Hands that do dishes may keep the family together

It can bond consenting adults or get them in a lather and even lead to violence. Virginia Ironside does the washing up
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Washing up is a bit like sex. We all do it, we rarely talk about it in public, we usually share it with someone else, and although it is often fairly humdrum, it may also be an extremely intense experience. It can be sublime: many religious people use it as an example of how daily acts can become meditations in themselves. It can be a time of joy, when the family gets together for a laugh. It can be a time of anger and dissatisfaction: in a survey carried out by Tesco, 10 per cent of washers-up had threatened someone with a knife over the soapsuds and 24 per cent had thrown crockery.

This Sunday the nation's last taboo is broken in a fly-on-the-wall documentary that shows people actually doing it. Washing up, that is. According to BBC2's Washing Up Wars, only 15 per cent of households in England have resorted to the dishwasher, despite the fact that it is almost certainly more hygienic. And although, slaves to the takeaway, we wash up less than we used to, we still spend a great deal of time at the sink, having discussed whether to do it straight after a meal, whether it should be done in running or in stagnant water, which dishes deserve to be left to soak, and so on.

Although the vast majority of washing up is done by women, it is becoming increasingly male territory, rather like barbecuing, making the salad dressing or carving the joint. Washing up is a way that men can win "new man" Brownie points without feeling feminised. "I feel it is one of the few domestic chores I can do without losing face, rather like packing the car," says one man. "I have a special system, and I like to do the washing up my way."

Certainly my partner and son had tremendous moments of male bonding over the washing up. After supper I would race out of the kitchen as they embarked on a conversational ritual of hilarious jokes. A lot of water- fights and towel-flicking went on, too. It was, it seemed, a good time.

Indeed, washing up can be a good time. It is when partners talk to each other. It might be a time, too, of close physical but low eye contact, making easier the conveying of such bombshells as, "Mum, I'm pregnant" or "Dad, I'm gay".

"I remember washing up as the best time of family life," says one mother. "To me it means teenagers laughing and joking and closeness." When asked in the Tesco survey, 68 per cent of washers-up reported to have sung and 67 per cent had been kissed over the dirty dishes. For others, it is a time of hell. Cleaning the dirt from other people's plates is, after all, a menial task; and in any kitchen in a big hotel it is the plongeur who holds the lowliest job.

Cooking and feeding, after all, is a giving act; it is creative and it is appreciated as such. But no one says, once the dishes are gleaming on the rack: "Well, that was beautifully washed up." And yet it remains an essential part of domestic life. In her book Purity and Danger, anthropologist Professor Mary Douglas argues that washing up is almost a microcosm of society itself - it is about putting things in their proper place. Washing up is concerned with making order out of chaos and that is why it is a highly ritualised social act.

Perhaps this is why, despite us living in an age of disposable plates and cutlery, the arguments linger on. Even in dishwasher homes, washing- up wars persist: whether the machine is started before it is full, whether the plates are rinsed first, not to mention rows about unloading.

And even in those societies in which utensils are cleaned with cold water and ash rather than hot water and Fairy Liquid, they probably laugh and joke about whether the karahi has been properly scoured. And no doubt they, too, are sometimes driven to thoughts of murder.

'Washing Up Wars' is the last in the series of 'Picture This', BBC2, to be shown on Tuesday at 8pm.