A line of washing drying in the wind seems a classic picture of domesticity. Somewhere there must still be those who wash on Mondays. Traditional rhymes provide a whole list of chores to be done 6 days a week (ostensibly by women) including ironing on Tuesdays, mending on Wednesdays and (if you keep a cow) churning on Thursdays. Those of us with washing machines forget the sheer drudgery and poverty associated with laundry. I once saw a photograph of rags snagged on a dead tree at an African refugee camp. It took me a few seconds to realise this was a washing line. It said far more to me about the state of the refugees than precise statistics.
I have been thinking about (but not doing) washing because my Bank Holiday reading has been Washing Lines (selected by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught). It’s an attractive illustrated anthology of poems about – unsurprisingly – laundry. There are 60 poems in the book – but do not think trivial domestic task. There is Vicki Fever’s angry (at least at first) “Ironing” and Michael Longley’s “War and Peace” with the Trojan housewives caught up in the horrors of war. Moniza Alvi’s “Arrival 1946” describes with perplexity and wit the response of a new arrival to Britain. From the train he sees “an unbroken line of washing” from Liverpool to London. “It was Monday, and very sharp”. There is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Nausicaa episode from The Odyssey and Gillian Clarke’s “Laundry” set in Mumbai “Outside the shacks by the Tulsi Pipe Road”. There’s a lot more to washing than I thought.
I started to think of other poems not included in the book, for example, “Ritual” from The Anatomy of Structures by Rebecca Goss – a list of the washing basket’s contents ending
“... Odd perhaps, to be fond of this ritual,
ankle deep in the compost of my family.”
Then there is laundry as metaphor in Joseph Brodsky’s “Brighton Rock” from his In England sequence :
“The horizon’s clear-cut clothes line
has a single cloud pegged out upon it, like a shirt.”
(translated by Alan Myers)
From a practical point of view, drying the washing does have its hazards. Industrial pollution, living in apartment blocks or (in rural north Cumbria) the stench of slurry-spreading may make it impossible at times to peg clothes on the line to dry. But there’s a political side to doing the washing which I had never thought of. There are places where hanging washing outside is a transgressive act because of laws motivated, I suppose, by civic tidiness or public morality. Then there is the environmental issue of energy consumption. Alexander Lee writes at the back of Washing Lines “line drying could save more than ten per cent of the electricity consumed domestically in the United States.”
Oh dear, how easy it is to get hung up about washing!
One of my adult education students once gave me, after a poetry class, some very thin cloth made out of old flour bags stitched together. I take it out and look at it again. The faint red lettering reads SPILLERS EXTRAS. The closely woven cotton has been washed so often it is tissue thin. When I hold it up to the light I can see the trees through it.
I turn back to the book and read the best laundry poem of them all: Seamus Heaney’s fifth sonnet from his “Clearances” sequence. It is about the simple act of folding sheets off the line with his mother, and ends:
“Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was X and she was O
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.”