Friday, April 01, 2011


Thinking about perfection and imperfection with regards to the copy of my book that came the other day, I remembered this piece I had in The Times some years ago:

The idea of perfection

Reading the Orange Prize winner The Idea of Perfection has made me consider the thorniness of liking things just so. I loved the book, but in my Picador edition there were no quotation marks used to enclose the direct speech. And I hated that.

Popular culture abounds with characters with fine discrimination, or obsessive pickiness, depending on your point of view. Remember Meg Ryan as Sally in When Harry Met Sally? “I’d like apple pie a la mode. But I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top I want it on the side. And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.” You could say she was picky.

But if there were a team event for pickiness in the Olympics, my family would get the Gold medal, every time. At fifteen my brother was ironing his own shirts, because my mother didn’t do it well enough. Now if you wash up for him he will tell you to turn the teaspoons upside down on the draining board so that they drain efficiently. I am picky about everything. So picky that last time I had breakfast in bed, my husband - who can never remember precisely what I like, but who wanted me to enjoy the treat - brought me three different mugs for my tea, three spreads, and three different types of jam. My father, a Grand Master of pickiness, will spurn every kipper that isn’t from Craster. But if you send him one from that blessed haven you give him exquisite pleasure, and he will be sweet for days.

At least you can be sure of giving great pleasure to high maintenance types if you make the effort and get it right. Those people who say “I’m easy,” or “I don’t mind,” can be impossible to please. How can you possibly know how to delight those colourless children who come round to tea, and who “don’t mind” whether they have fish fingers or pizza or baked beans on toast?

Pickiness becomes truly unbearable, though, when it extends to a delusion that other people want to know your opinion about everything on every occasion even when you haven’t been asked. This week I am dreading my father coming to stay, and casting his critical eye over my treasured garden, because I know he will make derogatory comments about how I have pruned the blackcurrants or let blackspot infest my roses. When someone picks at an expression of your creativity, that’s when it hurts the most.

So if someone actually asks your opinion about something which they care deeply, and in which you can see an imperfection, what do you tell them ? If they have just spent three months stitching a tapestry and they ask you if you think that it matters that they ran out of blue and had to use another dye lot and can you see the difference, and does it matter ? If you can, and it does, what do you say?

When planting our new garden my husband asked exactly where I wanted him to place the silver birch tree, so I marked the spot in the ground with a stick. “We work to fine tolerances here,” he said. When I viewed the tree later from the kitchen, I thought it was nine inches too far to the right, but I bit my tongue and said nothing. I was rewarded for this uncharacteristic forbearance when in the evening he looked through the window and decided that the tree needed moving, about nine inches to the left. Such miracles are rare.

I know I’m difficult. But being the picker can be just as uncomfortable as being the pickee. It is not easy when someone you love has just sanded and varnished a wooden floor for you, and every time you sit down on the sofa you notice a white paint stain (he missed) under the varnish.

I do find it helps to remind myself that in some cultures craftsmen deliberately include a mistake in their work, because only God can create things perfect. It also helps to read the motto my husband gave me “Perfection is our aim. We must learn to tolerate excellence.”

© Sue Hepworth/Times Newspapers 2011


lyn said...

I'm afraid I'm one of those annoying people who say "I'll have anything". I also sometimes become paralysed by choice so usually end up with a glass of water in restaurants because I can't decide what to drink. I'm decisive in other areas of life (just as well, or I'd never get out of the house in the morning) but when someone is waiting for a decision, I go blank. I'll have to try harder.

Sue Hepworth said...

No, don't try harder! The world needs amenable people like you and my big sister Kath.

Diane said...

Oh, I'm a picker by nature (trying to loosen up) and you're right, it can be torture. I like to think that it has an advantage, that being not intolerant of imperfection makes me a better writer... but no doubt it also makes me a slower one. ;)

Sue Hepworth said...

I do think it makes you a better writer, Diane - not being willing to settle for less than your very best - keeping going until you feel comfortable with a piece. And then there is that quote about Oscar Wilde who said he spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.

Diane said...

Ha, oh yes, I relate to that. With me it's more likely to be an "and" or "but", but I've done it with a comma, too.