Christmas isn’t about giving. Or receiving. It’s about washing up. And for some of us that’s its greatest joy.
You think men hide from housework? Not when it comes to the soapy science, we don’t. Virtually all my male friends share a love of the bubbles. For us, ‘festive season’ equals ‘even more plates and cups to wash than usual’, and so we’re happy as pigs in Fairy Liquid. Why do we feel the lure of the sink, when other household tasks send us scurrying? Simplicity is part of it: ironing is fiddly, vacuuming and dusting unproductive, in that they leave you with literally nothing to show for your efforts. I know that’s the point, but it’s still an annoying one. Washing up, on the other hand, rewards you with a massive pile of clean dishes, an Everest of achievement.
But the real reason, the one that echoes in our soul, is that washing up is therapeutic. Chris Evans used the T-word when he confessed on-air to his love of the task. Italy’s men cited it in a survey that revealed them as Europe’s keenest sud-monkeys. There is something supremely relaxing about immersing your hands in hot water, the soothing routine of wash, stack, wash, stack. It’s a Zen-like state where troubles disappear and inspiration thrives. Sherlock Holmes graded problems by the number of pipes he needed to smoke while solving them. My equivalent is the number of refilled sinks.
Like all truly noble endeavours, washing up has time-honoured rituals. ‘Washing as you cook’ is a particular pleasure, allowing regular hits of the drug amidst your peeling and boiling. Real aficionados even extend this to ‘washing as you eat’. Grayson Perry’s wife says he does ‘that wonderful, restful thing of washing up all the dishes between the main course and dessert’. But adding fuel to the theory that washing up has a male bias, she adds: ‘He doesn’t do it if he has a dress on, though. That’s the only annoying thing about living with a transvestite — he thinks it’s feminine to just hang around in a chair.’
If you’re using a bowl, rather than going commando with the ‘sink only’ option, the final pleasure is rinsing out the bowl and wiping its bottom with your cloth (Freudians, please discuss). There’s some famous footage of Margaret Thatcher doing just this. Now there was a washer-upper. So keen was Maggie on the chore that during one prime ministerial visit to Balmoral she insisted on washing up after the barbecue. Bit of a problem there: by tradition this occasion is the Queen’s yearly turn at the task. She even retires to a special hut to do it. Only after some discussion did Her Majesty prevail.
Gloves are controversial. For me they’re a no-no — condomish insulation from the water’s heat. Ideally the temperature should render your hands scarlet. (Unless you’re Chris Evans, who prefers his water tepid. Just not natural — the man needs watching.) One of my friends likes water so hot that his hands have actually started to scale up; reluctantly, he is now donning the Marigolds. Another solves the problem with moisturiser. Truly, washing up is the road to metrosexuality.
Not to relationship contentment, though. You’d think my partner would be pleased about having a human dishwasher as her other half. But no, still she wages a tireless campaign for a real dishwasher. Those aforementioned mountains of drying dishes, you see — they remain as mountains or, in her words, ‘structures’, as though I’m entering them for the Turner prize. I claim this is to let the dishes dry naturally. She calls it laziness.
She may be right, but nevertheless I maintain that dishwashers are evil. You’re always round at people’s houses, about to rinse a solitary coffee cup, only to be told ‘no, no, put it in the dishwasher — we’ve got to get some use out of it’. This is a horribly socialist argument, like that advanced by litter-droppers who claim to be ‘keeping street-cleaners in a job’. A friend of mine has two dishwashers, so he never has to put dishes away at all, just transfer them from one machine to the other. I can’t decide if this is genius or cast-iron proof of civilisation’s imminent doom.
You shouldn’t underestimate the scope for fun while washing up. Once, after a huge Sunday lunch, two of us dried as another washed. We started putting clean stuff back into the pile (drink had been taken). The washer-upper did the same plate four times before noticing — and even then it took the wheezing sound of our suppressed laughter to alert him. He’d been lost in thought, you see. It’s the tao of washing up.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012