Escape Housework

Originally published in Idler 59.

If, like me, you’re not overly fond of lifting fingers and – even worse – wrapping them around the handle of a mop, you’ll have considered hiring a cleaner. I’ve never made good on this idea but it crosses my mind whenever I have have to clean the toilet (yes, every single year). Goodness knows I’ve tried to find pleasure in vanquishing the residual cack from beneath the rim, but it’s just not something I’m into.

I’ve long suspected, however, that hiring a cleaner is one of those throw-some-money-at-it solutions that’s more trouble than it’s worth and best avoided by the truly idle. Not only would you have to pay this person with money just as easily spent on beer, but you’d have to organise their tasks in some way, check that they’ve been completed satisfactorily and, of course, remember when the cleaner is due to come over. Anticipating that visit would be a source of constant anxiety to me: the bandwidth of remembering the appointment would either take over my life or I’d simply forget. Routinely, I fear, our cleaner would walk in on a horizontal Wringham, collapsed on the chaise in nothing but a fez, dozing stomach littered with pistachio shells.

Aside from these practical doubts, the moral idler wants to reduce the amount of grunt work in the world and hiring a cleaner is the antithesis of this. If you want to escape undignified toil, you probably shouldn’t generate it for others. Imagine the shame of your cleaner grassing you up in a future volume of Crap Jobs!

No, the net dignity and idle benefits of doing your own housework are perhaps greater than paying someone else to do it. Besides, how hard can it possibly be? I think I might have cracked it, so here are my solutions to escaping the ardours of house work without appointing a scrubber.

Small is beautiful. We’ve discussed the glory of minimalism before, notably in Idler 55, but it’s relevant in reducing housework. The less you own, the less you’ll have to dust or tidy or wash or otherwise maintain. Simplicity wins every time. Likewise, the smaller your home, the less space you’re responsible for. Instead of living like a bankrupt aristo — rattling around, alone, in an unmanageable stately home — live like Major Tom in a capsule, neat as a pin.

Don’t bother. Quentin Crisp lived in a small, rented apartment even after making his millions from The Naked Civil Servant. He also, reputedly, never troubled himself with housework. “After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse,” he famously wrote. It’s a matter of having courage enough to stare down the advancing dust without giving in. Crisp, apparently, would jump into his trousers “to avoid their trailing in the dust.”

Know that most housework doesn’t need doing at all. Even if you don’t go for “the full Quentin,” there’s all manner of shortcut to take. Your parents’ military standards need not be yours. A low-maintenance dandy, I’ve not ironed a shirt in about six years: if you hang a good-quality shirt immediately after washing, the wrinkles fall out on their own. I’ve not polished a shoe for a long time either; just wipe away any visible dirt with spit and a tissue. I’ve certainly not done anything as arduous as flipping a mattress recently, as you can easily buy one these days designed not to be flipped. The idea that bed linen should be washed weekly is absurd and washing trousers or jeans after just one wear is rather silly. While it’s nice to have a relatively tidy life, there’s no point inventing work for the sake of it.

Use housework to get out of other, worse things. If you need an incentive to clean just a little, you can at least trade it off against something even worse. “Sorry, I can’t come to your dreadful poetry night,” you can say, “only I’ve got a pile of laundry the size of the Matterhorn.” Personally, I use it as a reason to never, ever, go to the gym: if you use old-fashioned methods instead of technological ones (a brush instead of a vacuum cleaner) it’s tantamount to exercise anyway. I realise this isn’t strictly an “escape from housework”, but you can at least reduce strife elsewhere — like carbon offsetting.

Find someone who really likes cleaning. Everything is sexy to someone. Why not advertise in The Amorist or some kinky newspaper for an unpaid cleaner? You can sit back and bark commands through a megaphone while this poor, grateful, doubtlessly bald fellow scrubs your tiles. A helpful expression in this circumstance is “I want to see my face in it — not yours.” You might need to mop up one small stain at the end of all this yourself, unless you also happen to find someone who’s into that and before you know it you’ve got a fully-automated, housekeeping machine fuelled by deviancy.

Invite the kids do it. If you’re rueing your vain decision to help perpetuate the species, there might be a silver lining after all. Tom Hodgkinson writes in The Idle Parent, that it’s not difficult to enlist offspring in housekeeping efforts. Doing so will teach them responsibility while you rediscover Sambuca.

Don’t be messy. Instead of allowing the horror of housework to accumulate into the kind of super-chore necessitating a hazmat suit, it’s wiser to tidy as you go, or simply not generate dirt or untidiness to begin with. I realise this sounds a bit Mother Hennish but it’s the way to go. If you spill some sauce while cooking, wipe it up straight away. I haven’t “cleaned the kitchen” for years, I just keep it clean in this incremental, barely-noticeable way. If you couple this system with minimalism (having little to clean in the first place) and the rejection of less-purposeful cleaning tasks (giving bourgeois standards the cold shoulder) then it’s even easier. Take the garbage out when you’re on your way out to the pub. When you come back, hang your coat on its hook instead of tossing it on the bed. Put books back in the bookcase instead of leaving them lying around. There’s no need to hire a cleaner to do these things or even take off your fez.

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