PRESSING MATTERS

I have a confession to make: I am rubbish at ironing. And folding too.

I find the secret life of a household’s laundry so fascinating. It reminds me of the legs of a swan frantically paddling below the surface, while the body glides serenely across the water. Women, in general, just don’t talk about how they deal with it.

Imagine the conversation: “Hiya, Sal, how’s things with you and Seb?”

“I’m OK, really, but I have got a massive whites wash to get through and I’m a bit worried about some of those rayon mixes. Do you think Seb might be having an affair at work?”

I judge myself to be something of a laundry obsessive but a total slut when it comes to the linen cupboard.

My mother tried her best to teach me to fold and press. She did it all herself, despite working full time as a teacher, so there was an unspoken expectation that I would do likewise.

Now, I superseded her in my handwashing abilities– I was doing the jumpers by hand from the age of 14– but I have never, ever been able to fold a piece of paper in half and get it straight, let alone a sheet or a towel. And that is before we get on to those fitted sheets. Jesus. Have you tried to fold one of those properly? I watched a YouTube video on how to do that once, and lost the will to live half way through.

I would like to share with you the secrets of my airing cupboard to prove my point.

In my dream life, I have a perfectly ordered, White Company cupboard full of crisp sheets and blanched towels, folded and stacked to perfection.

Now for the reality. On a good day there are some towels, misfolded, balanced precariously and a bundle of those blasted fitted sheets chucked in a corner and a few duvet covers, screwed up awaiting the iron.  On a really bad day it is a veritable battle scene; mounds of crumpled duvet covers are engaged in a full-on war with crushed sheets. The whole creased heap threatens to burst through the airing cupboard door, maraud down the stairs and take over the house.

At various points in my life, I have got somewhere near my dream of the perfect linen cupboard but that is only because I cheated and got professional help in the form of a cleaner who liked ironing. In fact, having just moved house last month, the first thing I did was hunt down a woman who could iron and throw myself on her mercy.

“I’m just so busy”

I said, blushing as I handed over two Ikea bags of higgledy-piggledy bedclothes to this complete stranger. “It’s because I am a writer.” Well, it is true, I am busy and a writer but I am also crap at ironing and I will never get over the shame of it.

That said, the laundry is my most constant companion throughout my writing day.

In fact, when I wrote Mad Frank and Sons – the biography of the Fraser crime family from London – I had recently moved into a small, rented house in a little Oxfordshire village, to be near the school we had chosen for our eldest son, who is severely dyslexic. So, I sat in the tiny box room at my desk and on rainy days, I would turn around and adjust the socks, school uniforms and underwear drying on the heated airer next to me. Writing breaks involved going downstairs to empty yet another load of washing. I would chuckle inwardly at other people’s notions about the glamour of having it all, as I paired socks and proof read.

I took comfort from the knowledge that Iris Murdoch had once lived in the very same village, a few hundred yards away up the road, in a state of complete disarray. She barely bothered with the washing and used to bathe in the pond in the garden and dry her clothes on the bushes. Every surface in her kitchen was covered with filth. Maybe this approach to the laundry and household upkeep is something I should seek to cultivate in order to improve my prose? If it was good enough for Iris…

In my old house in London– where space was at a premium– the clean, unironed, unsorted laundry lay in a basket at the foot of the bed, like some needy baby. I don’t know why I put it there because it was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I looked at in the morning. It became a constant reminder of my failings as a housewife. Perhaps there was nowhere else for it to go (the rest of the house was covered in Lego, but that is another story).

Having just moved into a bigger, rented property in another village, I can now hide the laundry and the airer in the spare room. It is still doing a great job on rainy days but I can’t break off from writing, turn around and adjust the socks or check if the pants are dry yet and I am missing it a bit.

Some people need solitude and neatness to write. I guess I just need a pile of washing in the background to spur me on.