Every now and then, something from my working-class childhood floats up in memory to give me a shudder. The Nit Nurse, for example, or a scene glimpsed through a Blackpool window in 1993.
And then there’s Athlete’s Foot. Whatever happened to it? The 1980s was a golden age for Athlete’s Foot, a festive dusting of Tinaderm on the rim of every toilet bowl. Today? It is gone. I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins saying that “to allow a species to fall into extinction is to will the destruction of a masterpiece.”
Admittedly, Dickie may not have been thinking of Athlete’s Foot when he said that, if indeed he ever said it at all (which he didn’t), but it would be disingenuous for a biologist of his stature to so adore, say, the mountain gorilla and not our old friend tinea pedis, as I’d call it in said working class childhood.
“My tinea pedis, mater,” I’d exclaim in a broad Dudley accent, aggressively rubbing my de-socked feet against the rough edges of the Dudley skirting boards, “Ubi dolor, ibi digitus,” to which mother would inevitably respond “I’ll give you ubi dolor, ibi digitus ’round the head in a minute.”
But Athlete’s Foot is not what I sat down to tell you about today, loyal reader. No! That particular blast of nostalgia was merely the warm-up. What I’d meant to raise today is the strange case of the washed neck.
What was the grownups’ obsession in our childhoods with washing our necks? “Go to the bathroom,” they’d say, “and wash your neck.” I was forever being sent to the bathroom to wash my neck. The hours lost to it are probably why I never took the piano beyond Three Blind Mice.
Why the neck? Why not a traditionally smelly area like the armpit or, in my strange case, the arnus? Why not the hands, forever touching grubby surfaces and coving orifices as they do? Why not the fungus-addled feet? Or why not, simply, one’s whole self?
It was a long time ago, I suppose. Perhaps in those days they thought a clean neck kept draclias away (draclias being what we called Vampires in the British Midlands — not to be confused with Dracula who was simply a draclia who happened to be in the public eye). But if that was the case, why not pop a little clove oil behind each earlobe while you’re at it? And surely a clean neck could only make you more tempting to creatures of the night. Perhaps, then, it was a courtesy to the draclias. We knew our place.
Perhaps neck-washing was a sacred ritual to the British working classes and its significance was never explained to me. The human neck, if I remember my anatomy lessons correctly, is what keeps the human body attached to the human head (or your head attached to your body if you’re a pessimist, or your head attached to someone else’s body if you’re a surrealist, etc.) but beyond that I’m not sure of the significance of frequent localized neck cleansing.
Perhaps “wash your neck” was an aspirational expression, borrowed from a more arisocratic class who’d be understandably proud of a highly-buffed neck — a comforting, almost satirical superstition developed through their residual fear of the chopping block.
On the other hand, maybe it was a euphemism I failed to pick up on. Did “wash your neck” somehow mean “have a shit” or “tap one out”? Or! Perhaps it was a secret code between parents — a bit of predetermined patoir for “let’s get rid of the kid so we can get it on (i.e. neck)” perhaps?
Wait. I think I’ve got it. If we recall that “neck” sometimes meant “a brazen attitude” as in “a brass neck” or “the neck of hell,” perhaps “wash your neck” simply meant “reign it in, lad,” in a similar way to how “wash your mouth out with soap and water” was a response to swearing. If this is the case, then I spent far too much time in the bathroom taking the request literally. My poor parents. That poor, bald flannel.