Days Like These: 'If a handbag's contents reflect its owner's mind, then Lord help me'

Rebecca Front: Are messy bags the result of a busy life? We all have detritus, but some don’t have time to deal with it’

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For what I am about to write, and the stereotype it will reinforce, may my feminist friends forgive me. Before knocking myself down, let me first lay before you my credentials to be a contemporary female role model.

I am a working mother. I hold down two jobs as an actor and a writer; I cook, I clean when absolutely necessary, and I sew... actually, that's a lie. But I am a graduate. I watch Newsnight. I read novels – weighty ones, too, and not just the sort with jaunty writing and a picture of a pair of polka-dot stilettos on the front.

I am, in short, the very antithesis of some ditzy, outmoded, Lucille Ball-style "little woman". But then I open my handbag, and the hideous truth behind my can-do, no-nonsense exterior comes spilling out. If a handbag is any reflection of the interior workings of its owner's mind, then Lord help me.

Like my mind, my bag contains nothing practical, nothing I may actually use during the course of a normal day, other than my purse, keys and mobile phone – and quite often they're not in there either. I always carry a pen, as you might expect, but not one you could actually write with; instead, it will be some felt tip discarded by my daughter, with no lid and a splayed nib, inkless now that it has leached the last of its contents on to the leather. Added to this marinade are the remains of a bottle of scent and a spilt miniature of brandy which I used to carry about with me in case I ever got stuck in a lift. In consequence, wherever I go I am followed by the faint but distinct aroma of a boozy night out.

My bag, as those who know me might expect, is a hypochondriac's dream. There are pills for headaches, allergies and nasal congestion, plasters of varying sizes and little sachets of out-of-date Calpol which, like the ink and the perfume, have leaked their purple stickiness into some hard-to-reach corner. There are never any tissues, though. You might think that the need for a permanent supply of hankies would be self-evident to any mother of young children, let alone one who has a history of messy eating and rhinitis. But whenever a tissue is most needed, none is to be found; at least, none that has not already been used repeatedly over the course of some months to mop up coffee spills and ineffectually wrap used chewing gum.

On any given day, I might reach in and find a broken bit of doll, two sunglasses cases, the contents of which are lost, a half-finished torn-out crossword, a hair bobble, some broken fingernail, the top of a lipstick and a novelty punch that makes apple-shaped holes.

I once travelled all the way to San Francisco without realising that my son had placed an enormous lump of fossilised rock in my bag on a previous trip to Dorset. I then agonised over what to do with the rock, and decided that it was my ecological duty to return it whence it came. I therefore carried it all the way back with me. I don't think I told my husband about that.

Now, you might say that none of this matters. It is, after all, my bag, and I can keep what the hell I like in it. But, the other day, my daughter went to school without her book-bag. We saw it when we returned to the house, and I was about to take it to the school office when my husband questioned whether there was anything in it that she might urgently need. We looked inside, and what we discovered has confirmed beyond doubt that childhood behaviour patterns are learnt from their parents. It was the bag of a mini-me, though thankfully without the liquor and pills: empty Christmas-card envelopes jockeyed for position with scrunched-up crisp wrappers, conkers and bits of colouring-in.

Does this mean that she too has an interior life that is chaotic and unstructured? Or are messy handbags the inevitable adjunct to a busy existence – we all have detritus, after all, but some of us simply don't have time to deal with it. We daren't waste valuable moments of creativity looking for dustbins or buying Handy Andys; we have loftier aims in mind.

Yes, perhaps that's it. Why clear out rubbish when you could be reading the broadsheet editorials, cooking a cheese soufflé and composing sonnets? A tidy bag is testament to an empty mind and a fruitless day; it is anathema to the have-it-all generation. I shall therefore use my messy rucksack as a stepping stone to remount my feminist pedestal – and the crunching sound as I do so tells me that I have just found those lost sunglasses.

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