The next post will be on or before Wednesday May 10th
CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS
My shy and very gentle father Ian Murray (1915-1992) worked at the massive Bata shoe factory just outside Maryport, West Cumbria from 1948 to 1979 and in those 30 odd years cycling the 2 miles there and back (we never had a car) he clocked up about 30,000 miles or 2 and a half times the distance between Maryport and Melbourne, Australia, where one of my brothers has lived since 1966. He cycled there in all weathers and if he did morning shifts would be up at 5 in the pitch dark, and I often wonder what the hell he thought about on those thousands of miles of monotonous cycle rides (I suspect his 3 allotments and his darling hens). Because he did alternating shift work, that meant he was available as all-purpose domestic assistant to my overworked mother for all the mornings of one week, and for the afternoons of those following. My redoubtable mother Mollie Murray nee Renney (1915-1990) ran a guest house and if I was away at college as I was 1969-1973, that meant there were potentially 6 available bedrooms and anything up to 10 guests. Their beds needed changing every day and the rooms swept and the laundry done, and the only assistant was my Dad who did it willingly enough though not let it be stressed of his own unfettered volition. In a shamelessly patriarchal age my mother always wore the trousers and not in a shy or coy or devious way but blatantly and spectacularly so.
Thus, if ever I needed permission and/or money to do anything as a kid e.g. go on the bus to the annual Maryport fair, it was a waste of time asking my Dad who would simply refer me to my Mum as the fount of all authority. Her own Dad had been a chill and at times terrifying man, so it had obviously occurred to her to seek out the mildest and most bashful man in the world, in the form of the farmer’s son who thanks to his Dad’s improvidence, subsequently became a farm labourer, and last of all a factory hand. Once she found herself with 4 strapping sons (of which I am the youngest) she was one woman among 5 males and so she promptly decided she needed to exert herself even more against the fickle and treacherous and laughably childish gender. In the case of her boys, interestingly enough, she never expected any of us to do any household chores of any kind, and as we all ended up doing degrees and all save I took up posh jobs, the idea must have seemed ever more remote. Meanwhile my Dad was the one who would help her with changing the beds and shaking the mattresses and possibly, and I never understood why, moving the beds between different rooms (maybe she felt they needed a change of air as much as she did) and he was also deputised to do some cleaning though never to her satisfaction. She objected with remarkable vehemence to the fact he slyly skirted the essential matter of poking into the edges and corners when he was hoovering, which of course needs the substitution of one of those attachment things that either looks like a puppet’s head or a slanting and bladeless plastic razor.
What she would do then would be to rant at him with ever increasing fury and start a kind of ascendant opera aria about his pitiful fecklessness, which also extended to his inadequate washing up where the grease stains were still dazzlingly visible to all but him after he had been daydreaming at the sink. Fascinatingly enough, the only time I have seen anything similar to this marital haranguing is here in Kythnos where Marianna of the Glaros, a café now in crisis as I have recently described, would turn upon her husband Panos for his shortcomings when it came to ancillary support of the family business. Every day she would send him off 2 or 3 times on his motorbike to get café supplies from the supermarkets and every time he would have got it dramatically wrong according to her and brought back either something she didn’t want or that was ludicrously overpriced. Panos is a very hard man, a fanatical bodybuilder, and if anyone but Marianna had ranted at him in public he would have turned them inside out and suspended them from a lamp post. But he simply bowed his large majestic head with infinite meekness and gave in to the boss with the identical servility that I had seen in my father in distant Cumbria 40 or 50 years ago.
Never having been expected to attempt any housework, my infantilism was expertly encouraged at Oxford where it was pampered single sex colleges in the 60s and 70s, and where in the first 2 years you were provided with a servant known as a scout who first of all woke you and then came back to clean your rooms and wash your pots. They were neither Boy nor Girl Scouts but men in their late 40s and older, and the women had to be at least 60 plus and decidedly uncomely lest the undergraduates took an erotic fancy to them and then Lord knows where the class divide would have fissured and ruptured. In the first year my scout was called Minnie, a cantankerous old Irishwoman from Co Offaly who would get drunk on occasions and bawl and sing in the quadrangle, usually ending in an incensed rant at the chap who was Domestic Bursar, a retired naval officer as it happened with a severe limp and a chronic history of nervous breakdowns, possibly occasioned by war trauma. Minnie muttering away to herself would wash my dishes and cups and hoover round, though as one of the minority of provincial grammar school lads and obviously not a toff, she took to my strong Cumbrian accent and confided all sorts to me, in particular her venomous slander about her enemy the Bursar who she always called They Had Me Feckin Real…whereas he was in fact a retired lieutenant.
Thus it was that when, aged 22, I took my first rented premises, a 3rd floor bedsit in Warnborough Road, North Oxford, owned by a florid and singsong Welshwoman with a huge mole who was called Daisy, and who always had her senile and behatted Mum in tow, I had absolutely nil experience of cleaning nor washing up nor any other kind of basic, advanced or intermediate housework. I spent a year in that bedsit and I liked it very much and regularly had guests staying overnight, including married friends from London who happily dossed on the floor, an item which I cannot remember ever cleaning. I have a flawless memory as a rule but I have no recall whatever of my sweeping the place much less hoovering it, nor in those glorious pre-Trip Advisor days, have I any hurtful memories of carping complaints from any of my friends. There was a communal and ancient hoover for the 6 rooms, but though it made plenty of noise and would seem to have been sucking rather than blowing, it failed to make any impression on the fluff and grit but rather sent it on a gleeful cross country run. There must have been a brush and pan but I cannot visualise it, not as vividly as I can the only cooking facility which was a kind of night watchman’s gas ring which could take a single pan and in which now and again I would warm up a Vesta curry in a bag and then swiftly wish I hadn’t. Bizarrely I was quite wealthy in that last year at Oxford, as I had been left a lordly inheritance of £1000, so that I tended to eat out a great deal and also to get frequent Chinese carry outs, invariably the same thing, sweet and sour pork with rice at 38 pence in 1973, a sum which these days wouldn’t even buy you a Mars Bar or a Crunchie.
Anyone who did Physics at school will recall the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems including Mother Nature tend towards maximum randomness or shall we say maximum diffuseness or shall we say more aptly that everything everywhere is always breaking down and going happily to pieces rather than soldiering on uptightly to make itself cohere and to make sense. Needless to add I love the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and I also love the single word that describes its inner aka teleological goal. The word is Entropy and all systems, God bless them, are seeking Maximum Entropy as indeed I myself am for much of the time. When I sunbathe on Martinakia beach, I find myself tending to a maximum benign diffuseness, just as when I listen to Handel’s opera Tamburlaine or to jazzman John Abercrombie finding a depth of entropic tenderness in his guitar playing which on paper should be quite impossible as the coefficients at stake are clearly of the infinite kind. Other folk go on Advanced Meditation Courses that cost a bloody fortune, but I find deep entropic relaxation in beautiful music or idling on a deserted beach or alternatively for the price of 2 euros I can consume a Fix beer outside the Paradisos café and find myself wonderfully hanging loose, waxing entropic and entirely without a care in the effing world.
So what has this, you might reasonably wonder, got to do with housework and especially the crucial business of cleaning? The answer is that a System known as a House/ Flat/ Bedsit is as subject to the Law of Entropy as you or I or Donald Trump (especially him and his ever-tweeting and needlesharp brain) or anything else. You might not like the fact, but your kitchen and dining room definitely have souls of a kind (call it an ITD, an inner teleological drift if you are an atheist) and their souls love to tend in the direction of randomness, clutteredness, dustiness. It is not I hasten to add that I am urging you stop of all cleaning and sweeping in submission to a greater force than yourself, namely Nature, namely also The Law of Entropy, but that you strive to get the thing in a human and above all an adult perspective. In my time, I have met people who not just keep their house immaculate, but turn into fiends and fanatics and bit players in a decidedly humourless farce, if we are to keep up the alliteration. One couple I knew were so proud of their new and costly carpet that when visitors came round they were given special slippers so as not to besmirch the virgin idol. You can imagine how relaxing their dinner parties were when if you also leant your head against their gorgeous new sofa, one or both of them would shriek at you to withdraw it in case you transferred notional grease upon it (I promise you that I have always regularly washed my hair, and have never ever, not even when drunk, worn hair gel). Likewise one of the funniest things in that fine and entertaining radio drama Under Milkwood (1954) by boozing Celtic poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) is the lunatic of a houseproud widow, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, who actually resents the treacherous sunshine stealing into her guest house, and thus both showing up any possible nefarious dust and also, as she perceives it, producing the same thing ex nihilo in the form of those floating motes we have all observed in our idle moments. More to the point like something out of Beckett or the French Absurdists, the zealous widow refuses to take any guests into her empty guest house as they would make the place so noxiously dirty.
So then, there are 3 crucial reference points when it comes to domestic cleanliness. There is the Immaculate House (and while we’re at it, the only other time we choose to talk about things being immaculate is in the case of The Immaculate Virgin Mary…and hence the Cleanliness is Godliness adage). At the disgraceful opposite end is the squalid or dirty or filthy Slum of a House which speaks for itself in the sense of being dusty, mucky and appallingly cluttered. Midway is what can conveniently be called the Cosy House and which is usually clean and tidy, albeit possibly cluttered, but most definitely looks as if happily lived in. This last one is obviously the ideal, for even the anally retentive, fanatically houseproud types will regularly congratulate their hosts if they maintain somewhere that is tidy but also homely and which allows them for the first time in their steaming puff to feel completely relaxed. They will even occasionally let slip that they would like to be a little less rigid themselves and that tonight is sheer therapy where they can say fuck you to the obligatory slippers and then let their carefree heads rub into this cosy old sofa and pollute it as much as they effing well like…