Now, I must be honest with you and confess that there is usually absolutely nothing in the world I like more than a bit of form-filling.
All those boxes to be ticked, A, B or C options to be chosen… It reminds me of the first sensations of satisfaction at a job well done, gleaned in early maths classes, before teachers started asking you to do bizarre things such as find the area under a graph or care about how many degrees the internal angles of a triangle add up to.
But now I am facing the census form, and for one thing it's not a form, it's a book; and for another there is an emotional or existential crisis on every page.
The first few pages starkly reveal the utterly pedestrian nature of my life. Born in Britain, raised in Britain, no, I haven't left Britain in the past year. Cut me and I bleed soggy sprouts. I have a husband, not a same-sex civil partner, and a terrace house and no step-anythings.
But I prefer these to the guilt-inducements. Do I look after, or give any help or support to, family members, friends or neighbours, or do anything at all that would demonstrate that I give a mouse-sized shit about anyone outside the address on the front of this form? No, I do not. There is a tick box that allows for 50 hours or more of care a week. This is clearly more than an information-gathering exercise. It is a subtle manipulative tool being deployed by the government to soften us up for the Big Society once the cuts start kicking in in April.
And I prefer those questions to the ones that send your mind hurtling off down a thousand philosophical cul-de-sacs. "How many of these rooms are bedrooms? Include all rooms built or converted for use as bedrooms even if they are not currently used as bedrooms." How can one tell? All over the land there must be borderline cases. How far back should one go? Is there an essence of bedroom beyond the presence of a bed in it? Is it an innate or transitive property? How long would a bed have to stay in a dining room, say, before it could truly be said to take on the dormitory mantle?
The question about religion is voluntary, but precipitates an avalanche of self-interrogation nevertheless. I was baptised and am permanently crippled by a nameless but all-pervasive guilt that can never be fully assuaged, so I am technically Catholic. But I don't believe in God. And yet I feel bad – and, frankly, more than a little apprehensive – about ticking the "No Religion" box. Where does that leave me? CofE?
Question 17 says, "This question is intentionally left blank." That's not a question. And it's not blank. This is the kind of thing that could undo lesser minds.
It must have been easier in days gone by. I bet the Victorian one required just the basics from the household paterfamilias. "How many scullery maids have you impregnated this year?" "What did you think of the death of Little Nell?" and "What is the best thing about being Top Nation? Sewers/kedgeree/the ability to impregnate scullery maids with impunity?" Even into the postwar era it must have been a doddle: "Are you a good chap? Yes/No"; "Sensible wife and number of bedrooms? Yes/No"; "Having a nice tea tonight? Yes/Yes". "Jolly good, sorry to intrude. As you were."
Now they – They – have to know our employers' addresses, our visitors' details and leave non-blank non-questions to mess with our heads. I don't know how this helps anyone – unless the Americans, who I gather are now entitled under the US Patriot Act to any information gathered, have plans to formalise current ad hoc arrangements and turn Britain officially into its petting zoo and so need to know where to find us all when the corralling starts. Hmm. Maybe it would be wise to leave a few answers intentionally blank, too.
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