Kirstie Allsopp has a point about ironing and domestic chores
She's not alone finding ironing “therapeutic”and washing and cleaning as “a way of staying sane”.
Kirstie Allsopp has made a thriving career for herself as a doughty champion of the ornamental domestic arts. Her infectious enthusiasm for our grandmothers’ vanished craft skills has meant that our homes are once again embellished with the kind of endearingly pointless knick-knacks towards which the advocates of minimalism used to be so boringly censorious.
But, recently, she has made some daring forays into the fraught terrain of household politics. Last month, she came up with a spirited rejoinder to a woman who accused her of being “a Tory housewife”, remarking that the use of the word “housewife” as an insult is not just rude, but thoroughly unsisterly. Now she has revealed that she dotes on housework, finds ironing “therapeutic”, and regards washing and cleaning as “a way of staying sane”.
In the days before my son left home for university, I used to regard my domestic duties as the royal road to insanity. The only thing worse than doing them myself was trying to get the offspring to lend a hand. My attitudes were strongly influenced by an early memory of my mother, an Oxford history graduate, on her hands and knees, polishing the wooden floor of our suburban front room, pushing a copy of this newspaper ahead of her as she worked.
Now I come to think of it, she was actually multi-tasking with great efficiency – tackling the housework while keeping in touch with world events, and teaching me to read at the same time. But as a young woman, I thought of that scene as an elegant summary of everything I didn’t want to become.
Just as Kirstie was extolling the therapeutic properties of ironing, the Telegraph reported the sulphurous response to a wizard wheeze from the retailer SportsDirect, which involved marketing a set of toy cleaning products in bright pink packaging with the slogan: “It’s Girl Stuff”. This was “the most disgusting sexism I have seen”, raged one Twitter user, who had evidently led a sheltered life. Meanwhile Laura Bates, of the Everyday Sexism project, wisely pointed out that it is as unfair to exclude boys from the domestic sphere as it is to confine girls to it.
If you take the view – enthusiastically promoted by the advertisers of cleaning products – that housework involves a ceaseless losing battle against dust, germs, unsavoury pongs and the dread of being thought a slut by your neighbours (or Godfrey Bloom), then there is certainly nothing but existential despair to be found in domesticity.
But even as I made my childhood resolution never to polish a floor, my early reading was promoting a very different image of housework. The heroines of two of my favourite books, Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle and Eve Garnett’s Family from One End Street, derive sturdy self-esteem – and an excellent income – from their domestic skills.
Mrs Tiggywinkle’s proud boast, you recall, is that she is an excellent clear starcher, while Lily Rose Ruggles of One End Street, already a dab hand with a mangle at the age of 12, persists in her ambition to run a steam laundry when she grows up, even after a discouraging incident with a hot iron and a ruined petticoat.
In a different era, Lily Rose, with her intrepid approach to high temperatures, would have been a natural for Extreme Ironing, a sport that, according to its (male) founders, “combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt”.
While I can admire the dash of ironing while poised on vertiginous precipices, I tend to prefer a more meditative approach. To reduce a heap of crumpled laundry to a smooth, orderly pile may be a tiny, ineffectual gesture of defiance against the chaos that presses all around – but it is strangely satisfying, all the same.