Tom Hodgkinson: 'Cleaning should be taught at school'

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The Independent Online

Down on the farm, there is new life all around. Our Labrador Poppy had nine puppies. They started out as little sightless slugs, and you couldn't really say they were very charming. A week or so after their non-medical home birth, they opened their eyes and started to crawl about like sea creatures. Then they became immensely cute and the children sat in their box and stroked them for hours. Then they started to become less adorable. They squeaked and they started escaping from their box.

So I built a wall with a couple of pallets and put them in an enclosure in the pantry. This worked for a while, but then we found that they were escaping from this prison. Very determined, these pups, and not without intelligence. They were using the pallets like a ladder, climbing the whole way up, then tumbling down the other side, their little tails wagging insanely all the time. Soon there would be a swarm of them all over the kitchen floor. Walk past them, and they all follow you, a blur of fur, nipping on your trouser legs and nibbling your slippers.

So each day I nailed a new bit of wood to my wall of pallets, and each day these irrepressible puppies have sneaked out. Their mother now seems to have slightly lost interest: they follow her around the room and try to leap up on to her teats and I suppose it must be quite irritating. There is one particular pup who is a real escape artist. As fast as I nail up a new bit of wood, he finds a way through.

The other great excitement has been our new incubator, bought from Mole Valley Farmers, the great rural supermarket. This is a curious machine that replaces mother hen: it's a scientific birthing system. The idea is to replenish our hen stocks, as we are down to just three. We took seven of our hens' eggs and put them in the incubator. This machine reminds me uncomfortably of the "hatcheries" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It sits in the corner of the kitchen, buzzing and whirring and occasionally rotating. You have to keep it topped up with water. There is a digital display on the top which tells you how many days to go till hatching. Chicks take 21 days to develop in the egg. Then comes the wonderful moment when you first notice a little crack in the shell. Out comes a tiny – but sadly motherless – chick. It remains in the incubator for at least 12 hours, then you move it to a box with a hot lamp hanging over it. And it's true: they really do go "cheep cheep cheep".

Our chick-rearing box is in the same area as the puppy enclosure, so now we have a sort of super-nursery area. The chicks soon started squeaking and walking around and it was a wonderful to see. The process reminded me of that fabulous short story by Guy de Maupassant about the enormously fat innkeeper who becomes so ill he retires to bed. His wife is furious that he is no longer contributing to the daily chores, until she realises that he can be used as an incubator for her eggs. The eggs stay nestled into his side for 21 days, whereupon they hatch. And the man feels fairly maternal towards the little chicks, as indeed we have with our incubator, despite its associations of the hospital.

The downside of all this new life is the huge new amount of mess that it has created. The puppies live on sawdust and this spreads everywhere. Nine lots of little turds need to be cleaned up constantly. Then you have the hens wandering into the house crapping everywhere. It seems that our main task these days is cleaning up various sorts of shit around the place. As we are not natural cleaners and tidiers, the house descends into chaos fairly quickly, and this can lead to rows. I argue for better systems. But what with all the work and the cooking and the admin and the real-ale drinking to be done, it's difficult to fit in much cleaning. The occasional frenzy with the Henry vacuum cleaner, wondrous machine though it is, is not really enough.

The problem is that I don't actually know how to clean. Cleaning doesn't come naturally. It is an art and it has to be learnt. It should be taught in schools alongside Shakespeare. We should go on cleaning courses. And ideally, we should apply an existential philosophy to cleaning and learn to love it. As with existentialism generally, it ain't easy. That's why someone needs to write a book called Cleaning and Nothingness. I'd buy it.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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