My mother’s right hand ended in a cloth. She cleaned the local school from six a.m. and again in the evening, doing a chip shop in between. I got to know all the women. They were presided over by a series of delinquent janitors. (One of them was running guns for Ulster. Another stole video equipment. The older one was a kiddie-fiddler etc.) I used to go after school to help my mum with the mopping and use the library. During the summer holidays, they did something called the Big Clean – scrubbing walls, washing curtains – and a lovely woman called Betty and another called Ellen Lawless used to bring me sweets as I sat reading. There was one book in particular, an illustrated Bible that showed angels going up and down a stairway to heaven, and I can still see their white robes as if they’d just been done with Persil in a boil wash. One of those long summer days, my friend David and I got caught after stealing powdered floor cleaner from the local supermarket and pouring a huge mound of it in a doorway. The manager went in search of our mothers and made them pay for our strange artwork. They brought buckets, David’s mum and mine, to take away the powder and put it to good use. I can’t speak for David, who was later among those who maintained the no-fly zone over Iraq, but the crime seemed somehow not a crime, as if we were simply expressing our wish to Keep Britain Tidy.
It would be nice to say I realised it was a conspiracy against women, but it didn’t seem as if it was, not in their minds (and that is part of the conspiracy). The women I grew up with protected their space in fierce ways, and they protected themselves, mainly against accusations from other women that they didn’t ‘keep a clean house’. Even today, I’m sure, my mother sees housekeeping as the domain of her power not her subjugation. Such feelings have tangled roots in British life. When, on 21 December 1988, a Pan Am plane exploded over Lockerbie, about ninety miles from where we lived, clothes and burst suitcases were scattered over the countryside. The local women formed a collective, the Lockerbie Laundry, to wash and iron every single item that was found, and return it to the families. That was their response to loss and terrorism: to make things clean again. Restoring order, pulling together, cleaning and folding what the recklessness of men had undone.
Apart from prayer books, there was only one book in my grandmother’s house, the house where my father had lived with his sisters. It came from Elizabeth Craig’s Household Library and was called 1000 Household Hints, published in 1947 by Collins, a Glasgow firm. ‘I know from experience how many minor emergencies a housewife has to meet in the course of her daily routine,’ Craig writes in her introduction. ‘Often it’s a question of health that causes a breakdown in the household machinery. No matter the trouble, given a reference book of this kind, the clouds soon roll away.’ There’s a bright, can-do, ration-book rationale behind every one of her sentences devoted to the cleaning of houses. It seems comical now, in the era of sprays for everything and cloths woven from intergalactic fibres, that ‘the housewife’ was once advised to clean aluminium pans by boiling rhubarb, or to remove stains with a flannel dipped in crushed eggshell or whiting. Craig held that baths gleamed best when scrubbed resolutely with paraffin. To make corks airtight, one is advised to steep them in equal proportions of hot mutton fat and wax. Fresh flowers would keep their heads with a small dose of aspirin. A furred-up kettle can be treated with a little sal ammoniac. A few tears in the eyes after peeling onions will vanish if you wash your hands with mustard. A teaspoon of oil of lavender on a sponge will deter flies.
Craig was a 20th-century version of Mrs Beeton, who first gave legs to the notion that domestic dexterity should define a woman. ‘In every English-speaking country,’ the editors of a later edition of Household Management announced, ‘her book has appeared among the wedding presents of a bride as surely as the proverbial salt cellars, and thousands of grateful letters testify that it has often proved the most useful gift of all.’ Cleaning is an enjoyment, they imply, that may increase the yield of other enjoyments, and, to the post-Victorian ear, there is something sad in the discovery that most of life’s basic enjoyments, for Mrs Beeton, were held by her to bring a solitary duty of care to the objects involved. On satin shoes: ‘A piece of new white flannel should be dipped in petrol or spirits of wine and rubbed in a rotary direction over the soiled portions, a fresh piece of flannel being substituted whenever this is necessary. Shoes of white satin should always be kept in blue tissue paper.’ On piano keys: ‘Polish by means of a little sweet oil, applied with a soft duster, and rubbed until all trace of oil has disappeared. If piano keys are exposed to the sunlight they will keep their colour.’ Isabella Beeton, for all her carefulness and her Home Doctor’s ABC, died of puerperal fever at the age of 28, after several miscarriages and one successful delivery. Biographers suggest that her husband, Samuel Orchard Beeton, the founder and publisher of the Boy’s Own Paper, had contracted syphilis from a prostitute and passed it on. ‘Her works speak for themselves,’ he said after her death. ‘She felt that satisfaction – so great to all who strive with good intent and warm will – of knowing herself regarded with respect and gratitude.’
Many years ago, I spent an afternoon with a coroner at St Pancras. He told me that women who kill themselves tend to do so in ways that meet with domestic requirements. Not many of them would do as men do, and use a gun (too messy) or a knife (too upsetting). They would sometimes cut their wrists, but usually in the bath, from where, he said, the coloured water and all evidence of their grisly end could go down the plughole. When he was a young professional, the most popular way for women, he told me, ‘was gas. Just stopping up the windows and doors and lying down in the kitchen with their head in a clean oven.’ (On the subject of ovens Craig had warned: ‘Grease splashed and food spilt in an oven should be wiped off with newspapers before the oven is cold. The racks and shelves can afterwards be washed with boiling water and plenty of washing soda.’) One thinks immediately of Sylvia Plath in her small kitchen, one floor up in Primrose Hill. The last time her husband saw her there, he said, she was ‘upset and crying … tidying the place up’.
By the 1980s, our house was full of stuff. Coats in the cupboards, toys in the attic, half-drunk bottles of whisky from Hogmanay. There was so much more to clean, and the same expectation that it was one person’s problem, yet the truths of domestic science, such as we understood them, made me worry that my mother was wiping herself away. Writing about 1982 in his latest book, Who Dares Wins, Dominic Sandbrook notes the general rise of British clutter.Mass Observation had been asking people to describe their homes. ‘Carol Daniel,’ Sandbrook writes,
was a 29-year-old Tesco shelf-stacker, living at an end of terrace house in Havering, Essex, with her husband and children. Their living room has an armchair, an orange three-section sofa, a birdcage, a fish tank and a wooden room-divider. There was a large television above a rack stuffed with newspapers, comics and holiday brochures; there were three pot plants, boxes of toys, another box of cassettes and a typewriter … By no standards were they rich: they had no central heating … Yet even a few decades earlier, the sheer volume of stuff would have seemed astonishing.
This was the world I remember very well, the pets, the sofa, the endless gadgets, and the need to clean them or tidy them away. We had come a long way from William Morris’s thinking on household objects, that one should keep nothing that is neither useful nor beautiful, and our house, in the middle of our street, was testament to the ugliness of half-arsed consumption, a Bedlam of miniature wants.
Storage solutions. House extensions. Outsourcing. That was the rage for a generation – giving us Ikea, conservatories, dishwashers and cleaners who come for two hours a week. In Britain, one in three homes now has some kind of domestic help, and the numbers have grown and grown. Since 2004, most of these non-unionised workers have come from Eastern Europe, from Poland and the Czech Republic especially, and they are almost universally paid in cash. (It’s a huge shadow economy, full of people currently worrying about Brexit.) But very recently things have begun rolling the other way, and a new movement is on the rise. People are ‘going traditional’, wanting to feel ‘centred’ in their own homes; many see it as an aspect of self-help, unearthing the ancient art of drudgery and reclaiming it for themselves. In the lifestyle sphere of social media, people are making cleaning not only their hobby, their job, their purpose and their lifeline: they are making it their philosophy, and a recent bestseller aims to show how domestic chores can save your life.
Meet Sophie Hinchliffe, aka Mrs Hinch, from Maldon in Essex. Appearing on This Morning in April, she spoke about the special relationship she has with her fans, all 2.7 million of them, who follow her cleaning advice on Instagram. Mrs Hinch was astonished by her success, she told Phil and Holly, the presenters. The fans are always thanking her. ‘“You’ve helped me so much. My life’s changed.” And I think: “Guys! It’s the other way round! My life’s completely changed but I’m trying to keep it as normal as poss at the same time.”’ Phil – Philip Schofield – has long experience in identifying the normal and giving it the national thumbs-up. ‘You’re family now,’ he said, and Mrs Hinch beamed. Aw, babes.
For Mrs Hinch, it’s all gone mega. Twenty-nine years old and until recently a hairdresser, she has a husband, Jamie, and a baby boy, Ronnie; their dog is called Henry Hinch. She has bleached hair and can do amazing things with false eyelashes, highlighter and bronzer, but the subject that has turned her into an internet sensation is ‘making sense of minging kitchens’. It doesn’t take long to become totally fascinated by Sophie’s world. She’s brash, she’s sensitive, she’s bigoted, she’s loud, she’s honest, she’s sentimental, and she’s very English. She goes on as if the world is, like, totally England except for a few streets in Spain, which are quite England too. But the good thing is you don’t have to agree with Sophie about anything. She doesn’t care. People can say what they like, but she knows what she loves and she loves where she lives, and it is what it is (as they say on Love Island). For Sophie, cleanliness is next to Essexness.
In any case, as tradition dictates, it’s all subliminal. She didn’t like school and ‘was just destined to be a worrier’. She liked the safety of home environments, not foreign ones, and couldn’t wait ‘to be a grown-up lady at home all the time’. She takes us on her ‘house extension journey’ and it’s totes emosh and some people get jels. She was seriously overweight at one time but has lost eight stone since 2011 wearing a gastric band. ‘I’m not expecting people to get the violin out here,’ she writes,
but when people message me now on Instagram and say, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like being big, Mrs Hinch,’ I’m thinking to myself: ‘Trust me, I do. I’ve been there. I’ve been almost double the size I am now.’ People are so complimentary to me now, but I struggle with the compliments because inside I am the same person I always have been. My insecurities, believe it or not, are still the same, if not worse.
The year before she became famous, she had to have an operation to remove excess skin from her arms. ‘Of course I’ve got scars,’ she writes, ‘but they’re a part of me.’
Not long after that, Sophie took up with Jamie, and she learned to clean their floors with Zoflora so that they smelled amazing.
I found that cleaning made me feel good. Who knew? That thing I always thought of as boring and a chore started to become really enjoyable, and the more products I discovered, the more I loved it … I’m cleaning out my mind while I’m hinching the house or the car or under-stairs cupboard. It’s a real release for me. Some people go to the gym or they bake cakes, and that’s what helps to ease their whirring minds. For me, it’s cleaning.
On the way back from her honeymoon, she had her worst panic attack in years – but she told herself everything was going to be OK. Back at home, she had checklists, and baskets of products. She had a pine-scented disinfectant called Paul, a cloth called Brian, a moppet sponge called Pinkeh, a buffing cloth named Buddy, a SonicScrubber named Stewart, a glass cloth called Kermit and a mini-vacuum cleaner called Shelley. In the bathroom, she could spray the tiles with Astonish Mould and Mildew Spray. She could spray Viakal on the taps and into the plugholes. She could spray Flash Bathroom over the floors and clean the toilet with Cif Power and Shine Wipes. ‘I get right into the corners of everything because that’s where the really nasty stuff is hiding.’ She’s just getting started. Sophie likes nothing more than a journey to Poundstretcher, Home Bargains (‘I love a barg’), Savers or Wilko, where the cleaning products are much cheaper. ‘If you’ve got a towel-rail radiator like I have, wipe it down with a tumble dryer sheet first to remove any dust. Then pop some Cif Stainless Steel Spray (nickname Cliff) onto a microfibre cloth and wipe it down one rail at a time … Dave all your skirting boards.’ And don’t forget the oven. ‘I personally find a quick oven clean regularly is more enjoyable than a serious deep oven workout every month … the Astonish range of oven paste cleaners are also fab! Now get a tough scouring sponge (I used the Scrub Daddy sponge for this) and start working the paste into the stubborn spots.’
The filmmaker Mike Leigh would have a field day. While occasionally bashing us over the head with his compassion, he is at the same time very British and very cruel, quite likeably describing us being dislikeable, or being vulnerable and in pain. There’s a scene in his movie Secrets and Lies where an angry and disappointed wife, Monica, beautifully played by Phyllis Logan, is showing her sister-in-law, Cynthia, and her husband’s assistant, around their new house before a barbecue. ‘You’ve landed on your feet here,’ Cynthia says, a bit passive-aggressive. The house is monumentally tidy. We know nothing yet of Monica’s great sadness, though it seems clear to us that something is wrong from the sublimely agitated way she is showing them round.
‘I wanted to give it a Mediterranean feel,’ Monica says, opening the door of the downstairs loo. ‘And this is the … oops.’ She walks in and puts down the toilet seat and fusses with the curtain to make it hang straight. ‘I think the peach tones make it quite tranquil,’ she adds, closing the door and glancing down at her sister-in-law’s cigarette. Monica takes the women upstairs and shows them her airing cupboard. ‘That’s where I keep my towels and bedlinen,’ she says to them, touching the neatly folded articles. ‘It’s not very capacious,’ she says, but the pride and unhappiness is staring out of her.
I’ve often thought of that scene, and how well it describes – better than any British novel I’ve read – the place of folding in keeping people sane. I knew two dozen women like that growing up, their pride in the airing cupboard, and the way they would divert their most monstrous fears into the maintenance of a crocheted toilet-paper holder. And now, I feel, their moment of recognition has come, and the apps exist, and the universe of self-help is here (much too late) either to eliminate or to underscore their terror. ‘Folding works best if you approach it like origami,’ Marie Kondo writes in Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying (2017):
After each fold, smooth your hand over the whole garment in a soothing motion, before going on to the next fold. While you don’t need to make a sharp crease by running your fingernail along the edge as you would in origami, if you apply a firm pressure, the garment will keep its shape long term … Folding a garment often reminds me of the priests who carve Buddhist statues. They gaze intently at a piece of wood until they see the shape of the figure within it and carve the wood until it emerges. While I know it’s a whole different dimension, the idea is similar. Spread out the piece of clothing, gaze at it intently, and, once you find the rectangular shape within it, take the pieces on the outside of that rectangle and fold them inside it … Think of your wardrobe as the world of nature and the interior of your drawers as the home in which your things belong.
So much sanity, so little time. Kondo is a Japanese ‘organising consultant’ who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s hundred most influential people. She studied at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, where her thesis was on ‘Tidying Up as Seen from the Perspective of Gender’.
Kondo is nothing if not ambitious. One of her chapters is called ‘Teach Your Children How to Fold’. But her global success may be based on the general understanding that clutter, a bit like climate change, is not only a catastrophe we have brought on ourselves, but one that will eventually burn up the mind of mankind. Kondo’s wildly successful Netflix show features a parade of people crying about the too-muchness in their lives. She helps them. ‘These are happy tears,’ a couple says at the close of episode one, after tossing away half the shit they have spent their exhausting lives coveting and collecting. If Kondo had a motto, it might be ‘Bless This House with Less’. She is a very postmodern kind of guru, building an empire by reducing people’s need for empires. ‘Thank you for what you’ve brought to our home,’ people say as she leaves. If capitalism is a cosmic joke, then the pay-off is perhaps to be found in the universe of cleaning shows and Instagram accounts, where nice, ‘normal’ personalities show us how to turn our homes into germless, chemically sprayed miasmas, at little cost to the family budget. The task is clear: we fold and we unclutter, hoping there might be less of us today than there was yesterday. You start off willing to laugh at Marie Kondo and Mrs Hinch, but you end up, unfortunately, crying along with them, organising a huge heap of old T-shirts in your hall before picking them off one by one, like ancient scabs, and letting the healing begin. Self-help is like that, an insidious corrective to the idea that dirt is fine and clutter is natural and time is insoluble, and a reminder that your modern duty is to get your self-esteem in order.