Though I’m fortunate to work mostly from home, twice a week I put on a suit and head off to the City. This gives me some credibility with my neighbours, in that I visibly have a proper job and don’t spend my days “fiddling around” as a neighbour once rather dismissively described my working from home regime. Back then, in 2002, working from home was seen as rather louche, a cover for indolence or worse.
My status as a part time commuter not only gives me economic legitimacy but it also introduces routine that might otherwise be missing from my life. On my ‘other’ days I can sometimes be found still in my dressing gown at noon (though working) and have been known to pretend to be suffering from flu when a delivery man comes to the door.
On my routine days, I rise at 6.45 and am out of the house an hour later having fed the cat, prepared and eaten breakfast, showered and dressed without actually registering any of these activities. In the days when I used to drive to work I could arrive at the office and be unable to recall any detail of the journey.
Routine is a vital component of modern life. That’s why trains and airlines have timetables. Routine is a comfort. The execution of mindless routine allows us to mix mechanical actions with more stimulating things – in my case, to prepare and eat breakfast whilst listening to Radio 4 and attempting a challenging Sudoku puzzle. If my wife is up at that unlikely hour, I can do all of these things and have a conversation with her at the same time. In the shower, I can wash and plan my day simultaneously, though I frequently forget which parts have been washed and have to start again.
And yet I have a love/hate relationship with routine. It is an efficient way of regulating the more humdrum aspects of life and, on the other hand, it is constant reminder of the tyranny of needing to earn a living. The consequence of a routine that consists of all work and no play is to become dull and typecast.
As we get older, far from kicking the habit, we can become more routinised, to the extent that routine becomes ritual. My wife’s Aunt who died recently lived her life by the clock and led an existence totally ruled by habit. Though she awoke instinctively every morning at 4.15 on the dot, she had two identical radio controlled alarm clocks by her bed and a stock of several hundred spare batteries, just in case. Afternoon tea absolutely had to take place at 3.00 and supper, which had been brought forward by an hour in 1942 during the blackout nights of the London Blitz and never moved back, was taken at 5.30 pm sharp. She was an entertaining and scurrilous old lady whose views, loudly expressed in the smart cafés of Sherborne, predated the invention of political correctness by about fifty years. She was strong on etiquette (another form of ritual) and whilst completely at home with the most colourful extremist language, the use of the word ‘toilet’ to denote the lavatory could cause a reaction bordering on apoplexy.
Not everybody is like this.
We have one or two friends whose lives are so devoid of routine that they appear to be living on the edge of chaos. You can’t actually plan anything with them and when you do, the chances of them turning up on time (or turning up at all) are about fifty-fifty. You are just as likely to get an apologetic call or text from them from another country or even another planet (the one they are on most of the time). Yet, despite this shocking disregard for proper procedure, holidays get booked, flights get caught and, at home, meals appear apparently with no organisation. They can enter a supermarket with no shopping list and leave with dinner for eight. Such people must be hard to assassinate, since their whereabouts are completely unpredictable. They manage to maintain that essential element of surprise, even to themselves.
Another friend with a healthy disregard for routine, a musician who has only the vaguest idea of what office workers do and even less curiosity; who would not be seen dead in a supermarket and who does not consider any aspect of the domestic carousel worthy of intelligent conversation, was utterly shocked when she discovered that we make a weekly evening meal plan, albeit on a scruffy sheet of notepaper in a feeble attempt to appear bohemian. We now have to hide it from her when she comes round. This list, though it does not go back as far as the Blitz, dates from the time when we both worked long hours and it seemed a practical way of ensuring that there was something in the fridge when we arrived home late.
So, the boxes into which we put the humdrum aspects of our lives are valuable, as long as we maintain that thing that writers like to call a hinterland. When next in the shower, you examine your life and find you have nothing left but routine, it is time to move house.