He broke as many plates as he took a mop to, chipped most cups he encountered – but it was the pots and pans than really insulted his masculinity. Even the toughest of them had their surfaces scraped, leaving grooves in the non-stick or copper bottoms. No glassware was safe in his company. I blamed his mother, who was Greek. Even now, a crack in a mug will remind me of him.
That was around 1969; the next year I joined a Woman’s Lib group, who talked a lot about Equality and the Division of Labour in the Home and seemed to hate their husbands and brothers. They weren’t remotely interested in domestic dramas like mine, which now featured a flatmate who smoked in bed and nearly burnt the place down. She was also an aspiring anorexic who shrank from handling items in the sink, because they reminded her that she’d actually eaten something… My membership didn’t last long; for me, men were never the Enemy, which was just as well, because much further down the road, I had two teenage sons, who seemed to think that washing-up was for wimps….
But someone has to do it – or at least one of the cardinal Nursery Rules – clean up after yourself – is broken. I know a landlady who shares the use of her kitchen with her lodgers. One of them, a Japanese student, she’s about to evict, because ‘he never washes his wok!’
It’s a bit of a chore, it’s true. If you’re one of a dying breed, the human dishwasher – there are only so many ways round a plastic bowl. Unless you believe my latest arrival from Amazon, a book about doing the housework, differently….
Washing-up, it seems, is not just a means to an end – a few clean utensils ready for the next eating experience, but a medium – a way of being more ‘fully present’ in everyday activity. For someone of an incurably digressive disposition, this is a challenge – but the current pile of dirty dishes has been sitting in the sink long enough, waiting to be wiped and sponged or scrubbed, then left to dry in peace. It’s a Sink with a View of the garden, too. Perfectly suited to the Mindful Method.
So – take a few moments to appreciate….the chutzpah of the insect that’s just crawled out of the plug-hole and the wonder of water that sends it down the drain again. The water that comes from a tap, not a bucket in the yard, lugged by a scullery maid, hands red and raw, in the days before Marigolds, ‘mild green Fairy liquid’ – and the marvels of indoor plumbing….
As the water reaches a Goldilocks temperature, feel its flow through your fingers. Then squirt something eco-friendly into the bowl – slowly – and enjoy the bubbles while they last. Now pay attention to the plates and receptacles themselves – successors to the shells that first helped us eat – their shape and weight…
There was once an English author and Eccentric called Quentin Crisp, who’d have laughed all this to scorn. Housekeeping was quite incompatible with a Life of Style; it was also a waste of time, because ‘after four years, the dirt didn’t get any worse.’ As for washing-up, it was only to be contemplated ‘after fish’.
I don’t know what he’d have made of a dear friend of mine, once a priest in Australia, which doesn’t have anything to do with the new toy in his kitchen, or just might. A state-of-the-art dishwasher, which he delights in, especially its digital displays and ‘soil sensor’, which can adjust a cycle in progress, automatically.
A machine can offer what a mop never can – like a measure of detachment and lots of control/complication opportunities – and a tedium all its own. The trays and racks still have to be loaded in a recommended order, then unloaded, things to be put back where they belong – another Rule. But to him, ‘it’s all good clean fun!’ ‘A liberation’, even.
He doesn’t talk much about the past, so in some ways the man’s a mystery to me – but he’s a devout cook, who seems to have made his own ritual of an age-old – cave-to-kitchen – routine, and anyone can see the Style in that….
A faded tea-cloth still hangs on a hook, printed with a calendar for 1983. One of a collection, the others neatly folded in a drawer.