When I order a cup of tea in Costa, the barista says: ‘Perfect!’ I ask for tap water in a restaurant: ‘Perfect!’ I buy a card in Paperchase and at the till it’s: ‘Perfect!’ And: ‘Perfect!’ again as I put in my PIN. ‘Perfect!’ when I say I don’t need a bag. It used to be ‘Great!’ and even that was too ecstatic a response to a side-order of creamed spinach. Now, there’s been a service industry upgrade. No longer is the customer always right; they are perfect. A little thing, yes, but a symptom of a wider mania for perfection. Everything from breakfast muesli to career, home and family must be perfect. Perfect interiors. The perfect diet. A perfect body. Pretty, perky, perfect children in pressed pinafores and collared shirts.
It is driven in part by magazines — ‘Perfect profiteroles!’ ‘Perfect bikinis for every figure!’ — in part by social media. Not-quite-perfect photos are filtered and fiddled with until they are perfect enough for posting on Instagram as proof of an ideal life.
It can be pernicious. Friends are made miserable in the run-up to their weddings by bridal-shop shysters selling the myth of Your Perfect Day. Without these sugared almonds (£100), those white hydrangeas in cut crystal vases (£1,000), and that society photographer (price on application), the Happiest Day of Your Life will fall short of the perfect mark. And that, naturally, scuppers any hope of a Perfect Marriage. The bride is a gibbering wreck because she didn’t, in the end, buy a blue satin garter ribbon, and has therefore failed as the dream dress-up bride. The groom makes a toast to ‘my perfect, beautiful wife’, though all the guests know they’ve fought tooth and claw over the table plan since the engagement.
It doesn’t end there. Next is the Perfect Pregnancy inspired by earth-mother blogs and photographs of Sydney surfer girls who are out on their boards well into the third trimester. The mother-to-be asks herself why she isn’t serene and barefoot on a beach, but swaying on the train from High Wycombe to Marylebone in the rush hour.
Then, the Perfect Birth. She has practised her pregnancy yoga, her calming breaths. The birthing bath is blown up, the massage oils uncapped. She has read the California mom-and-baby sites that promise a pain-free, blissed-out birth and ‘bondedness’ with their breastfed baby.
Despair when it doesn’t go to plan. A friend was wretched when her ‘holistic’ birth (gentle stretching, deep-breathing, lavender pillows) ended in an emergency Caesarean. ‘But I wanted it to be perfect,’ she said a week later, sleep-deprived and stitched-up. No matter that the baby came out in one piece — the experience wasn’t as the blogs had said. If only someone had told her: ‘Brace yourself.’ That would have been kinder than selling her a pseudo-science fairy-tale. If only someone had said: ‘It’ll be awful, but you’ll have a nice baby at the end of it.’ Notice I say a nice baby, not a
As a recovering addict of American hospital telly dramas, I have seen 100 traumatic, cliffhanging births that end with the doctor laying the baby — whose life looked so fragile just before the ad break — in the arms of his mother with the words: ‘He’s perfect.’ He isn’t, of course. No child could be. He’ll be colicky and fussy, he’ll make unsuitable friends, play truant, leave his socks on the stairs, and be maddening, loveable, impossible and joyous in equal measure. Not perfect, though. Don’t start them on the perfect rot before they’ve even started teething.
‘Perfect’ used to be a mark of moral or spiritual virtue. God was perfect; we did our best. It applied to noble sentiments: a deep affection and loyalty to one’s King, Queen, Church and Country as in ‘I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above/ Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.’ Now it’s been degraded to apply to Victoria sponges on The Great British Bake Off – ‘that’s a perfect bake’ — and to the perfect froth on top of a latte.
I’ve just re-read H.E. Bates’s The Darling Buds of May and been reminded of Pop Larkin’s ‘Perfick!’ His is not a prim, aesthetic, photogenic perfection, but a pleasing, ramshackle one. Perfick is blue skies and sunburnt necks, scrap piled in the farmyard and a glimpse of Ma’s plump calves as she stirs apple sauce on the stove. Perfick is tomato ketchup with absolutely everything. A sunny day’s good enough for the likes of him.
Pop’s version of Perfick is liberating after the restrictive, neurotic perfection of clean and curated lifestyles. Keep ‘perfect’ for the big stuff; ‘good enough’ will do for the rest.