Cleanliness is next to hopelessness

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Do people really do housework?

My mum used to – and so did all the other mums of her generation. Apparently, when people got proper decent homes after the war they were so pleased with them that they wanted to keep them spotless and so that’s just what they did, even though it meant women spent all their time cleaning, polishing, dusting, sweeping, buffing, washing, starching and ironing.

People took a pride in all this. If you hadn’t coated your doorstep with red polish for two weeks and if the brass pokers on your fire grate weren’t gleaming, then you weren’t fit to hold your head up. When you heard that relatives were coming next week, your first thought was to wash the nets with a blue rinse and shine up the windows, before embarking on a really major spring clean of the whole house.

In those days the cleanliness of the house was definitely more important than the food you served up. (The food didn’t need much thought or preparation, because you knew it would be that tin of red salmon you’d been saving, followed by a nice bowl of tinned peaches with evaporated milk. Just make sure you served it on a crisply starched white tablecloth.)

On one level it all sounds a bit crazy, but on the other hand if you can take a genuine sense of pride in your freshly laundered sheets and if all that beeswaxed furniture makes you feel good about yourself, then where’s the harm in that? Surely that’s got to be better for your self-esteem than spending the day watching Jeremy Kyle on TV and picking out your numbers for the lottery?

But even these days people can take it too far. I enjoyed watching that series on TV where someone obsessed with cleanliness went to help someone who’s obsessed with hoarding junk and has a dirty home (Channel 4 Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners). Both extremes of person were equally shocking. What surprised me, though, was that it seemed like the OCD cleaners were being held up as (literally) shining examples to the OCD hoarders. I can see that the dirt in a lot of those homes needed sorting out, but I’d be genuinely concerned for children being brought up in a home where their mum gets through three bottles of bleach a day: there has to be balance!
The trouble back in the sixties was that all that emphasis on housework was very one-sided against women; and it turned bright young girls into drudges at the same time as severely limiting their aspirations. So would it be okay to be obsessed by housework nowadays if we agree that it’s a job for both sexes?

On balance I don’t think so, really, because housework is just so boring. It’s soul-destroying. The real skill in the job is to make it look like you’ve done some when you actually haven’t. Obviously, if you can rid your home of all furniture and persuade the whole family to wear only disposable clothing you will be doing yourself a favour. But we need long-term solutions. Let’s replace the quest for ever-improved information technology with the quest to rid our homes of dust and dirt for ever.

While we wait for this, here’s my handy 12-point slobs’ plan for making your usually sloppy house look reasonably OK when you’ve just heard that visitors are arriving in 10 minutes:

1. First, be prepared for these occasions by having these items ready: this 12-point list; some dustbin bags; a very large cardboard box; umpteen packets of cleaning wipes; a good scented candle; furniture polish wipes (if your furniture is the type that needs polishing); wine and nibbles; maybe a hoover
2. Clean the toilet properly – no shortcuts here, except that if you have more than one toilet, just clean one and make sure guests are only directed to that one.
3. Shut the doors of any rooms you don’t want visitors to see.
4. Clear all the work surfaces in the kitchen. Put this stuff in a bag and hide it somewhere, unless it’s food, in which case you probably need to throw it away.
5. Put white wine in the fridge to chill and / or open up the red. Get the nibbles out.
6. Put all dirty dishes and cutlery in the dishwasher or a bowl of hot soapy water in the sink.
7. Clean all kitchen surfaces with anti-bacterial wipes.
8. Gather up all visible junk and put it into dustbin bags, which you hide somewhere. The big cardboard box is for any items which would get squashed in the bin bags.
9. Use the cleaning wipes to quickly wipe any visibly dirty surfaces; use the polish wipes on any visibly dusty wooden furniture or surfaces.
10. Go out of the house and come in again to find out whether there are any lingering unpleasant smells in your home. If so, open some windows and / or light the scented candle.
11. If you have time, put the hoover round. If not, pick up the biggest bits of fluff / dirt and leave the hoover out, so your guests think you were just about to clean the floor as they arrived.
12. Put a big smile on your face, relax and enjoy yourself with your visitors. People remember the welcome they receive far more strongly than they’ll recall a spot of dust.

And that’s the way it should be!

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3 thoughts on “Cleanliness is next to hopelessness

  1. Doff Eden

    I didn’t watch the TV programme ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’ because I have OCD. I have probably had it from childhood but was clinically diagnosed with it 10 years ago. For me it mostly manifests itself in repetitive
    obsessive compulsive checking of household appliances. Consequently, because of this ,and other related medical problems I retired early from teaching on ill health . I agree that there is simply no helpful outcome of using one extreme of behaviour to monitor the opposite extreme. I think the same technique was used in a programme where one obese person and one undernourished person swapped their typical daily diets . So the person who generally overate on takeaways ,sugar filled foods etc was encouraged to eat the equally unhealthy, but miniscule, diet of a severely underweight person and vice versa .Perhaps I missed the point but what was the point ? I’ve avoided programmes about OCD since watching a series some time ago where people who had various strands of OCD (eg hand washing, checking, dominating religious thoughts} went from extreme suffering to cured in an hour long programme. I am sure much work went on behind the scenes but I don’t believe it gave a realistic representation of the illness and how it can severely limit a sufferer’s daily life.
    Loving your new blog but must go now-think I may have left the iron on!
    Ps. I hope this reply isn’t too long.

    • I think that sometimes programmes like that can promote understanding if the topic is handled sensitively, but obviously there’s a tendency for the TV channels to want to treat people as entertainment. In this instance I think that (on the whole) the hoarders were treated quite sensitively, whereas no-one worried too much about the problems of the obsessive cleaners.

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