Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

Our central heating had its annual tantrum during a mild week in October. I suppose you could say it did a bit of a Gazza. It failed to perform unless topped up with vast quantities of liquid: water in this case, though I understand Paul Gascoigne prefers a double brandy before a match. For all I know, the boiler may have been accused of lashing out at the British Gas operative who came out to deal with it, but I tend to stand well back on these occasions.

The upside of all this was that we had been smugly looking forward to a festive season free of mechanical malfunction. Since the start of December, however, the tumble dryer has broken down, the dishwasher has developed an alarming tendency to cut loose from its moorings every time you open the door, and the garden lights have gone... well, I was going to say on the blink, but even a blink would be preferable to the pitch black that reigns in our side passage. It's the same every year. On the first day of Christmas, my true love says to me: "I think the element/pump/motor's gone on the kettle/washing machine/vacuum cleaner."

Yes, I know, we probably shouldn't have a tumble dryer, or a dishwasher, or garden lights, because it all adds to global warming (though I should point out that, judging from the mountains of fallen leaves on the lawn, I probably have enough trees in my garden to offset the carbon emissions of the entire street). The trouble with labour-saving appliances is that they do just that: save labour.

I have no objection whatsoever to washing up. There is nothing I would like better than to spend my mornings humming "Whistle While You Work" and doing a duet with cute rabbits and squirrels à la Snow White, whisking my crockery in and out of the suds while a robin trills a descant on the mixer tap. The reason I get the dishwasher to do the washing up is so that I can spend the time doing one of the other millions of things I have to do. Like go to work.

Ditto the washing machine: who has time to wash everything by hand? And how would you cope with double duvet covers? I admit it's difficult to muster a convincing argument for the tumble dryer, since I don't as a rule waste time supervising things hanging on the line. It's great for school uniforms, though...

Every time one of these breakdowns occurs, I feel like a cartoon character going through the angel/ devil scenario. In one ear, there's the angel (in pious falsetto): "Think of the planet, think of the ozone layer, think of the melting glaciers, think of the world's endangered species." In the other, there's the Devil (sounding oddly like Johnny Vegas): "Think of a brand-new machine, one in which you haven't had to clean the pump out 64 times, not to mention ordering a new soap dispenser from Bosch because the previous owner left it encrusted inches thick with Ariel. Think of a blissful morning in John Lewis or Peter Jones while you weigh up the advantages of Miele versus Zanussi." Then there's my husband: "Think of the bloody cost."

At Christmas, however, all these arguments tend to go out of the window. First, the thought of having our large extended family coming and going without a bastion of white metal boxes that wash and rinse and dry is rather alarming. Second, it's only too easy, while Christmas shopping, to cruise past the Large Electrical department. Third, there always seem to be such tempting offers: "Buy this tumble dryer and get £100 off a washing machine. Pay nothing until 2007." Because, of course, the January sales now start in mid-December.

One would almost think these machines were programmed to keel over at the very moment that customers are at their most susceptible. It's tempting to suspect that within all the computerisation and fuzzy logic that controls the delayed-start mechanism and the bit that senses whether the washing's bone dry, there's a little programme that instructs: "Flake out 14 Dec." I find this thought faintly spooky. Never mind the environmental debate; I'm not sure I want a tumble dryer that's more intelligent than me.

Happy Christmas and a Merry New Appliance.