Saturday, December 08, 2007
Of household chores my favourite is to hang out clothes on the line. We have three and they fill the backyard, leaving space for the little birds to feed and flit and flirt. None of that bourgeois landscaping is needed. Ivy creeps over the fence from next door and that’s enough greenery but we might plant a few herbs. There’s also a bench, which I hope will be kissed by the summer sun.
My favourite poem is about a clothesline. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote it and in a speech he recalls the San Francisco of 1950, long gone. It (the poem not the speech, but I recommend that too - click the link) begins:
Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
among the charley noble chimneypots
of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines
a woman pastes up sails
upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
with wooden pins
He also refers to chimney-pots. Today I walked in the rain: chimneys everywhere but only one with smoke curling up from it. “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” asked Villon in a sentiment echoed by poets through the ages. Now we may worry less about the snows of yesteryear and more about those of tomorrow. As for the curling smoke rising in clear air to mark human habitation, it’s not even a memory for the new generations. West Indians arriving in the Fifties and Sixties recall the astonishment of their first day in London. In every street chimneys produced smoke: they could not believe there could be so many factories. Here in this valley, there actually are factories in every street, as in my picture below, but their chimneys are mute.
What’s so special about hanging out clothes? It connects us to the wind and clouds and sky, as do those chimney-pots. These are the time-hallowed things, the time-hallowed chores. As a child I had the task of laying fires each winter morning: poking out the ashes from the grate, splitting the kindling, laying it on crumpled newspaper, placing small lumps of coal on top. It was a primitive skill which gave a primitive satisfaction, as John Cowper Powys celebrated in more than one novel:
“The lighting of his fire in the morning, the crackling of the burning sticks, and their fragrant smell, gave Mr Quincunx probably as much pleasure as anything else in the world.” Wood and Stone, page 80.
I have to stop myself. This is still not what I want to say. I don’t want to imply that the old times were better. Every generation has said that, looking back to the Golden Age of its youth. I may pity my grandchildren for being born into this new century, but they may look back on this time with nostalgia too, and it doesn’t mean that everything is constantly getting worse.
The irredeemable state of the material world has ever been the springboard to the spiritual life; it may act as the bully who pushes you into the pool of Providence, to sink or swim.
By some perversion of common sense, the rich countries have all but abolished physical labour. When we bought this house the previous owner urged us to buy his dishwasher, which was fully installed in the kitchen, but we said no. They took it with them, leaving a gap and a tangle of pipes. We could have put an electric clothes drier there but refused that too, preferring the time-hallowed dignity of chores. Why buy labour-saving machines? Then your body has excess energy which you need to spend on the labour-generating exercise machines in gyms, for which you have to work and earn. Is there dignity in work? Yes, if you live in the Third World. Otherwise, I am not so sure.
I’ve failed once more in my objective. I wanted to say . . . Oh never mind, I’ll keep on trying.
Posted by Vincent at 11:52 pm