A second hand bookshop in Glasgow. How many books is too many books?
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You wouldn’t believe how much more objectionable I’d be if I wasn’t a socialist

That I have lived pretty much entirely self-sufficiently for six and a half years is a matter of some astonishment.

Someone comes round to look at the Hovel with a view to moving into the newly vacated room for six months. I am not wild about this, for it means more sharing of space, but it has to be done.

I reflect that I think about people in the same way I think about dogs: I despise them in theory and consider them, as the Semitic religions do, basically unclean; but once I meet them and I look into their large, liquid eyes, I cannot help but want to scratch them behind the ears and give them treats. They might make me come out in a rash and sneeze – and heaven help me if I stroke them and then rub my eyes – but damn it, there’s something adorable about them.

Is this a sound basis for my socialism, I wonder? I think it could be and it’s all the more sincere for being hard-won, against my ungenerous inclinations. I am reminded, by a roundabout process of association, of the response that Evelyn Waugh gave to Nancy Mitford (I think), who asked what the hell he was doing being a Catholic, as he was such a shit. His rather convincing reply went: you wouldn’t believe how much more of a shit I’d be if I wasn’t a Catholic.

Anyway, this person declined to take the room, giving the reason that the communal living areas were too messy. Considering that these communal areas comprise 1) a bathroom with lots of books in the bidet and bath, neither of which work; 2) a living room filled with books; 3) a kitchen, with lots of jars and bottles of stuff about the place, admittedly, but with only a well-mannered shelf of cookbooks (which, as a confident, self-sufficient cook, I never have to use); and 4) a terrace, an entirely book-free zone but, what with the weather and all that, not somewhere you’d want to hang out on right now, I only dimly understand the nature of the objection.

So I have been placed under orders, politely, to do something about this. Fair enough. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse. That I have lived pretty much entirely self-sufficiently for six and a half years without drowning in a sea of my own detritus and indolence, both physical and psychical, is a matter of some astonishment to people who have known me for a while and something of an astonishment to me, now that I come to think of it.

I think about this after coming back from a dinner with a friend who pities me from time to time and takes me to the restaurant Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden. I first met her not long after being kicked out by the wife and thought, when I clapped eyes on her, “Golly” – but our friendship has, thank goodness, proceeded along entirely platonic lines.

She’s also married and I realised pretty quickly that, even though I was by no means a choirboy when I was married, I have no desire at all to screw up anyone else’s arrangements. The discovery of a latent sense of morality in the autumn of one’s life was something I was unprepared for. I had assumed that leopards did not change their spots, after enduring many long and bitter lectures to this effect. Perhaps I’m not a leopard. Who knew?

My friend mentions that she knows many women roughly my age who are divorced and, to use a rather less weighted adjective than she does, keen to enter another relationship. I head her off at the pass before she can proceed. Even if I were on the market, I say (and I am most definitely not), the idea of entering a relationship with a divorcee would not appeal, on the grounds that such women are at least as set in their ways as I am – and my ways, laissez-faire in the extreme on the personal level, do not appeal to many these days.

I have learned that everyone, after a point, only likes things when they are done just so and any deviation is intolerable. I wonder how many marriages break up because one partner has decided that the other simply isn’t “doing things right”.

Also, there is that inbuilt dissatisfaction so many people cultivate. Marx’s prediction that one of the bad things about late capitalism would be “a contriving and ever calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites” suggests, to me, not only pointlessly craving the latest iPhone but being the kind of person who feels the need to redecorate a room whether it needs it or not. Why, in the end, bother?
 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.