuff on the calendar or even stay faithful to just the one spouse, because their creative genius cannot be bound by such petty bourgeois rules – than to be the slightly resentful one scurrying behind, sweeping up the pieces. Mess in the home is all too often just a form of disrespect for other people, in the same way that creative destruction in business can be code for “maximising profit by costing other people their jobs”.
The key here, perhaps, is to distinguish aimless or selfish mess from the more purposeful, creative kind children make when they’re playing; sticking fat fingers in paint pots, spreading Lego rubble all over the carpet, breaking things up but only in order to put them together more satisfyingly.
Last week I was in Hull, which is frantically giving itself a facelift ahead of becoming next year’s City of Culture. Town squares are being dug up and re-laid for visitors, scaffolding is springing up everywhere, roads and pavements are closed. If you’re local and trying to get to work in a hurry, it must be infuriating, but for outsiders there is a palpable excitement hanging in the air, a sense that something good is about to happen. Sometimes it’s worth throwing everything up in the air to make it land in whole new patterns.
But if there’s such a thing as healthy mess, there’s also a deeply therapeutic aspect to clearing up. There is a part of me that shamelessly enjoys a thorough tidy, sort and file: the feeling of calm and order restored, the dwindling threat of public shaming should anyone come round unexpectedly.
And that’s to say nothing of what a friend calls “storage porn”, or the furtive lust for more things in which to tidy away other, smaller things; inexplicable objects of desire from the Lakeland catalogue, proper linen cupboards, walk-in pantries, utility rooms. Mock all you like, but let he who has never mentally rearranged his bookshelves by genre cast the first stone.
It’s the mildly fascist feeling of control that appeals, I suppose, but also the conjuring up of a fantasy alternative reality: one inhabited by an imaginary woman who glides through life serene and relaxed, rather than permanently running late and on the phone to work, and who would thus actually have time to fold her (ironed!) sheets and store them on the (labelled!) shelf of her imaginary linen cupboard. Sorting small things is a comforting substitute for sorting out those messes that are rather harder to untangle.
This could explain why I get the itch to make lists and turn out closets mainly when life is at its most frantic and out of control – which is, of course, precisely when there isn’t time. Happiness lies in that elusive place where messy yin balances out ordered yang.
How intriguing, then, that according to an interview I read last week, Harford’s own personal mess sounds very neatly regimented. At home, he says he’s happy to let things slide in places where playfulness and creativity need encouraging – like children’s bedrooms, desks, or the garden. But he sorts emails using a meticulous system of coloured stars, admits to having Kondo-ed the house, and apparently in his kitchen “the corkscrew has its place and the wineglass has its place”.
Secret tidiers of the world, I salute you. You have nothing to lose but your tempers, when everyone else comes home and messes it all up.