Tom Hodgkinson: 'Idleness comes out of being organised'


Ever since I can remember, I have been resolving to become better organised. My study at home has been in an almost permanent state of mess since we moved here eight years ago. However many shelves go up, however many box files I buy, however many new systems I create, things tend to slide back towards chaos. Once every few months I cannot bear it any longer and I have a massive clearout: I burn papers and fling old wires and broken electronic equipment into bin bags.

I am therefore amazed and impressed, but also made to feel guilty, by clean and tidy people. I have just been reading a wonderful 1946 biography of William Cobbett, the great social reformer and thorn in the side of the early-19th-century government. Cobbett ran farms, sold corn, wrote brilliant books on grammar, self-sufficiency, gold and the Reformation, found time to home-educate his children and write his Private Eye-like Cobbett's Weekly Register, which sold 50,000 copies a week. Cobbett tends to make you feel guilty about, for example, late rising: "One hour in the morning is worth three in the afternoon," he states.

And it has to be said that there does seem to be a connection between early rising and tidiness. One friend, let's call her Margot, always has a nice neat house where everything is in files on shelves, rather than being strewn around the kitchen table or on the floor, and she gets up at 6am every day. But as a late riser, it is difficult to keep up. As Cobbett rightly says, the late riser feels "behind time" all day long. You feel like you are playing catch-up. And in actual fact, this is not conducive to idleness. To be really idle, you need to be efficient. You need good systems. The monks of old brewed beer and made beautiful illuminated manuscripts, but they also had time for reflection and prayer. How? By strictly dividing the day into sections. Idleness and chaos are in fact inimical to one another. Idleness comes out of order.

And although I tend towards the slovenly in my own everyday habits, I still tell other people, ie family members, to be more organised. They accuse me of hypocrisy, but it is in fact nothing of the sort. I am sincerely convinced of the advantages of being neat and tidy. The fact that I do not myself live up to these high ideals is not proof that the ideals themselves are wrong. There was a nice phrase in Ovid's Ars Amatoria which encapsulates this problem: Monitis sum minor ipse meis, meaning, "I do not live up to my own precepts."

For comfort in these matters I turn to the notorious slugabed, Dr Johnson. His example proves that late rising and mess at home do not necessarily affect literary output. He was extremely indolent by nature yet enormously productive. He would spend all morning lying in bed, and would sometimes rise as late as two. He would then work at great speed, dashing off pages of manuscript and handing them to the printer's boy without checking them. Then he would hit the taverns with Joshua Reynolds and David Garrick. Johnson was not at ease though with his own lethargy, and every year on his birthday he would resolve to rise at eight. All his life, he never managed it.

My slovenly habits led to a shameful incident over the summer. We had advertised for house-sitters and general help about the place, finding it all too much to run a Devon smallholding and a London bookshop at the same time. Two Italian girls answered our ad, and said they'd like to help for a month or so, and would work for board and lodging.

My wife Victoria was in London, and I had been on my own at home with two children, a dog, five puppies (not yet house-trained), three cats, two ferrets, two rabbits and a pony for a week or so, and let's say that I had let things slide a little on the domestic front. I collected the Italian girls from the station, put them in the back of our car with the bin bags and the dog, bought a few cases of beer from Majestic Wine Warehouse and drove back home.

I showed them their room, and cooked them a homemade pizza. After tea they went off for a confab and then returned: "Tom, we need to talk to you. We like you, and we like your children. But we can't stand this filthy house. We're not used to it. Can you take us to a B&B?" I turned bright red with shame, and booked them a room at the local pub. We didn't see them again. 1

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