Piers Paul Read's Week

Spring Cleaning
Feb. 20 2002 3:10 PM

Piers Paul Read's Week

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There is a book called The Uses of Disorder, by Richard Sennett, which I read some years ago, but I cannot now remember what it was about. The title popped into my mind last week as I took advantage of the absence of my children to tidy up the house. My children are hardly children; the two youngest, who still live at home, are aged 20 and 22. One is at university at Manchester; the other, who graduated from Newcastle University last June, has gone off to Salamanca to learn Spanish. But neither are so old that they do not retain what one might called teenage characteristics: losing their keys, leaving kicked-off trainers lying around the house; dirty coffee cups in their bedrooms; never turning off lights or their stereo systems. Thus, as soon as they departed, I pounced and—respecting their sovereignty over their own rooms—ruthlessly threw out much of the clutter that had accumulated on the top two storeys of the house.

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My wife won a stay of execution for some stacks of old magazines, which, she said, would have some historical interest for the grandchildren. Remembering the pleasure I had taken in reading old copies of The New Yorker from the 1950s in my parents' home in Yorkshire—with the advertisements for fabulous Buicks and Hathaway shirts—I agreed. But it was the memory of clearing out that large house in the country, filled with clutter, that had driven me to try and reduce the clutter in our London home so that, on my death, everything would be neatly stacked, labelled, and catalogued on the hard drive of my computer. The most problematic items are those which cannot be categorised as clutter as such: pictures one dislikes but cannot sell because they have no market value yet are somehow too good to throw away—if just for the frames. And then there is one's "archive", by which I mean not just bank statements, income tax returns, and the letters one has kept over the years but, in the case of a writer, the manuscripts and research materials that have been wrapped up in brown paper and then stored away in boxes.

There was a time, of course, when, as an ambitious young writer, I thought that every post card or bus ticket should be kept for the benefit of one's future biographer. Now, reasonably confident that there will not be a biographer, I feel I can start to at least reduce the size of my archive. And with relish, but also slight regret, I threw out four boxes of research material for my book Ablaze: The Story of Chernobyl,which took greater labour and sold fewer copies than any book I have written, apart from my first experimental novel, Game in Heaven With Tussy Marx, and a nonfiction book on marriage that was never published. I found the MS of this as I was pruning my archive and put it aside to re-read and see if it was really as unpublishable as my British and American publishers thought at the time. To give them their due, their advice to abort was not just because they thought they would lose money; but was rather to save me from derision and contempt.

My view on marriage was described by a Jesuit from Notre Dame University, who read the manuscript, as "pre-Enlightenment". He meant this as an adverse criticism, and it was taken as such by the publishers. But I regarded it as something of a compliment: I suspect that the rot set in the vexed relationship between the sexes thanks to the egalitarianism of the French Encyclopaedists and their English equivalents, such as David Hume or John Stuart Mill. Do I wish that the book had been published? No, because it was a bad book. But I do not repent of my basic thesis, which was, more or less, that a woman's place is in the home. But that has now become an unacceptable thing to say. Unacceptable and also pointless because, in the developed world, no young couple can get by with one salary. Nor has the lesson yet been learned—though the evidence is there—that the liberation of women + the sexual revolution (which amounts to the same thing) has been bought with the misery of children. Britain now leads Europe, if not the world, in its rate of divorce and children born out of wedlock, with the consequent increase in drug-taking, delinquency, anorexia, and depression.

The working title for my book on marriage was Beauty and the Beast. I would now shift its emphasis and call it The Fall of Man, because it was the weakness of men—emotional and intellectual—that permitted the feminist ideology to flourish. Of course, men had much to gain from the feminist ethos—sex without commitment and a working wife. But it is shaming that the patriarchs, when there were still patriarchs, failed to see the damage that would be done to society by the destruction of traditional values when it came to marriage and family life. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, which so successfully misled a whole generation of women, won plaudits from leading male intellectuals. Even today—or, more precisely yesterday—a leader in The Times, edited by a man, congratulates Cosmopolitan on its 30th birthday—a glossy magazine that has surely done more to raise false expectations than any other, thereby poisoning the bond between women and men.

My old manuscript goes back into its box, and the box is piled on top of other boxes containing the debris of a lifetime's writing. I survey the house after my ruthless spring cleaning. There are no trainers kicked off on the floor; no dirty coffee cups; no broken down stereo-sets, no piles of old magazines. Every picture is square on the wall; every book straight on its shelf. The house suddenly seems like a Hyatt Regency Hotel. There is, I see, some use to disorder. I long for the children to return.