Dashing Away with a Smoothing Iron

Posted by Jeni in | 14 March 2021

Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk at Komyoji Temple in Tokyo says, a clean house leads to a clean mind. 373 years earlier Sir Francis Bacon wrote 'In Advancement of Learning' that 'Cleanness of body was ever esteemed to proceed from a due reverence to God, to society, and to ourselves'. Since my mother thought that cleanliness was next to Godliness she scrubbed the hall weekly, and the Ewbank carpet sweeper was brought out before 'company' came.

Quentin Crisp's take on dust, "There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse, has been a boon for the grubby.

Us female women have been inundated with advice on our gender and housework; "it gets in the way of creativity" and, "it is a great springboard for creativity". If your house is clean then you must be the dullest woman alive and, if your house is shiny then you will find time to write five shiny novels. Carol Shields wrote all her best selling books in between keeping her crib clean and putting her five children to bed. When one of my college friends visited me in my home she was flabbergasted that I did the washing, folded the washing, ironed the washing and then put it in piles to be put away. She had never credited me with anything domestic. "After all," she would say, "when do you ever see great women vacuuming?" She has a point; I cannot imagine Boudica, brush and pan in hand, sweeping round the chariots.

When I was famously busy I had cleaners and gardeners, I had Francis and Kenny who walked the dog and fried chips for the dawter. I had Ms O'kay who polished round the u-bend and shined the silver goblets. Now, what with Covid and age - a powerful combination - the phone not only does not ring but the funds that used to pay for a gardener and cleaner now go on necessities like food, electricity and the fucking council tax.

Ironing, however, serves many functions; you use up more calories pressing your necessaries than doing any other household task; ironing also serves as the perfect rhythmic backdrop to creative thinking. Repetitive rhythmic movements enable thoughts to come and go. Many a writer talks about having their greatest ideas over an ironing board. Although washing dishes does come in a close second.

As I come from a family of Russian immigrants plastic washing up bowls were never part of the kitchen inventory. Plates and cutlery, pots and pans were, and are, always scrubbed under hot running water. Nobody understands why I like washing up - it gives me space and time away from everyone else. My mother used her washing up time to clear her head and prepare herself for the next onslaught. I put on thick rubber gloves and turn the tap on until the water is steaming hot. The pleasure of instant gratification; what once was dirty is now clean, is a ritual I never get tired of. The dish washer is only used when there's more than four of us, which means at the moment it is redundant. Since there is now no disposable income housework falls onto my shoulders. It's not that the old git won't help; it's just that he can't, he has man eyes. He does not see what I see when I bend over in the bathroom. He does not care what's under the settee or behind the pressure cooker. He has no interest in polishing the heads of the buddhas on the mantle piece nor does he care that the rungs of the rocking chair are covered in dust. Like Quentin Crisp - who by the way hangs around the cottage since he modelled at St. Albans art school in the 60s when my brother drew him in his pouch -that's Quentin not my brother - Mr. Crisp is framed on the way to the attic, so the 'oosbind is in good company. What the eye doesn't see the heart cannot grieve over. It's not that the old git is slovenly it's just that he has MUCH better things to do like decanting his gin or sharpening his axe.

Since it's springtime in a minute I'm having my bi-annual clean. DVD's are boxed away, books are passed on and the settee is pulled forward. This year, hidden in the cobwebs behind the three seater were two trays, two duvets wrapped up in bags ( for remote recording sessions) a reflexology standing board, a Gym stick, a yoga mat and bolster pillow, a contraption for attaching to the door so that sit-ups can be practiced solo and a Canadian quilt made 33 years ago for the dawter by Soryl, a phenomenal Canadian quilt maker. The quilt went into the wash, everything was redistributed round the house and hidden in the dust was a dead shrew, as stiff as a board. The man of the house chucked it into the bin without the tiniest of complaints. The room now feels bigger and brighter and has space to be filled up with more detritus till next year.

All our laundry is done downstairs in the cellar. The washing machine, tumble drier, freezer, micro wave and ironing board sit on offcuts from the bathroom carpet. So it's all ad-hoc flooring but comfortable. The first time I asked to do the ironing as a teenager I was given tea towels to tackle. Looking at my deliciously long, painted finger nails as I smoothed out the dish cloths, my mother accused me of being like Aunty Becky. My great aunt had perfectly manicured nails, was unmarried on account of sharing her passions with a married geezer called Mr. White, had the freedom of being unfettered, uncluttered and untidy. My mother was jealous of Becky's unadulterated adultery. I had grown my nails as a protest, having always kept them short for my piano playing, I now grew them and painted them a lurid silvery pink. It was bliss giving a lacquered middle finger.

Ironing now is contemplative. The radio comes on automatically when I turn the iron on - they share an adapter - and the routine is thus; socks are paired and thrown into an empty washing basket. Under crackers are separated and ironed and placed neatly on the socks. I know ironing underwear is frowned upon for time wasting but my Nan and my mother both pressed their high waisted briefs and his Y-fronts. 'Keeps the bugs away," they would say. A very heavy flat iron, heated over a gas flame, was picked up using a small pad, then the very heavy, searingly hot iron was navigated around the garments.

Shirts are left till last. Ironing, like preparing Brussel sprouts, is learnt at your mother's knee by osmosis. First the collar, then the sleeves, then the cuffs, then the right hand side buttons on the inside, then the left hand side seams on the inside, then the back and then, pulling the top of the shirt over the end of the ironing board, the two shoulder panels. My 'oosbind couldn't care less whether the final pressing is creased or not; my father, on the other hand, insisted that his shirts were pristine, one crinkle in the collar resulted in a back hander.

We've come a long way, although some would say not for enough, with our housewifery. I only do what I want to do when I want to do it. Nobody demands that I starch their sheets or boil their flannels. I am my own taskmistress. So, as women demand their right to walk safely though public thoroughfares, sit safely on night time buses and run gaily through parks I assert that it's a woman's right to steam her thongs should she want to.....

Jeni Barnett tells of her scrumptious time at Good Food Live in her first audiobook! Download NOW from iTunes


1. At March 23, 2021 2:15 PM Lyn Misselbrook wrote:

Quentin knew whereof he spake ...

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