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 Uncategorized

Tidying up, Gary’s way

Keep tidy
Keep tidy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let the spring-cleaning commence! Well, more importantly, the tidying up. Because until that is done, we won’t be able to see the surfaces that need cleaning.

As always at the start of the school holidays, my first thought is to tidy the house. This is so that we can enjoy the rest of the holidays in an orderly environment.

Also, whenever I’m planning to go away for more than a few days, I like to blitz the house so that it looks extra appealing when we return. It’s amazing how a few days away can give you a fresh perspective on your home. Stepping through the door, suitcase in hand, I’m always pleasantly surprised to be reminded how much I love my house. Absence certainly does make the heart grow fonder – especially if the scene that welcomes my return is tidy.

This time, my task is a tall order. Every room in the house is topsy-turvy and a major effort is needed to restore an air of calm. Where on earth should I begin?

And then I remember a tactic of my old friend Gary’s. Gary was part of my social circle decades ago, when home was my first rented flat. Gary was a bit of a gem. He was cheery and intelligent, without being an intellectual. When my then boyfriend, studying for a history degree, dropped into a pub conversation that he had to choose a topic for his thesis, Gary suggested brightly “How about the history of dogs?”

Gary was determined and methodical. Unable to speak a word of French, he passed his French O Level purely by skilful planning. He knew that a large percentage of the marks were allotted for the essay question which was likely to be on a limited range of topics. He reckoned that if he learnt by heart an essay on a day at the beach, “Sur La Plage”, he’d be in with a chance of passing. So he did – and he passed. On holiday in France a couple of years later, he was still unable to do so much as order a drink in a cafe. But put him  sur la plage and he was happy.

Woolworths Reading
Woolworths Reading (Photo: Wikipedia)

Gary took a similarly determined attitude to his future. Leaving school at 16, he needed to choose a career. The biggest shop on the local high street was Woolworths,  so he applied to become a trainee Woolworths manager. He did well at his job, ultimately managing the branch in the Strand in London, planning carefully at every step. One of his tasks was to deposit the store’s daily takings at the nearby bank. Rather than worry about security, he simply put the cash in a Woolworths carrier bag every day, confident that no mugger would ever think it worth stealing something that came from Woolworths.

He brought a new order to every aspect of his  job. One Christmas, he discovered that his staff were comparing the cards he had given each of them to try to decide who he liked best. He then put a list on the staffroom noticeboard allocating points to each Christmas card image. This allowed staff to calculate scientifically how much he liked them. If their card showed a Santa – 5 points, Christmas tree – 4 points, snow scene – 3 points, and so on. I am not entirely convinced he was joking.

SVG Version of Image:Pac_Man.png
Pac-Man (Photo: Wikipedia)

Gary’s personal habits were also meticulously organised. He enjoyed his food but in a very orderly way. Confronted by a plate of food, he would start carefully at one side, taking little forkfuls  across the plate, gradually clearing it in a straight line from one side to another. It was like watching a military campaign, the invading force gradually capture enemy territory, pushing the line ever further back. Gary’s only concession to the taste of his food was to choose as his starting point the side opposite his favourite item of food. With a roast dinner, that would be the meat. His progress was fascinating. It was like watching  Pac-Man have lunch.

I’ve always taken Gary’s approach to gardening. I’m a fair-weather gardener and I don’t bother much between November and March. Then when the first Spring-like day comes along, I venture into the small lean-to that we grandly call our conservatory and revive all the plants out there. Next, I step outside the lean-to, which opens on to my herb garden.  I thoroughly weed the herb garden before advancing to the pond immediately beyond it. Once the pond is in order, I progress a couple of steps to the first vegetable bed – and so on, until everything in the garden is to my liking. It’s a long, slow job, but the benefit is that you always see the best first and the untidiest bit is always furthest from view. It’s the opposite of painting yourself into a corner.

Racon signal ("K") on radar screen S...
Racon signal ("K") on radar screen Source: http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/marcomms/geninfo/racon.htm (Photo: Wikipedia)

And this holiday it occurs to me that Gary’s strategy would work equally well with tidying. I start off upstairs, standing on the landing and sweeping my mind’s eye around the first floor, like the radar detector you see on old films of U-boats. First stop is my daughter’s bedroom (a complete muddle since she’s spent the last week “camping” on the floor for a change of scene), then my bedroom, then the bathroom, then my study. Downstairs, the living room will be followed by the kitchen, then the larder, then (saving the worst till last), my husband’s study.

Suddenly, an insurmountable task is made manageable. With the help of my trusty iPod, full of BBC Radio 4 podcats, I feel further empowered. I can do this thing!

Let the holiday commence! Happy Easter, everyone!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read How To Get Things Done.

Posted in Personal life

How to Get to the Bottom of the Ironing Basket

Ironing Board as a Bookshelf - Powder Coat it!
Image by ninahale via Flickr

The ironing board is on the landing.  This may seem an odd place to keep it, but it’s solving a long-standing problem: the apparently bottomless ironing basket.

It’s not that I dislike ironing: in the right frame of mind, it’s very soothing.  Research shows that repetitive tasks provide similar benefits to meditation.  Knitting and jogging also qualify.  But lately the view from my utility room of a dreary, browning, post-snow garden has deterred me from taking up my post at the ironing board.  And the distinctive aroma of over-wintering guinea pig, which decamped to the adjacent worktop during the cold snap, is a further disincentive.

As I hovered in the utility room the day before spring term began, trying to summon up the energy to tackle a week’s worth of school uniforms, an inspiration flashed into my head.  For this I must thank the author Susan Hill. At Tetbury’s Yellow-Lighted Bookshop’s wonderful Book Festival last summer, she talked about her latest book Howard’s End is on the Landing which describes the year she spent rereading books stashed around her house.

Like her, I have many books on my landing, which my husband recently redecorated.  I took the opportunity to reorganise the bookshelves, showing the contents off to best advantage.  Now at the top are decades of diaries, the earliest dating from when I was 8.  Below are displayed precious and obscure books from my childhood (anyone else remember Torchy the Battery Boy?), through to the bittersweet teenage comforters such as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  Next come the dog-eared favourites from my university days.  Well, some are less dog-eared than others: one day I really will read all four volumes of Richardson’s Clarissa, bought at vast expense in a wild moment of undergraduate optimism.  Then there’s the vast collection of hobby-related guides acquired in my leisure-rich child-free days.  These haven’t seen much action since I acquired a child, whose own bedroom is now bursting at the seams with books.

I never tire of looking at my bookshelves.  The display on the landing will be a lovely backdrop to my ironing.    The location offers other conveniences: a thick, warm Indian rug under foot; the adjoining bathroom where I can easily top up the iron’s water chamber; nearby wardrobes for immediately hanging up the ironed clothes (far better than turning the kitchen into a holding bay).  I’m convinced that on the landing, I’ll make great headway through the ironing basket – at least as long as I can ignore the comfy rocking chair in the corner, an ideal place to curl up with a book.

But for now I’m determined that this refreshing change of scene will restore momentum to the task in hand.  What’s more, I’m thinking of applying the same principle to other stalled proceedings.  So once I’ve finished typing this, I’m off to do my tax return in the bath.  Must press on….

(This post originally appeared in The Tetbury Advertiser, February 2011)

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 Family, Personal life

A Tidy Solution

Active volcano Mount St. Helens shortly after ...
Image via Wikipedia

After a weekend away, we return late Sunday afternoon to find the dust in our house under the spotlight of dazzling autumn sunshine.  Not all the dust is due to slovenliness.  Lighting our woodburning stoves the last few chilly evenings has distributed a flurry of fine, powdery ash throughout the cottage, as if we’ve just acquired as a lodger a small but slightly active volcano.

Still relaxed from our mini-break at the (very clean and tidy) house of friends, I decide to take the house by storm – and my family too.  I raid the broom cupboard and distribute cleaning materials and tools to my startled husband and daughter.

Not much later, the house looks fit for visitors.  Gosh, I wouldn’t mind living here, I think to myself, surveying the shiny kitchen surfaces and toy-free carpet with satisfaction.  Not that I expect the effect to last long.

His vacuuming duty completed, my husband resumes the raid he had started a few days before on our various sheds and outhouses.  He is turning them out with the energy and enthusiasm of one about to move house.  Not that he, or we, are about to move house, but for a moment I think we should consider it.

If we were to put the house on the market, I’d soon get round to doing the rest of the chores I’ve been putting off for so long – rationalising the pile of knitting patterns that’s threatening to fall on the head of anyone who climbs the stairs; editing the growing heap of odds and ends  dumped on Laura’s dressing table (now, where can she have acquired that habit, I wonder?)

Planning to move to a much smaller house would be especially helpful, as it would force me to be more ruthless.  Maybe I should make it a flat.

A few dozen skips and trips to the “Sort-It” recycling centre later, I’d hire a furniture van, fill it with our minimised possessions, drive round the block, come back and move in.  The new uncluttered look would feature all that we love best, and we’d have no end of space.  It would be a very satisfactory arrangement.  Nice neighbours, an excellent local primary school, lively village community, established garden, village pubs, shop, post office and hairdressers, all in a lovely Cotswold setting.  I couldn’t hope to find a better home.

Now, where did I put that estate agent’s card?