Having a routine is apparently what will get us through lockdown, and the Beeb has come up with some entertaining clips to persuade us of this, including Alan Partridge setting out his schedule for a day of viewing Bond films.
Well, they’re preaching to the converted here. I’m an ardent fan of routines and always have been, even when I was a student. My tutor was greatly surprised to find that underneath the Moroccan djellaba was not some stoner who never rose before noon, but one who (once she’d discovered how much you were expected to know to pass your first year exams) made it into the library by nine each day. This was in fact a pleasant routine, since the study was punctuated at regular intervals with trips to the cafeteria for cups of tea and an orange Club biscuit mid-morning and afternoon, and more tea, a sponge pudding and a No. 6 for lunch. (I must have had the constitution of an ox.)
My fear of ending up as Woman in a Dressing Gown made me cling even more fiercely to routine once the children came along. Only once I’m showered, dressed and mascara-ed (just so people can see where my eyes are) can I really function. It’s no accident that the stuff of bad dreams, if not actual nightmares, is finding yourself wandering around unwashed in an evil assortment of garments while all around you are people expecting things of you.
My view, perhaps counterintuitive, is that there is something wonderfully liberating about routines. Far from being a straitjacket that confines you, they set you free. Once you are rolling along in the grooves of a well-oiled routine, you don’t have to think about what comes next. Your mind can wander off down all sorts of highways and byways, from pondering the minutiae of scientific questions such as the mobility of the coronavirus: if I kneel down in the supermarket to fossick for some flour, will the germs that might cling to the knees of my trousers migrate to the seat of my pants and thence to the sofa if I sit on it in the next 72 hours? Or should I have changed my trousers the second I came home and washed them immediately, as our Italian cousins have been advised to do? Alternatively, you can just drift off into a favourite reverie, such as my Oscar acceptance speech … In the meantime, everything you need to do is getting done.
The downside is that it’s very hard to introduce anything new into a well-established routine. (I think it’s called being set in one’s ways.) This is why it takes me months to get round to handwashing jumpers. It’s not something I need to do every week so it just doesn’t happen. Then the jumpers get eaten by moths – because I’ve never managed to incorporate into my routine moving all the furniture into the centre of the room and hoovering the skirting boards at regular intervals.
Last week it occurred to me that staying at home might open up opportunities for adding some improving activities to my routine: triceps dips on the stairs, rediscovering long-forgotten CDs, and reading a page a day of an art book. The scores so far? Triceps dips: 0, CDs listened to: 1.5, pages of art books read: 0.
But I’ll let Charlotte Bronte have the last word on the benefits of routine. She knew all too well what sort of lifetime lockdown awaited the unmarried daughter of slender means. This is how Eliza Reed in Jane Eyre gives meaning to her existence: ‘Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour , ten minutes, five minutes – include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun…’