I have been sucked into a life of grime

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The Independent Online

A peculiarly revolting scene from the recent documentary series about rubbish, A Life of Grime, lingers uncomfortably in the mind. A solitary old man - unshaven, hostile, nutty, you know the type - had developed an unhealthy attachment to his own rubbish. For several years, he had thrown nothing away, and now the chief honcho of local waste-disposal was forcing his way into the house.

A peculiarly revolting scene from the recent documentary series about rubbish, A Life of Grime, lingers uncomfortably in the mind. A solitary old man - unshaven, hostile, nutty, you know the type - had developed an unhealthy attachment to his own rubbish. For several years, he had thrown nothing away, and now the chief honcho of local waste-disposal was forcing his way into the house.

There were so many garbage-filled plastic bags in the hall that he had difficulty opening the front door. Every room in the council house was piled high with rubbish, including the kitchen, a paradise for rodents, where the freshest trash was being left in the three- or four-foot gap between the bags of old waste and the ceiling.

For some of us, those scenes presented an uncomfortable hint of the direction in which we are heading. My own clutter problem has not yet reached the hall, and, although there are frequent visits by mice and even a rat to the kitchen, I am convinced that they are attracted by the warmth and agreeable company. The office, though, almost qualifies for A Life of Grime.

For obvious reasons, I like to keep my in-tray well below eye-level, on the floor. Unfortunately, it burst its banks some time ago, and little sub-in-trays have spread across the floor so that I have to tiptoe between them to reach my desk from the door. In the cupboard behind me, a tower of paper representing two and a half years' worth of correspondence awaits filing, and folders pertaining to ancient, half-forgotten projects jostle for space with highly important domestic records. The rest of the room is hardly visible for books. What was once a joyous, bohemian riot of romping volumes has taken on the appearance of a pre-bonfire scene in Fahrenheit 451.

Unlike the old geezer with his plastic bags full of mouldy pork pies, I am aware of my problem. Streamline the office, lose the clutter, and, so the theory goes, my mind will become uncluttered and my work more streamlined.

Apparently, what I need is someone called a "life coach", who navigates you from the thrashing seas of disorder into a little pool of calm and efficiency. According to a recent life-coaching manual, Get Everything Done - And Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster, I should be asking myself every morning, "What is the task I'm resisting doing most today?" - and then set about doing it.

I fear that Mr Forster underestimates the problem here. If, instead of sitting down to write, I had taken on one of the domestic tasks that confront me each day like the north face of the Eiger, not only would this column never have been written; nor would the next two. He is dealing with someone who, for the past year, has preferred to carry about two address books rather than face the chore of transferring addresses from the old book to the new one.

Occasionally, as my in-trays multiply and cupboards spill forth paper like something out of Carrie, I dream of the famous domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, a woman whose gentle competence is this year's version of the more frightening Superwoman invented by Shirley Conran.

It's not that I need a version of Nigella in my office - it's private in here - more that I want to become a domestic god myself, producing brilliant work while running an efficient, good-humoured household.

Yet part of me is with the old man and his bags. If my clutter is removed, I fear nothing of me will remain. All that paper around me provides a weird sense of warmth and comfort, an illusion of busy interaction with the outside world.

I expect Mark Forster's book has some handy advice for the disorder junkie. Unfortunately, at the moment, I am unable to lay my hands on it.

terblacker@aol.com

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