Posted in Personal life

A Study in Tidiness

Entrance to my study
Before: enter at your peril – and yes, that IS a spinning wheel in the corner

I don’t know what it is about this time of year, but in the last week or so I’ve been hurtling about the house in a frenzy, clearing out cupboards, rationalising bookshelves, streamlining wardrobes. My home is looking as much like a showhouse as a Victorian cottage is ever likely to be.

On Wednesday, I spent about three hours sorting out my nine-year-old daughter’s bookshelves, alphabetizing the novels by author and sorting the non-fiction into classifications, as if her bedroom was a library.  (You can call me Dewey.)

Today, I’ve spent best part of the afternoon clearing up my study – no mean feat by anybody’s standards, as you can see by the “before” photos here.

My untidy desk
Before…

Though hard work at the time, it’s definitely worth the effort. I’ve long been a believer in the basic principles of Feng Shui (well, the lazy person’s version, that is – I don’t go in for all that purist business of deflecting poison arrows and hanging octagonal mirrors). It’s common sense that if you  surround yourself with order rather than chaos, you will feel calmer and more in control of your life.

I’ve also always been fond of rearranging furniture and am constantly in pursuit of the perfect layout. A little bit too fond: I recently googled it to see whether it is a clinically labelled condition. (I didn’t find one – yet.)

Messy corner of my study
Rookie mistake here: that’s a chair, not a bookshelf

I wonder whether my current urge for order stems partly from the new neighbours who are renovating the formerly derelict house adjacent to mine.  They have transformed the place. Its shiny glowing newness puts my house to shabby shame. My previous next door neighbour was a recluse with a profound antipathy to DIY. He had a broken window at the back of the house that another elderly neighbour swore had not been repaired since the Second World War. He elevated procrastination to an art form. And he set a very low bar for any aspirations we might have had to keep up with the Joneses.

Bookshelf
That’s more like it: books on shelves- oh, and in a laundry basket. Oops.

But the new neighbour’s renovations had been going on for some months before my latest round of compulsive tidying took hold. So maybe it was more a natural  reaction to Christmas and a coping mechanism for absorbing the influx of Christmas presents into an already overflowing household.

There again, the imminence of my birthday (5 days to go and counting) may be a trigger. Do I need to prove to myself that I must make a difference to my environment before I get another year older?

But there’s another annual occurrence that I suspect is the trump card: the arrival of a certain green printed letter on my doormat. No, it’s not an early birthday card from the Wizard of Oz, nor a John Lewis credit card statement. It’s a reminder from the HMRC that self-assessment tax returns are due by the end of this month.  And I really hate filling in my tax return.

This is no tidying bug – it’s tax evasion, Jim, but not as we know it.

Tidy study
Now all I need to get in order is my tax return.
Posted in Family, Personal life

When it Comes to Christmas Presents, Small is Beautiful

Laura's display of Playmobil characters and other small friends ice-skating at Christmas (Note Santa passing by in his sleigh)

‘Tis the season to start tidying!

In the Young household, the arrival of the Advent calendar kicks off our annual quest to banish clutter. When Santa arrives, we don’t want to have to tell him there’s no room for new toys – or so I keep telling my daughter Laura.

Not that we’re anticipating a flurry of extravagant gifts this year. Now approaching her ninth festive season, Laura has produced a positively frugal letter to Santa, reflecting our current economic climate. Even if he delivers everything on her Christmas list, it won’t take up much space. The intriguingly specific “yellow and white doggy key-ring” and “a biro with different colours” should fit easily in her pocket, while the requested “air freshener” will require only a couple of square inches of shelf space.

While I applaud my daughter’s restraint, I’m anxious that she doesn’t miss out on the most important Christmas present of all: a large cardboard box  to play for the rest of the holidays. (They don’t call it Boxing Day for nothing.) A few weeks ago I invested in a big wooden ottoman for my bedroom. The even bigger cardboard outer in which it was packaged has since provided Laura with many happy hours of creative play. First of all it was a bus, taking her cuddly toys on outings. Then, as easily as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it turned amphibious, morphing first into a rowing boat then into a sailing ship. With the children from next door as stowaways, she spent a happy Saturday sailing round the living room. You don’t need to live in the Lake District to beat Swallows and Amazons at their own game.

Laura’s pocket-sized presents are the antidote to the huge items on my husband’s wish-list. After a pleasant hour of Googling, “a large telescope with stand” is soon joined by “a powerful SLR camera” without which, it seems, no serious telescope is complete. At least I won’t have to find house-room for these gifts, because he’s also desirous of “a garden observatory” in which to use them. I’d like to see the postman fit that through our letterbox.

To be honest, I’m now at an age when I neither need nor covet Christmas presents. I’d be happier to have none at all. For me, as an atheist, the festive season is all about spending quality time with family and friends, and I’m planning my December social calendar like a military campaign. Though to my mind there’s no finer place than Gloucestershire to spend Christmas, our festive tour of duty will take us as far afield as Scotland to ensure we can catch up with all those we love best. The only disadvantage is that after this holiday, I think I’ll need another one to recover. Alternatively I could just go AWOL now and again to escape the action – unless Santa brings me the one thing featured on my Christmas wish-list: a cloak of invisibility.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

(This post was originally written for the December 2011 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser.)

Posted in Family, Personal life

Clear the Decks For Boughs of Holly

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Image by joysaphine via Flickr

The pre-Christmas clear-out is well under way in our household.

“If you don’t get rid of the old toys that you’ve grown out of, there’ll be no room for any Christmas presents,” I warn my seven year old daughter.

Unlike her more capitalistic cousin Tim, Laura can’t be persuaded to sell her old toys for a profit.  Car boot sales leave her cold.  She forms strong attachments to her cuddly toys: each has a name and a personality.  Even I find myself drawn to the livelier characters:  Candyfloss, the comical greying white poodle; its close friend and straight man, Butlin the spotty dog;  Poonia and Pink, the fanciful unicorns; Sweetie, the soft-bodied baby doll who calls me Grandma.  Laura would no sooner sell her dolls than sell her family.  No doubt I’ll find this a comfort when I’m old.

When the toytown clutter gets too much for me, I entertain a shamefully ungrateful fantasy:  that my house gets burnt to the ground.  The conflagration is colourful as a Christmas tree.  Well, it should be, with all those plastic toys as fuel.  We then set up home in a minimalistic Ikea showroom ,  our possessions stowed invisibly in storage baskets arranged on bookcases called Billy.  But oh, the flat-packs!  When I think of all that self-assembly, the current muddle doesn’t seem so bad.

Killing time before a medical appointment, I wander round a toyshop.  Don’t shop until you’ve dropped, I remind myself, eyeing the Barbies and boardgames, of which we already have plenty, thank you very much.  Drop a few big bags of toys into one of the many charity shops while she’s at school, a little voice tells me.  She’ll never notice that they’re gone.  I’m not convinced.

And so on to plan B: we could give her only very tiny toys as presents this Christmas.  Then space would not be an issue.  My husband, studying for a geology degree, has just acquired a microscope.

“Maybe she’d like to start an atom collection?” I wonder.

The trouble is, things are just too cheap these days.  It would be easier to resist buying large toys if they cost more.  How much more sensible it would be if toys were priced according to volume.  The huge wooden rocking-horse, lovingly carved by Laura’s grandpa, would then be priceless.  It all makes perfect sense.   I have a similar proposal for calorie distribution: a square of chocolate should contain a fraction of the calories in a Ryvita.

But then a smarter strategy occurs to me.  We’ll tackle the problem from the other end.   There are two small but serviceable cellars beneath our cottage.  And they are empty.

“How do you fancy a playroom for Christmas?” I suggest.  “We can convert one of the cellars as your present.”

Her eyes light up.

“A playroom!”

Her eyes light up.

“I’ve always wanted a playroom.”

“A playroom.  A music room.  A disco.  We can make it whatever you like.”

“Oh, yes, please, Mummy!”

Problem solved.  And at a bargain price, too.

Now all we have to do is to work out how to giftwrap it.

(This post originally appeared in the November edition of The Tetbury Advertiser)

Posted in Personal life

How To Get Things Done

On Sunday afternoon, after months of feeble excuses, I decide to tackle what appears to be an enormous task. I undertake to tidy my dressing table. It is inches deep in the detritus of dressing and undressing: discarded jewellery, price labels and hanging tags from new clothes, odd coins and pens and business cards that have been turned out of jacket or trouser pockets. The Victorian honey-coloured pine surface is completely hidden from view.

Tidying my dressing table is not my favourite task, which is why I have ignored it for so long. In the half light of early mornings and the dimmed lamps of late nights, I never really scrutinise it, so the muddle bothers me far less than if it were on the kitchen table. The only reason I am bothering to tackle it now is that otherwise I will have no moral high ground from which to make my daughter clear up her dressing table, now competing with mine in the untidiness stakes.

I grit my teeth, put on my Ipod (that invaluable mental anaesthetic) and wonder how many podcasts it will take before I’ve completed my task. I click on my favourite, The News Quiz , and swiftly fall into the meditative, methodical rhythm of tidying.

I locate lost necklaces, reunite long parted pairs of earrings, and accumulate quite a stash of beribboned clothing tags for my cardboard recycling box. (Can I really have bought so many new clothes lately? Erm, no – it’s just an awfully long time since I last culled the discarded labels.)

I restore to centre stage a favourite antique lace mat and a colourful binca mat that my daughter cross-stitched for me last Mother’s Day under her Grandma’s artistic direction by Grandma. I rearrange the chipped but beautiful mulberry Bavarian glass dishes that once belonged to my own Grandma. With a neatness bordering on OCD, I align the numerous necklaces draped over the corners of the hinged mirror. My dressing table is starting to resemble an exotic shrine – and all before The News Quiz is half way through. Stepping back to admire the new order, I feel a sense of calm creeping osmotically from this harmonious little scene into the depths of my soul.

This tidying business really is therapeutic. I continue to feel a little glow of satisfaction every time I walk past the dressing table, even now, two days on. So why did I wait so long to do it? I really must not procrastinate like this again. Now that I can see the mirror again, perhaps I ought to write across it a note in lipstick to remind myself: The best way to get something done is to do it.