cleaned out

It’s 06.54 in the morning. I’m barely awake, but the minute my eyes unstick, I throw aside the duvet and bound straight from the bedroom to the utility room, where if I’m really fast, I’ve a chance of getting to the washing machine before Mr Fixit has a chance put it on at 50 degrees, full cycle and enough revs to take off for the moon.

Some days, filled with daredevil insouciance, I’ll even take a chance on reducing it to 30, delicate and a vague laconic twirl, but this may elicit unfriendly fire over the breakfast table, further warping the minds of our children, who already think their parents only came together out of a shared commitment to refining the arts of  marital squabbling 

But support has now arrived from the unlikely direction of Unilever not traditionally the green housewife’s best friend. Big posters exhort us from bus shelters to turn our machines down to 30. If they say it’s okay, how can he demur? Of course, a temperature that works for powerful chemicals, refined over decades in the high-security laboratories of evil multinationals  may not necessarily do the trick with EcoVer, but if they come out smelling at least neutral, that’s enough for me.

MrFixit, on the other hand, likes things to smell of the Good Old Days: specifically, of Izal, Dettol and TCP  Not for him the heady aroma of Rainforest Fruit Fusion, which has so enraptured Dolly that she’s taken to smearing shampoo all over her skin, leaving her super-fragrant indoors, but inclined to froth in the rain.

Clean, however, is about more than smells. What is it, after all? It’s a very relative condition. In 1950s America it meant clingfilm over everything, and gushing showers three times a day. No doubt this was partly for symbolic, Cold War reasons to do with warding off the germs of Communism, but mostly because a lot of American immigrants had folk memories of muddy Central European villages left behind. Hot, gushing showers and crispy sheets were in the same category as a giant Frigidaire full of three times as much food as they could ever eat – not rationally necessary, but an emotionally vital reminder of why they left everything to get to the land of plenty.

Here, on the other hand, cleanness, like everything else, has always been class-based. Genteel lower-middle class housewives Airwick themselves apart from slatternly working class neighbours below, and down-at-heel, heedless aristos above. Even here though, dirt isn’t just dirt: there’s a world of subtle difference between old chips smeared on the carpet, and dog-hairs rubbed off on the chintz.

My mother’s household was dirty for a third reason, which I suppose I’d have to call pre-feminism. Her own mother’s demesne was scrubbed and perfect, her day devoted to keeping it that way. Her daughter, with her hard-won Cambridge degree, was damned if she was going to fall into that trap. She spent as little time as she possibly could on housekeeping activities, and if that meant scraping mould off the baked beans, or leaving the odd smear on a saucepan, it just proved she had better things to do. In fact, she made a point of only having two saucepans, to limit the washing up. If it meant using one twice, that’s what she did.

And her legacy? All three of us, her daughters, have startlingly effective  immune systems I find it hard to believe that this is pure coincidence.

Which is where I come back to the bleary-eyed rush for the washing machine. And indeed, to my furtive attempts to compensate for Mr Fixit’s excessive application of cleaning products in other areas of the house. Yes, that was me with the dustpan and brush and the four ounces of perfectly good walnuts. I wasn’t going to waste them, was I? Or rush out to the shop for more, in the middle of baking? You might. But you don’t live with somebody who buys special tweezers to weed the cactuses, and cleans the insides of keyholes with cotton buds 

At this point he asked me, in the interests of still being married tomorrow, to point out that his pleasure in a clean house also has a aesthetic dimension, and indeed that cleaning itself is, for him, an enjoyable act. Maybe there’s still too much of my mother’s terror of domestic subjugation in me, but personally I can’t wait for the magic Chinese washing machine that cleans everything by electrolytic rearrangement. By which I think they mean that if you shake your old football shorts around at a detailed enough level – say, molecule by molecule – you’ll be pretty much bound to dislodge the mud, grass and dog poo on the way.

Such a pity he’s just bought a million pound low-emission Miele. I’d better go and scatter a few crumbs to give him something to do when he gets home.