Monday, 19 October 2009

A little morality tale; or, in which I dream of the Organised People

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I dream sometimes of The Organised People. I think how lovely their lives must be. When someone rings them up and asks them any question which involves a piece of paper they are able to glance around and lay their hand on it without pause. This is because they have FILING SYSTEMS. Their filing systems involve actual box files or even metal cabinets, with labels, sometimes in alphabetical order. The more I think of them, the more The Organised People take on a mythical aspect, like unicorns. But I know they exist. Sometimes I suspect that only I and that gentleman columnist in The New Statesman actually have filing systems which consist of piles of paper arranged randomly on the floor. (Although I will say that my friend The Man of Letters, as clever and urbane a man as you will ever meet, does have an idiosyncratic approach to his office arrangements.)

But still, The Organised People are out there, and they save untold but probably quantifiable hours and days of squandered mental energy, because they never have to crawl around on their hands and knees searching for a certain receipt. They pay their credit card bills on time and so do not live in fear of the telephone. They never have to steel themselves to open The Cupboard of Doom because a suddenly vital object might be somewhere in the back.

Sometimes I get cross and slag off The Organised People, in the privacy of my own head. Oh they're so anal, with their cross-referencing and their serried ranks. I bet they never put on satin skirts and went drinking with very tall transvestites in illegal bars in Soho until six in the morning, like some people I could mention. They don't know how to live. They are all file this and mark that. But of course in my secret heart I am eaten up with envy. However much I pathetically tell myself that I am a Creative, so I can't be filing, not when I am pondering the Human Condition at all hours, I yearn to be organised. Despite my profound loathing of self-help books, I have even occasionally succumbed to titles such as Clear the Clutter, and Taming the Paper Tiger. They are no good; they are written by The Organised People, and so make assumptions that their readers start from a base of potential organisedness. After three pages I give up in despair and read some Auden instead (I bet he never had any kind of bloody filing system).

But today, my darlings, I lived a little parable in why it is still worth attempting to join the OP ranks. When I went south last week, I took my sister's car, because my own jalopy is riven with rust (the exhaust actually fell off on a recent visit to Speyside; admittedly I did not help matters by driving over a large rock down by the mighty Spey, but still) and my sister did not want me to end up stranded on the hard shoulder of the M6. In a fit of uncharacteristic efficiency, I rang up the Congestion people, explained that I was driving another car with a different numberplate from my own, and paid for the days I was in the city all in one go. I was rather overcome by my own cleverness. Then, this morning, my sister appeared with a sheaf of Congestion Charge penalties; those nasty accusatory photographs, like paparazzi gotchas, and hideous pound figures beside them, ready to leap up exponentially with every passing day. 'Did you write down the reference number?' she laughed, gaily, skipping off into the rain, secure in the knowledge that she would not be ending up in debtors' prison. Did I? I wracked my brains. My usual modus operandi is to scribble any reference number, usually in pencil, on a very, very small piece of paper, which gets scrumpled up and may end up in any number of possible locations: handbag, washbag, suitcase, coat pocket, trouser pocket. It might take all day to track it down.

In a fit of hope over experience, I wondered if, by any miracle, I might have logged the number on my computer. I had no memory of doing this, but I did seem to recall that I was sitting near the computer when I made the call. So, sure that I would find a humiliating blank where a number should be, I looked in my documents file. AND THERE IT WAS. I had amazingly logged my account number, my pin, the long reference number for my payment, and the relevant dates. So instead of the customary 'oh I know I'm a bit daffy but I'm a writer' conversation with the call centre, I had a perfectly civilised 'this is the number of my receipt' conversation with a very nice and helpful lady. I had paid; they had put down the wrong registration number at their end; it appears to be a straightforward computer error. I had the number; there was proof; I did not have to feel like a flake or a criminal any longer. I did not have to spend the day rifling through pockets filled with little bits of dog biscuit. The twenty seconds it took for me to type those digits into my computer has saved me hours of wasted time, and days of pointless self-recrimination for being a dolt.

It felt like a revelation. The deadly dull bore of the thing is that when you challenge a penalty, you have to write a LETTER, to a PO Box in Coventry. I have no faith in PO boxes, and a definite doubt about the postal service just at the moment, with the strikes and all, and it seems mad that you cannot send an email or even a fax. In these credit crunchy times, a stack of £60 fines sitting on your desk is a horrible frightening thing, even if you know you are in the clear. The lady I spoke to at the call centre had all the information in front of her; it seems cruel and unusual that in such a simple matter we could not have sorted the whole thing out over the telephone. But that is not really the point. The point is that, for one day, I knew what The Organised People know. I can't guarantee that this lesson will transform my organisational skills overnight, but I damn well am sure that I am going to type every relevant number to any future transaction into my trusty Dell, in case of emergency.

And just in case you think I am overstating the thing for comic effect, this is what my office looks like -

And that's the dishevelled in an attractively creative way part of it. I am not going to show you a picture of my piles on the floor, because it's too sad, and it's raining outside, and I do not want to bring you all down. Instead, just for the hell of it, I am giving you a sweet little picture of one of the dogs all drenched from the weather, to take your mind off things, and just because I can:

I do start to wonder that if I spent less time making sure the dogs were ready for their close-up and more time contemplating box files, I might get closer to my organisational goal. But that's a story for another day.


  1. I also envy this wonderful, mythical people! In your picture I think you look pretty organized! and your pup is precious!

  2. Oh T. Posts like this are why we love you. I have to say I veer towards Monica - 'But rules are good; rules control the fun...' - in so many areas, verging on OCD when it comes to packing my bag or a suitcase before I leave the house. The trick I have found - after much experimentation - is a notebook. Alas mine is slightly too large, ornate, heavy purple suede so must occasionally be left behind when the book du jour is a hardback, but boy then do I know about it when I've forgotten something the next day.

  3. But you *have* box files. And shelves. That's organised.

    I have the former but not the latter. Which explains the filing on the floor.

    And the box files I do have appear to be filled with random papers from last minute tidy up sessions (bung everything on the floor in a box and forget about it) so are remarkably unhelpful in finding anything.

  4. But do you have piles and piles of papers on the floor as well as books, as two English professors are known to have? Oh dear . . .

  5. Off topic, I am reading your book and would be curious to hear how it was received. I see on amazon that it is hard to put it into the right genre. Also, found Keely Hawes calling it a "Bedside reading,...putting the world to rights with your best friend over a bottle of wine". As I am not in Britain, do not know her and can not tell what feeling it may bring having such a referee in the "Marie Claire" (which I am leafing through just by accident). Would be interested to know, though.
    I am at the work section of the book, which is really good.
    Cheers, Marianna

  6. Ah Red Lipstick, you know the way to my heart. Any compliments about the dogs and I am a helpless confederacy of smiles.

    Jo - love imagining you as Monica. She always was my favourite character, which must say something.

    Yes Cal, if only HAVING the box files were enough. I remember being so pleased with myself when I ordered them. They are mostly filled with old letters and theatre programmes (can't bear to throw away the reminder that I once saw Ralph Fiennes in Ivanov). But I do admit it is a start.

    Miss Cavendish - yes, yes. Little towers of paper, on the floor, in danger of toppling over at any moment. My poor mother has to avert her eyes when she walks in.

    Marianna - how absolutely lovely that you are reading the book, thank you. As to your question: it was received very well here, to Sarah's and my amazed delight. There were excessively kind reviews and prominence in the bookshops (nothing sadder than walking in and finding your book gathering dust in the very back of Waterstone's). But you are right, no one knows where it belongs. It sometimes gets put in self-help which enrages me. But I sympathise with the booksellers since it is hard to categorise. Delighted about Keeley Hawes; she is a very good actress and becoming rather loved in Britain, so an endorsement from her is marvellous for us. I did not know, so thanks for telling me.


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