A primrose yellow tidemark of decline

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The Independent Online
Samuel Johnson once sagely remarked that the issues and thoughts which preoccupy our daily lives are rarely reflected in the great public and political debates of the age. How I agree. This must explain why I found the news from the United States that their modern, convenient homes are not as spick and span as they once were, so fascinating.

A generation of working American women, renowned for their drive, energy and embrace of sexual liberation, no longer clean under cookers and fridges. They have reduced their cleansing efforts to time-saving superficial wipes of the surfaces on public display.

On one level the news from across the Atlantic just confirmed what I had long suspected: there is a new slovenliness - and it exists over here, too. Until now the debate about working women has centred largely on the phenomenon of time-saving, ready-made meals and snack foods. But, in many a tete-a-tete with hard-pressed working women and mothers, I know that we, too, are living in homes that are not kept to the standards we were brought up with by our largely non-working post-war mothers, even though we have more labour- saving specialised gadgets.

We are no longer defined by our house management skills nor, if we are lucky enough to employ cleaners, are we usually at home to check up on what is going on. Anyway, my house has more pairs of rubber gloves than scrubbing brushes - the age of the bended knee has long gone. And yet if my soundings are correct, we do not like living in a pickle, nor are we quite resigned to the general spread of stickiness that small children create around them.

What is happening is something rather like the descent into secularism. No wonder the Victorians thought cleanliness was next to godliness, betokening a muscular, more unified approach to the whole of one's life. If there is no one to pry into the corners of unwashed kitchen floors or the inches of dust on top of wardrobes, why should we waste our time?

For what I have observed is that, just as there are tides in the affairs of man, there are tidemarks in our modern homes, outlining zones which, just as in the US, are skated over. It was Terence Conran who defined style as having a clean bath - he would never have been so rash as to say a clean house.

I can define these tidemarks in my own home with exactitude, as you probably can in yours. At the moment I am trying to alter and eradicate some of them. This stems from the fact that I am shortly to have a baby. Any mother will know that when you are in this strange temporary state, you are seized with an almost manic urge to clean and get ready. When pregnancy combines, as now, with spring sunlight, the desire for a purified home becomes extra strong.

The strange thing is that the tidemark in my house is eight feet up on a primrose yellow- painted hall and corridor wall. It rises three storeys through my largish Victorian house. This marks the height to which I and a cleaner were able to wash down the walls in a cleansing operation that took place exactly four years ago to the month, just before my last child was born. I had hopes that my husband - who is not above a spot of housework - would do the final foot or so, but he was mystified. 'Who looks up at cornices?' he asked.

At the height of the women's liberation movement the question of housework and who did it was very definitely a feminist issue. It is, of course, still unfairly heaped on working women. But I have taken, I hope, a rather wily tack, which derives partly from the embarrassment I felt on arriving at university from an efficiently managed home and finding myself an object of fun when I was completely ignorant of how to wash a sweater.

Whenever I launch an attack on household grime - for example, last Christmas Eve when I faced the imminent arrival of guests - I enlist my children. They are expected to help with the cleaning with just as much interest as they were expected to take in who had won the US presidency - and it works.

My 10-year-old will happily and efficiently vacuum three flights of stairs. My seven-year- old enjoys washing the kitchen floor with a squeezy mop and often volunteers to wipe down the cooker. The new generation of Mr Muscle surface spray cleaners, so beloved of modern American housewives, enthrals my children. Everyone likes the satisfaction of polishing.

As for the hallway and its tidemark, all I can say is that progress is slow. So far only the ground-floor walls have been tackled. But perhaps it is time to lower our eyes and revive our nascent plans for a holiday house swap with an American family, safe in the knowledge that we won't need to call in a firm of industrial cleaners before we go.