My childhood bedroom window had a small hole in the wire screen, which must have allowed the scent of my mosquito-magnet blood out in Summer. Mosquitoes and flies would thrum into my room and circle. Luckily it was never a problem, reason being the entire ceiling down to just above my head, roughly the top third, was filled with very fine, nearly invisible spiders’ webs. I think only daddy longlegs survived up there; while there were huntsmen skulking around they didn’t make webs. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see the fat huntsmen bodies encased in daddy longlegs’ threads.

So you can picture this room: standard 70’s decor reflecting the tastes of my oddly hippy but concurrently extreme-conservative parents. The bed was a chunky tube shiny yellow metal-framed beast. I remember being sick the day some delivery guys assembled it, and only waking as they lifted the mattress from the old bed to the new with me in situ. Walls, cream. Boards and cupboard doors, a sticky mission brown stain that collected dust and never really set. Curtains, a designer fabric Mum was particularly proud of, with a thick yellow ribbon wave called “Swirl” with a copyright notice in the hem. A small set of bookshelves made with planks and stacked bricks. A desk and a Scandi folding that would collapse and eat your bum if you sat in it at the wrong angle (and most angles were). Carpet, the same burnt orange as through the rest of the house.

Ordinarily there was no chance of ever seeing the carpet. While the top third of the room was occupied by spiders and web, there was a thick bottom layer underfoot of clothes (clean and dirty), bedding, cushions, books, abandoned art projects, knitting wool, cat toys, bags, dolls, toys, a cat or two, random flotsam and jetsam. Never food waste or anything that might rot, but other than that it was as good fun as a rummage through the tip minus risk of tetanus.

I would attempt to put away my detritus, but would stare for half an hour at some random item in my hand – say my beloved plasticraft kit, smelly two-part epoxy resin which you poured into moulds and embedded your goldfish (hopefully already dead) – and wondered where the heck it was supposed to go. Eventually, I’d push it into the too-hard basket – in other words, back onto the floor. Or worse, I’d find a half-written poem or half-finished piece of embroidery, and it would be imperative that I complete it there and then. The room was very rarely clean.

One day when I was about 10, I thought I’d hit on a solution. I was wrong. Mum could have been more diplomatic in her explanation that there was no such thing as a “tidy heap on the floor”.

Being a relatively normal suburban parent, Mum was perpetually aghast at the state of my room. What she didn’t realise is that screaming at me about it was never going to help. I am one of those people who, for whatever reason, has real trouble with organisation. There’s a well-established link between messiness and creativity. I like to imagine myself to be creative, so this provides a lovely, scientifically-demonstrated excuse. In any case it’s something I struggle with. I used to watch Mum clean and tidy in awe – the speed and ease with which she organised the room and left it sparkling looked like domestic wizardry.

It’s probably fair to say that if the much-desired parenting licence were a thing, I’d only just have scraped past. Probably. I hope. What has become clear as I became a mother and became legally responsible for not having my children be crushed under a mountain of omgwtf, is that cleaning requires a number of abilities that I needed to teach myself. These include:

  • Categorisation. What is this X I’ve just found on the floor? Where do all the Xs live?
  • Decision  making. I haven’t got a place for all the Xs. So, I need to define a sensible place for the Xs to live.
  • Attention span. Don’t be distracted by unfinished craft projects or worse, books. It takes some energy and commitment not to run after the proverbial squirrels, particularly when you are trying to categorise, sort and neatly stack those damn rodents somewhere where you may be able to find them again.
  • Cut the corners. The temptation for me now when cleaning is not just to get everything tidy, but to make everything perfect. So utterly perfect the stationery is organised by colour, the books by author and the clothes by season, shade and costume. If I follow this compulsion, I am capable of arranging and rearranging one wardrobe, while the rest of the house looks like vikings ransacked the abode of a chronic hoarder. So, I’ve had to learn: don’t be perfect, be adequate.
  • Be systematic. Start at one end of the room and clean and tidy every single thing in that corner, then work outwards. Make an immediate decision on everything that is touched.

All that is probably intuitively obvious for most people. For me, in order not to end up in a dreadful confused heap on the floor, I need to follow those rules consciously and strictly.  If all else fails, there is always the tidy heaps on the floor method. If anyone complains, the hygiene hypothesis is your excuse and stick to it.