Walking past the Serpentine yesterday I was drawn inquisitively to a small crowd at the water's edge. Within the group of onlookers were a dozen or so women (and men!) scrubbing various articles of clothing with brushes and large yellow tablets of soap. They were rather breathlessly singing "T'was on a Monday morning ...." and seemed know all the words.
These latter-day washer-women, it emerged, have been inspired by Daniel Start's sequel to his best-selling book "Wild Swimming" (pub. Punk 2008). This new book, "Wild Washday" will come as a breath of fresh air to house-persons suffering with what doctors have been calling the Washday Blues - a malaise of inactivity and lost self-esteem.
In this well-crafted and lavishly illustrated handbook the author sets out to demystify the whole process of washing garments and soft furnishings, with special emphasis on the almost lost art of "hand-washing". He describes this once familiar process as "the centuries-old, truly international human activity that knits the squatting squaw of Alberta with the Chinaman in his laundry, the dhobiwallah on the banks of the sacred Ganges and, potentially, the modern house-husband of suburban London."
With the occasional splash of humour Start seeks to liberate modern woman (and man!) from the "rigid, detached and dehumanizing domination of the modern automatic washing machine."
"Put your socks in the sink" he advocates, "and feel the physical sensation of cleaning them with your own hands!" . . . "Enjoy the sight and perfume of a damp towel drying on a wooden clothes-horse next to your very own kitchen radiator!" It's heady stuff, and the (dare I say it?) glamorous photos of Start's wife washing her smalls in the river Test (at 5am to avoid the bailiff!!) bring an unreal but undeniable excitement to the whole experience.
Indeed, this gifted author does not simply advocate a move from machine to sink. No. Much in the style of his previous opus he sets out to travel the world finding "traditional" sites for private or communal washday; seeks out where our mothers and grandmothers would stoop together by the pond or canal side, chanting age-old songs, and creatively gossiping amongst themselves. It's not just a romp through the dirty washing of the world, but at times this book challenges people's most cherished prejudices about cleanliness, detergents and washer-women.
So, back to Hyde Park where, washing done, some of the book's most avid advocates were ready to chat. I tackled the first couple that emerged red-faced and smiling from the water. Tamsin and Tobias Berkley-Square are weekday workers in London's West End. "Toby is a barrister, and I just design stuff, you know? Anyway, Dan (that's Daniel Start - author) is a friend of Daddy's, so we got his book, and now look at us!"
"So you're actually here doing the weekly wash on a Sunday morning, are you?" I inquired.
"Yes and no." admitted Mr Berkley-Square QC. "I believe our real clothes all get sent to the cleaners. These are some that Tamsin bought specially for this occasion. It's been great fun, though."
"And am I likely to see you here again next Sunday?"
"Hmm..Maybe not. Don't get me wrong, Dan is a great bloke, and all, but we've booked into a Spa in the French Pyrenees next weekend, and I'm not going to miss that just to get my elbows soapy, am I?"
Despite that luke-warm endorsement there can be no doubt this Wild Washday craze is catching on, with reports of soapsuds in the Channel and even causing delays on the Manchester Ship Canal. And my morning at the Serpentine showed me how being a washday scrubber is something that can unite a community. So let's get out there with the rest and put our suds where our mouths are!
The book includes an appendix of useful tips, including the dangers mixing of coloureds with whites, and how to placate angry swans.
"Wild Washday" Published by Omo. August 2013. £21.99
"Possibly the most innovative book on laundry to come my way this century." Independent.
(Just in case, I'd better make it clear. This is all made up. There is no "Wild Washday" book. I apologise to Mr Start. ss)
©SteveSmith May 2014