Problem pages, Which? magazine subscriptions, best-of lists, tried and tested columns, other people’s life hacks: one can’t get out of bed for the constant flow of near dam-bursting advice that is washing at us from every corner. In a day an age when we are overwhelmed with choice it’s enormously tempting to stop thinking for yourself and to go with the consensus. It’s easy to allow yourself to be sucked in by the glitziest advertisement, blithely agree with the most slickly presented argument, fall in step behind the latest celebrity endorsed trend. ‘Because you’re worth it.’ ‘The best a man can get.’ ‘Just do it.’ ‘Lean in fifteen.’ Ok, ok! I’ll buy it, I’ll do it, I’ll eat it. I’m not saying ignore the big sell (or maybe I am), or to dismiss the film critics, restaurant reviewers, and TripAdvisor feedback, but personal sensibilities and discernments are as never ending and varied as we are.
I once knew someone whose favourite breakfast was milk-soaked Weetabix sprinkled with sugar then mixed to the consistency of wallpaper paste before being spread on toast. I’m pretty sure they’d not seen this recipe advertised. My gut’s reaction to his gourmet start to the day was unpleasant churning, but if that was his equivalent to Eggs Arnold Bennett, who am I to recoil? Not long ago, on two consecutive days, and with entirely different groups of people, I was privy to the same book being discussed. I’ve not read it, so this is not a recommendation, it’s simply an account. The book was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. In the first conversation it was pitched as the best thing that has ever been written in the English language, a masterpiece must-read, a phenomenal tour-de-force, etc., etc. Turn the page to the next day’s conversation and the same work was denigrated as a loathsome dirge, the reader asking, ‘how on earth did this ever get published?, and telling all present to run when they see it (away). Isn’t that great? How they can both be right? And so passionately right?
I love hearing people’s personal life-hacks, their experience-based advice, not because they are useful (sometimes they are) but more often because they are individual, quirky, and not at all transferable, but no less valid for that. Here are a few. When going on holidays always pack more pants than you think you’ll need. Don’t eat anything that is blue. Buying cheap toilet roll is, incontrovertibly, a false economy. Homemade soup tastes better on day two. If your new boyfriend/girlfriend has no sense of humour then, patently, you must cut your losses and get out now, no matter how good looking he or she is. Don’t overshare – save your big confessions for a priest, therapist or whoever ministers to you. You can never have too much kitchen roll. Phone your mother. Don’t waste the green man – if you are walking past a pedestrian crossing and it bleeps, cross, regardless of where you are going. An air freshener will never go down well as a gift. Replacing polenta for couscous in a cake recipe just won’t work.
Then there are piece of famous advice, wisdom passed down through the ages by the astute, those with insight and experience and the talent to express it. Gustave Flaubert, in Madam Bovary, wrote, ‘Never touch your idols, the gilding will stick to your fingers.’ I loved the line, believed it when I read it years ago. Lately, though, I’ve discovered it not to be true as I’ve penned letters to some of my idols only to be written back to – thus the object of my admiration living up to the ideal I bestowed upon then.
But let me finish with the wonderfully insightful Anna Burns and a line from her quiet, watchful, unnamed protagonist in Milkman, who makes the following observation: ‘People can be extraordinarily slipshod whenever already they have made up their minds.’ My final advice: keep an open mind on all advice.