Quentin Crisp had one view of housework - after the first few years things don't get dustier. Ruth Picardie's holiday rental company had another attitude and therefrom hangs a duster
If you thought cleaning was the boring, invisible stuff that Mrs O'Brien did on a Tuesday afternoon, take note. I spent last new year with a group of friends and family in a large, rented farmhouse in Devon. When the first of our party arrived, the owners - still hovering on the doorstep - were charm itself: they had left a bottle of champagne to welcome 1997; we were to help ourselves to staples from the pantry; a bowl of Quality Street twinkled on a sideboard. There were no anxious comments about muddy shoes, or instructions that certain rooms should be kept toddler-free.

Despite the freezing weather, children who wouldn't sleep in their own beds and a couple of blazing conjugal rows, we spent a delightful week, walking, reading, cooking, eating, entertaining fractious toddlers and slumbering round the fire.

On the final morning, sorry to leave, we rushed round picking up stray toys, vacuuming, washing up and straightening beds before heading home. What a charming house, we thought. Perhaps we'll rent it again.

Sadly, this is not to be. A few days after we got home, we began a furious battle with the holiday company - let's call it Devon Connection - who claimed that we had left the house in such a disgusting state that it took two cleaners a total of 15 hours - twice as long as usual - to return it to its former glory. The rental had been an exorbitant pounds 1,700; now, a further pounds 45 was deducted from our deposit, for violations including the following: failure to polish the lounge tables; failure to dust the breakfast room; failure to dust the lounge; failure to arrange the dining- room chairs in the correct order; failure to tidy the sofa cushions.

Since then, the argument has aroused passions deeper than politics, deeper than religion, deeper even than whether or not to send your children to private school.

In one corner, stand the owners (and their cleaner), who clearly feel that their house has been violated: their faxes have been resonant with the injured and emotional imagery you might associate with a burglary or pillage: "floors in all rooms ... completely covered in bits and filthy"; "Lesley could not possibly have come with her family and had a meal and sat down before cleaning from top to bottom".

We, in the other corner, feel that we have been ripped off; but perhaps what has really kept our fury stoked is the suggestion that we - who cleaned the house in good faith - are coarse, uncouth and, above all, dirty.

The art of cleaning, as Margaret Horsfield shows in her book Biting the Dust, is about as dramatic as culture gets. Going hand-in-hand with ideas about order, chaos, violation and control, its social history is as dramatic and contested as the history of war. Individual attitudes to housework probably reveal more about history, class, gender and personal psychology than who you marry or what you vote.

Feminist scholars, from Simone de Beauvoir onwards, have argued that housework is a patriarchal conspiracy; that in order to exclude women from the labour market and the powerful world outside the home, we are conned - by the pseudo-science of home economics and the base art of soap- powder advertising - into devoting our lives to the pointless drudgery of cleaning. And for every so-called labour-saving device, standards of hygiene are unnecessarily raised.

Thus, for the homemaker, housewife or cleaner, marginalised from real economic and political power, the correct arrangement of dining-room chairs becomes a matter of life and death. Her home is her world, and failure to tidy the sofa cushions represents a gross misdeed, a metaphorical equivalent of Whitewater, or gun-running to Iraq.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, author of the seminal study Purity and Danger (1966), argued that dirt - as anyone who hasn't cleaned the toilet for six months will know - is simply matter out of place and therefore always has sacred meaning. Thus, one's own dust (largely the outer layer of human skin, which is shed every three days) is familiar and safe; stranger's dust, however, is dangerous and disgusting and every trace must be obliterated before a house can be properly clean. These ideas about the spiritual role of housework have been developed by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi in The Sacred and the Feminine, in which she argues that housework creates a positive world order for ourselves, carving something ordered and pure from the chaos around us. However, "these sacred processes of ordering and purifying ... are frequently carried to extremes. When that happens, the results, instead of being holy and self-affirming, are demonic ... Instead of being alive, the overly ordered environment is lifeless, a tomb instead of a cosmos."

Otherwise known as obsessive compulsive disorder, this housework neurosis was endured by Joan Crawford's daughter, Christina. "Everything was new and modern and plastic," she writes in Mommie Dearest. "Even the flowers and plants were plastic. Mother preferred them because they could be kept sparkling clean, and were regularly washed in soapy water. There were plastic covers on all the upholstered furniture that crinkled and stuck to you when you sat on them. All the windows were sealed. There was no fresh air." So perhaps our Devon cleaner was a Mommie manquee.

Or maybe it's all the other way round. Perhaps my friends and I, a confirmed group of atheists who rejoice in rejecting the link between cleanliness and godliness, have, so to speak, thrown the baby out with the bathwater ("bathrooms very messy"). Maybe that's why I can't get excited about dusting, least of all a holiday home. Or maybe we're too young and callow to remember bedbugs and fleas, which flourished in damp and dirty conditions. Perhaps only someone whose granny died of cholera can believe that a slice of bread left on a chopping board is a disgusting invitation to decay. Or perhaps we're too middle-class to remember the communal pleasures of washday and whiting the step.

Either way, emotions are still running high. I don't think we'll be seeing our pounds 45n

'Biting the Dust: the joys of housework', by Margaret Horsfield, is published by Fourth Estate at pounds 14.99.

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