Lucy Mangan

"Control freaks get a bad press”

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They say you never really know another person’s heart. Nonsense. I know loads, and none more so than my best friend’s. After all, we’ve known each other since the first day of secondary school. I have been by her side through its many iterations as she has been by mine. I know what proportion was devoted to Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue, Ziggy from Grange Hill and later Jeremy Paxman. I know her politics, her attitude to accessorising, vegetarians and babies (enthusiastic, distrustful and doubly distrustful respectively) and her guilty secret preference for one of her cats. But I didn’t realise, until we went out to eat last night, just how deep one of the many elements that go to make up the magic that is Emma runs.

“The sharing platter looks nice,” she said, handing back the menu to the waitress. “I’ll have it for one.”

“Sorry?” said the waitress, whose confused expression mirrored my own.

“I don’t like to share,” Emma explained. “I want it for one.”

It has taken me 20-odd years to realise the depths of my friend’s control freakery. Yes, she always chooses where we go and what we do together. But someone’s got to, right? Yes, her clothes are always ironed and arranged neatly while mine go from washing machine to chair-in-the-bedroom to back onto my back without ever troubling my stock of hangers. But hers is sartorial best practice and one I have always sought – futilely – to emulate without really appreciating what it betokened.

It’s understandable if she had been keeping the full extent of her natural inclinations under wraps, because control freaks get a bad press. It’s a derogatory term that manages to pack more unhappy connotations into its three syllables than almost any other label – of unspontaneity, uncreativity, narrow-mindedness, inflexibility and an inability to compromise. They may all be true. But have you seen how much control freaks get done?

As a representative from the other side, let me offer some alternative definitions of the qualities implicitly lauded by those who seek to criticise the control freak.

Control freaks need someone to remind them how they will have to live if they cease their endeavours

Do you know what spontaneous really means? Hopeless unreliability. Hours of waiting, broken or forgotten arrangements occasionally but only partially compensated for, by brilliant, intuitively chosen presents. Creativity means more of the same but with the occasional need to rally round to avert bankruptcy and prosecution because the Creative has not managed to deal with her tax affairs for the last six years.

Inflexibility and an inability to compromise in my experience usually arises from the fact that, unlike me, they have actually put some active thought and effort into whatever decision-making process is before them, discarded lesser options and identified the best.

When I look around me, I realise that I am surrounded by control freaks. My mother is one. Her household has always run like clockwork. Yes, she did now and again take things too far when we were young – my sister and I were never allowed a drink with soup, for instance, on the grounds that ‘soup’s a drink AND a meal’ and spent much of our childhoods dangerously dehydrated. But the important thing is that we had security, certainty and knew where the Sellotape was at all times. Any children I have I can only envisage standing helplessly in the middle of the room wondering whether they can make their own nappies out of old copies of the Guardian. My sister follows in her footsteps, packing more into a day than I manage in a week, I’ve married one and Emma is the head of an unexpectedly large swathe of my friends who share her temperament.

Why? Because people like me need them. The world needs them. If they ever did discover their inner slobs, we and it would grind to a halt.

But I do like to think that they need us too. We are the cushioning. Control freaks need someone to do as they say. I’m it. They need someone to marshal. Please marshal me. They need someone to remind them what will happen, how they will have to live, if they cease their endeavours (Come! See my coffee mould collection!) and provide direction for their efforts. Control freaks of the world, I salute you.

Contact Lucy Mangan at and on

Image credits: Rex Features and Colin Bell