Life's a vacuum without it

Men, it seems, still escape their fair share of housework. And yet there are those who find joy in scouring the bath and keeping the wife out of the kitchen.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Frank Cottrell Boyce goes out for a pint in Toxteth, Liverpool, with his best mate Ian, a fireman, the conversation quickly turns to domestic matters. "We start talking about washing machines and how the ironing mounts up because there's nothing good on TV," says Cottrell Boyce, 37, a screen writer, who works from home and shares the housework with his wife. "It's not that Ian is a great new man. It's just that he does a four-day week, so he's living in the house a lot and wants it to be nice."

Dave Fielding, 54, a printer from Colchester, understands that impulse. He is another houseproud male. "I work shifts, so I'm off mornings or afternoons. I wash down the open-plan stairs every other day because they get dusty, clean the bathroom, wash the bath out, clean the toilet and tidy up the bedroom when I'm on an early shift and my wife's gone out to work. I hoover around every other day. It seems to be my permanent job to empty the dishwasher."

These men who like to keep a tidy home crop up in the most unexpected places. Peter Veash, 19, has just finished his first year at Portsmouth University. He was unimpressed by the two women who shared his house. "They refused to do their part of the cleaning rota because they were bone idle. They lived on takeaways. Me and my mate used to do things like lasagna, pasta, proper meals while they would go to M&S and pop something in the oven. As the year went by they didn't bother to come home. We treated the place like a home and they treated it like a stopover. I wanted to live in a place I could go home to and keep tidy rather than thinking `what a mess' and not wanting to go home.

"When they did use the kitchen, they would do things like chop up an onion and leave it there for a whole week. They stunk the house out. Now our landlord only takes boys. He's been warned off girls."

These are not images that you will find confirmed by statistics. Men are still not pulling their weight at home, according to a survey published this week. We are letting women take the strain. Even when they have longer working hours than men, they still do at least six more hours of housework a week, the British Household Panel Survey found.

Of course, you cannot argue with statistics. Yet beneath this depressing picture there seems to be a sizeable minority of men, across the generations, who think about living in their homes in way that is far from traditional.

The traditional Fathers' Day card with Dad swilling cans of beer in front of the television does not ring true for them. "I constantly meet women with one kid and a job who treat me as an incompetent, yet I do 20 times as much as them,' says Frank Cottrell Boyce, father of five children under 13, who works from home.

He and his wife divide the housework in a "pragmatic" way, he says. They even take turns putting out the bins. "I'm the only one who can drive so I do the shopping and the schlepping around with the kids. As for the rest, it depends on what's happening in our lives. If Denise is pregnant she might not go into the kitchen for three months. Now the kids help as well. Joe is 12 and Aidan 11 - they do their own ironing. No one made them. They just got exasperated with our incompetence. If we didn't all muck in, then one of us would have to be a skivvy."

And there are at least a few men with the potential to become Stepford husbands. "I fantasise about having a rhythm in my housework like my grandmother or, like all our mums, having a specific day for each task," says Robert Teed, 30, a former teacher who stays at home to care for Miranda, his 20-month-old daughter.

"On our fridge, we have a photocopy from a 1950s home economics book, which has 10 tips for looking after your husband. It says that when he comes home from work you should let your husband speak first because he has had such a hard day, you should prepare his favourite foods, run a duster through the house before he arrives, and, finally, put a ribbon in your hair and be a little gay. In some perverted part of my mind, I think that is what I should do."

Teed does the laundry and washing up and shares the cooking with a male lodger while his wife, Anne, works as an organisational psychologist. He feels a bit invaded when she works in the kitchen. "It's not a female domain because it's got two men in it. I know she wants to give me a break and prove she can look after Miranda as well as I can. But I tend to hover around in the background, putting the Marmite back in the cupboard and getting the milk out of the fridge. I usually kick myself, realise what I'm doing and go off upstairs for a bath."

Teed keeps the kitchen clean while his wife looks after the upstairs rooms. "Anne will blitz the bathroom. That gives her most satisfaction, maybe because she spends more time there than in the kitchen."

Pascal Cariss, 34, a books editor, is another man who has taken control of the kitchen, but leaves the bathroom to his wife. He looks after his 10-month-old son Nathaniel while his wife, Bronwen, an auditor, is at work.

"I get the meal on the table and try to keep the house tidy so that when Bron comes home the breakfast has been cleared up and the place isn't covered with Nathaniel's things," he says. "Bronwen always does the bathroom. Maybe it's about domain. She bathes the baby and puts him to sleep. I cook, so I keep the kitchen clean and oil down the wooden worktops. I have a vested pride in somewhere that is partly my workplace.

"Perhaps cooking is also a form of showing off. It wins lots of praise. I don't know how many people think, `Wow, that was a very clean bathroom'. Cooking for other people is also very pleasurable. It's a social thing - I don't like going out to big parties. I like the operatic quality of cooking. I like all the chopping, the labour-intensive part. But there is definitely a pay-back, when people say they really enjoyed it and want to know how you made it.

"That's where Bronwen and I are different. She is the one who is always bunging stuff in the washing machine. I wouldn't do that without a pay- back. but Bronwen does it because it is part of the engine that a family runs on."

The key things that seem to distinguish this minority of men, who break with the statistical norm, is that they spend a great deal more time at home than their male contemporaries. Pascal Cariss finds he cannot look after Nathaniel when the living room is dusty and dirty. "I can't start work until the house is in some sort of order," says Frank Cottrell Boyce. The students like to study at home. For Dave Fielding, keeping house is an extension of his hobby. "I'm forever decorating. That's why I like seeing the house neat and tidy." These men may be exceptional now, but more and more women are living their lives outside the home and more men are working within it. Soon the sex of the houseproud may become far less predictable

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