John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The behavioural fascists tell us we must get organised. Nonsense. Mess is good!'
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The Independent Online

How are you enjoying The Independent's Change Your Life wallcharts and Double Your Brainpower booklets? Feeling the benefit? I liked the one about Improving Your Memory, which contained the advice: "Engage as often as possible in social activities which challenge and stretch your mind. Those which combine physical activity with social engagement are best of all (such as dancing, rambling, amateur dramatics)" - although it hasn't been easy hiking around Dulwich Park while performing arabesques from Giselle and soliloquies from Julius Caesar in front of the scornful dog-walkers.

But back to the wallcharts: how do you feel about the advice they offer? Do the charts and diagrams and progress grids make you feel... Cleansed? Shriven? Purged? Better organised? Morally improved? Of course they do, because you're convinced, just by looking at them, that some impulse of neatness and order has entered your ramshackle life. Three friends of mine have gone on the wagon for January, not just to detoxify their kidneys and de-sandpaper their tongues, but to iron out their creased and flabby abdomens. The new year resolution spring-clean season is well under way.

But so, thank the Lord, is a counter-tendency, in the form of a new book, A Perfect Mess: the Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by two American management writers, Eric Abrahamson and David H Freedman. It's a bracing attack on the world of perfect systems and neat solutions, the kind of bogus business perfection that most management writing espouses. And they recommend that you think again about that voice in your brain that requires everything to be scheduled, labelled, colour-coded, time-calibrated and, in a word, organised.

I liked the examples of historical figures like the appalling Frank Gilbreth, who tried to apply the rules of assembly-line production to a family of 12 in the 1930s. He summoned his children by whistle and stopwatch and made them monitor homework, chores and changes in weight on a chart. At bathtime, they were limited to a few soapy wipes while listening to records in French or German. Gilbreth tried to halve his shaving time by using two razors, but cut himself so badly he had to stop...

I was pleased to learn of the huge industry of consultants who charge a fortune to straighten out your life. At the annual conference of Napo (the National Association of Professional Organisers), they write, "successful organisers all seem to operate on catchy variations of what boils down to very basic advice: Throw out and give away a bunch of stuff. Put the rest on shelves. Set up a tightly scheduled calendar. Repeat."

Ranging themselves against these behavioural fascists, the authors explain that organisations aren't at their best when they're super-neat or super-messy, and that traffic flow in a city is actually improved (or at least loosened up) by jaywalkers. They discover that English bus-users prefer a service that runs late but lets you know it's running late, to one that's always on time. They point out that the world wide web is a gigantic, ungovernable mess of random material, though it's given a small, extremely fallible organising principle by search engines such as Google. They point out that Arnold Schwarzenegger advanced up the greasy pole of Californian politics by refusing to have a public schedule or make appointments, and supporting a confused smorgasbord of policies and allegiances, making him impossible to pigeonhole.

Reading Mssrs Abrahamson and Freedman, you realise with a shock your own innate passion to categorise everything you meet, from blondes to Swiss-Germans, and to self-categorise the way you're feeling, often wrongly: "I am talking pleasurably to Nicole Kidman because I am a suave and debonair man of the world, and not because I'm a pathetic star-spotter." Fascinating.

The book would be a bestseller like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which it resembles - if it weren't for one thing. In a section about Messy Efficiency, the authors bring up al-Qa'ida, admire its scattered membership, unpredictable actions, lack of structure, lack of hierarchy, lack of internal communications and, while we're at it, lack of a consistent plan. It makes them, they argue, a fantastically efficient foe. I'm impressed by their Shavian ingenuity, but when heavyweight US corporations are recommended a management system that wheels on al-Qa'ida as a kind of role model, I imagine there'll be a few peptic ulcers in 5th Avenue boardrooms.


I think it was Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, who was such a martyr to drink that he could not be trusted to use the bathroom at a friend's house without draining any bottles of hair tonic left on display. He didn't quite sink to methylated spirits, the hooch du choix of the extreme wino, but many other non-commercial fluids have been pressed into service over the years for their alcohol content. Eye-baths, contact-lens solution, embrocation, Night Nurse - no medicine cabinet is safe from the drunkard who's convinced that, if makes you better, it must have some C2H2O5 in it. I've heard about characters who butter slices of toast with (I'm assured this is true) boot polish, leave them on a radiator until the toast has absorbed all the alcohol, then scrape off the black stuff and eat the toast.

And the reason I bring this up? A story reaches me from Glasgow, concerning an NHS Trust, or "hospital" as we used to call them, where all visitors are required to anoint their hands with an anti-MRSA disinfectant rub before proceeding to the wards. The stuff comes in plastic bottles with plungers. After a few weeks, the reception staff noticed that they were getting through lots of it. They checked the CCTV and found where it had been going. And no, it hadn't just evaporated. Now they've replaced the rub with a gel that is, by all accounts, a great deal harder to drink...