Essex

Maldon mess

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

(‘Delight in Disorder’ – Robert Herrick)

As a person of messy mind and habitat, I’ve enjoyed reading Tim Harford’s book Messy recently. The book’s subtitle is How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, and Harford examines a range of topics, including creativity, workplaces and government targets, to demonstrate that excessive order is the enemy of art, productivity and wellbeing. Of course, the argument is more nuanced than my summary: a degree of organisation is necessary for any enterprise, individual or collective. It’s the imposition of regimentation, of tidiness, for its own sake, that riles Harford – and me. (There are several posts on messiness on Harford’s blog. This one, on having a disorderly desk, serves as a good introduction to the book.)

Reading Messy led me to recall this boatyard I passed earlier in the year on the quay in Maldon, by the Blackwater River. There is nothing picturesque about it; in fact, it’s a mess. This clutter of stuff – timber, shipping container, rope, wheelbarrow, workbench, winding wheels, indistinct object covered in plastic sheeting – has no apparent arrangement or system. No doubt though, it is perfectly practical for the boatyard owner and that is the point of it. For me, however, there is a kind of aesthetic allure to a place like this. The jumble of elements is far more appealing and attractive than a neatly ordered boatyard would be. That none of its components is arranged or obvious in function is part of the pleasure. What lies under that blue sheeting? What does that container hold? Are those winding wheels used for anything? The aesthetic appeal shades into other pleasures, primarily those of mystery and discovery.

It’s that same sense of wonder and excitement I feel when I enter a ramshackle second-hand bookshop or cluttered junk shop, both experiences increasingly rare in this age of the on-line bazaar. The digital simulacra of AbeBooks or eBay lack the magic of their analogue ancestors.

Harford touches only obliquely on the aesthetics of mess in his book. His focus is on the utility of untidy thinking and working. My aesthetic pleasure in the kind of mess I found in Maldon need have no further object: mess for art’s sake. But of course aesthetic enjoyment can itself be a spur to creativity. There is delight in disorder as Robert Herrick knew; For the fortunate, consummation and even procreation may ensue. Herrick’s delight is erotic, but it’s prompted by that same desire for a little more untidiness in our world and our relations with others.