Sunday Laundromat Musings

Never knew a trip to the laundromat could be such a catalyst for writing. Time to share some lengthy laundry thoughts. his isn’t so much a post as a book.

Part One

Laundrette or launderette ? You see I can’t even spell it. I prefer the American word Laundromat (though I was about to spell it with a double T at the end). No matter how this most socially interactive utility is spelt, this is where I am – Sunday lunchtime at the laundrette. As the rest of the world gorges itself slowly into an indigest Sunday afternoon stupour, I am sitting here watching the clothes as they cascade around in the tumble dryer.

Socks, jeans, shirts, pyjamas and suchlike all mix, mingle, flop, race and chase each other round the cavernous drum.  The mix of clothes and colours is very random. I am wondering if there is some way to arrange the clothes beforehand to achieve a colour-coded sequence in the dryer.  Clothes flailing round in a tumble dryer – an ephemeral art happening – a « sculpture » in movement. I should be filming this

I’m thinking of a darkened room in a modern art gallery with films of clothing cascading round in tumble dryers, projected on huge screens. Pointless but fun.

I’m thinking of a live installation – real Laundry cascading round real tumble dryers in a real laundrette. I’m not drying washing, I’m doing art. However apart from myself and the Romanian couple doing the weekly wash, there’s one around to appreciate our random living art.

There’s been a washing pile up at home. Too much to dry and nowhere to dry it on this damp and chill late November day. Were it decent weather, all this stuff would be outside, joyously jangling and dancing on the washing line. AND we hate indoor drying – half wet streaming Laundry draped over radiators all around the house. – Depressing and just a bit too public. What if a friend pops in? Does he or she really want to see my underwear drying? Do I want this person, however well we might know each other, having intimate knowledge of my underwear or my wife’s underwear? I don’t want to sit round having a drink with a friend as he eyes up my wife’s bras.  – Best solution for the winter day dry in the local laundrette.

This is the first time I’ve set foot in a laundrette for over twenty years. Despite the relentless march of progress, the technological revolution, globalisation, miniaturisation (and all other forms of progress that finish with « tion ») – the good old laundrette has not changed a bit. Well, what are you going to do to revolutionise your bog standard local laundrette? Lines of heavy « industrial » washing machines and dryers firmly riveted to the wall in case some steals them. The squat washing machines with their thick porthole doors – they look like miniature one-eyed robots – a line of Cyclops with an eye in their belly. The tall dryers with their massive glass door and cavernous drums looking like the entrance to a Black Hole. The lurid cracked plastic signs on the wall giving prices, operating instructions and safety advice – The Dos and Don’ts warning against the common denominator of human stupidity. Is anyone actually dumb enough to climb into a tumble dryer then get their friend to turn it on? Apart from clothes, what else are you going to put in a washing machine? Certainly not your kids – but in our common senseless, litigation-based society, if it ain’t written « DO NOT » it obviously means you can. Remember the  old lady who tried to dry her damp dog in her microwave – SPLAT.

A flood of memories, back to my student days when I lived above a laundrette on the Hackney Road in East London. « Has your flat got a washing machine » asked a friend « We’ve got six washing machines and four tumble dryers » And then there was the DIY dry cleaning machine – always out-of-order.  Friday night was washing night. We’d take down our dirty washing and a few bottles of wine and sit boozing with the other customers  as our socks, jeans and shirts swam round in the washing machine. Our Beautiful boozy Laundrette.

I suppose that there has been a kind of laundrette revolution. On my last visit to Paris, I found a laundrette cyber café – you could have a few beers, surf the net and do your washing all at once.

And why don’t we buy a tumble dryer or even an all-in-one washer dryer ?  My mum had one in her later years – it was just a little too greedy on the electricity and it did tend to not only dry clothes but also dry up any available air in my mum’s flat.

Certainly no one round here has a dryer – the good old clothes line is still a common feature in most gardens. A simple, effective and environmentally-friendly invention. The common clothes line – also the best way to get an insight into your neighbours’ lives.

Part Two

These Laundry musings have moved me to « salvage » a few lost Laundry posts from my former blogs.

A Few Thoughts On washing Lines – written in February 2010 for

Drying Day

Bright cloudless blue-sky sunshine but a wind that would Blow the horns off a bull (as the French say) – A perfect drying day – and across the gardens, washing lines are pegged to the full and heaving with the freshly laundered. There hasn’t been a drying day this good since September

Next door, there has been a washing frenzy – ten brown cotton shirts billow and flail about, ten pairs of workman’s trousers dancing a lusty jig in the wind. Maurice must have nothing to wear – pegged out to dry, is his entire collection of gardening apparel.

Washing lines – indicators of the state of play in our neighbours lives. And as far as I can see, everything seems to be normal, mind you, what do I really know about my neighbours? As much as they want me to know, but, for all I know, Michel could be running a brothel in his spare bedroom. The kids are off studying and putting son and daughter through medical school is pricey. Maurice might be knocking up moonshine in his cellar – his garden produces tones of fruit. He can’t be eating all of it.

Just how much do you really know about the « nice folks » next door ? How much do you really want to know?

The Saturday Morning Machine

(more neighbourly washing line musings from September 2009 on

The Laundry basket in the bathroom  is overflowing, time for that weekend ritual – The  Saturday Morning Machine.  I’m not bad at washing now. I seperate the whites from the colours, turn the jeans inside out like it says on the washing instructions, then head down to the cellar and shove the coloureds in the machine on programme 5 (One hour wash at 40° with 700rpm spin dry)…

…, time to hang out the washing. Yes, the skies are ominously grey, but on Michel’s side of the fence, Madame Michel is hanging out hers. It never rains when Elizabeth (Michel’s spouse) hangs out the washing. We reckon that she must have a direct line to God. She and Michel are very churchy. Stalwart and resolute regulars at Sacré Cœur – our local Parish Church (Church of the sacred heart), mind you, I don’t know if they’ll be going so much now. Michel and Elizabeth liked the old priest because he gave a good sermon. Always very thought provoking, something to chew on with the roast over Sunday lunch. Recently though, the Father Bertand left and now we’ve got a modern « wishy washy » priest. « Very pleasant but no substance » says Michel.

So, Elizabeth has been on to God and the Almighty has promised a rain check on the rain. It is safe to hang out the washing.

Thanks to Michel’s engineering genius, Elizabeth has a stout and sturdy multi level washing line.

Wire of military origin « borrowed » from the arms factory (where Michel works), fixed between two concrete posts of Michel’s construction. First line one metre twenty off the ground – towels, jeans, dresses and such like. Second line twenty centimetres above, for socks, pants, knickers and vestments of this ilk. On days when sheets need drying, they go on the top line normally reserved for socks and “undies”. This of course covers the first level, so Michel has added a spool to one of the posts, from which Elizabeth can unreel another line at a height of fifty centimetres above ground level for hanging out underwear and such like. Elizabeth proudly boasts that she can get the content of three full machines out to hang when all her lines are deployed.

Washing lines betray lives. You can read the lines in the gardens like the lines on a person’s hands. This weekend, Michel and Elizabeth have got the kids home. Son and daughter are both at medical school. White coats and green operating gowns billow and dance in the wind. On the underwear line bras and knickers also flutter gently, joining the joyous line dance. These aren’t Elizabeth’s, they look vaguely sexy and shop bought. Elizabeth’s » bras look like they have been knocked up out of two tea towels – yes Madame Michel is a generous woman and more than just a stalwart of the Church, she is just stalwart. She never talks, but cries, shouts, even screams across the gardens at her neighbours. Even face-to-face, she bellows, but this is Elizabeth full of Joie de vivre. She undertakes everything with the red, fresh-faced enthusiasm of a Young Pioneer working for a higher cause. Baking, gardening, Church-going, no matter, Elizabeth throws herself into it body and soul. This woman has the pioneer spirit. As she digs the garden , I can imagine her laying railway lines across some vast desert, then feeding the 5000, like the Good Lord himself. Maybe this is why her house, though pristine always smells of sardines.

Part Three

And finally – what was going to be the disjointed and dysfunctioanl opening chapter of the unpublished novel that I’ve been trying to write for three years.

Of weekly baths, washing machines, smelly shirts, underpants and funerals.

(In an effort to explain why I am where I am at a particular point in time which will also explain what is to follow. written in October 2011 following events in October 2010)

Wrinkled like a prune

The washing habits in our house were pretty close to those of wartime Britain (meaning minimalist). As kids, my brother and I got a bath on Sunday nights and during the week there was a daily “dab” with a soapy flannel. I was never conscious that we smelled bad and it never occurred to me that things might be different in other families.

Mum always maintained that there was no point in having more than one bath a week. Too much bathing was bad for the skin, it washed out all the natural oils. “If you have a bath everyday, you’ll  end up all wrinkled like a prune,” she’d say. Besides we had swimming lessons at school, so the once weekly dip in the local pool was just s good as having a second bath.

The main maternal argument against over-washing though was based on expense and wear and tear. Mum claimed that she didn’t have the money to go heating up water for baths everyday. Hot water was a Sunday treat. If you wanted a bath on any other day, it had to be cold. “You know the boiler’s on its last legs and I haven’t got the money to repair it or get a new one.”

Claggy Brother

Sunday bath night ritual meant that mum always got the first bath around 6pm, so that she could get dinner cooked. Next up was my brother and if he wasn’t too claggy that particular week, I would get his bath water.

“The water’s freezing!” I’d scream down the stairs, at which point mum would boil up a kettle and a few pans of water to pour in the bath.

I tried to convince mum to get a shower installed on the grounds that it would use far less water. A few days after my suggestion, mum came home, clutching a rubber shower attachment for the bath. (Very common in the 70’s. The kind of attachment actually designed for washing one’s hair). The rubber accoutrement had two tubes equipped with adaptors to fix it to the hot and cold bath taps. The aforementioned tubes then joined into one long tube, at the end of which was a small showerhead. “There’s your shower,” smiled mum, thrusting the rather perverse looking attachment into my hands one Sunday evening. I hooked it up as best I could, but the damn thing never stayed on the taps long enough, the first sign of any water trickling through the tubes had the shower thing spurting off the taps and flailing round the bath like a two tentacled squid.

Why do I need a washing machine?

Mum’s maxim on personnel hygiene also extended to the washing of clothes. We never had a washing machine.

“Why do I need a washing machine when there is a perfectly good laundrette down the road?  Besides …” Yes, a washing machine was an unnecessary expense, even a luxury and if we had one it would only break down. Makes me wonder why we ever had a car or a TV.

So, like us, our clothes got washed once a week. It was the Saturday afternoon family outing. We would hump big bags of dirty washing down to the laundrette, shove everything into the same machine (coloured and whites together) then mum would feed the machines vast quantities of change that she had got from the bank on the Friday afternoon. The average family wash cost around a tenner. For the fifteen years or so that mum did the weekly laundrette wash, she could have bought herself several washing machines and avoided a lot of hassle. So went my thesis. Mum’s antithesis …” It’s all very well washing the stuff, but I’ve got nowhere to dry it, so I’d just go down to laundrette anyway to use the tumble dryers.” 

I have to add at this point that mum never ironed anything. “You don’t need to iron clothes when they have been in the tumble dryer.”

Manners and Ironing.

Now, I know we had an iron. Mum showed it to me when I was 9, after a “lecture” on “manners and ironing” from my class teacher, Mrs Perkins (it went as follows)

“When raining, It is good manners for the gentleman to walk on the outside of the pavement nearest to the kerb and let the lady walk on the inside. In this way, if car comes along and drives in a puddle, it will splash up water on the Gentleman’s clothing and no on the lady’s. Of course the lady will have to wash and iron the gentleman’s affairs.”

There then followed a “poll” – whose  mother has an iron? – “I don’t know if my mum’s got an iron,” I sheepishly told Mrs Perkins, when I was the only member of the class not to eagerly thrust my hand into the air to prove that my mum was just as normal as everyone else’s. Mrs Perkins therefore asked me to ask my mum.

After school – “Mum have you got an iron?”

Mum rummaged through the cupboard under the stairs and produced a brand new iron sitting in an unopened box. She then put it back and we got on with life.* Tumble dryers were as good as irons and mum hated ironing, as she did all household chores

Jiving with the monster

Mum’s hostility to washing machines was probably based on her first washing machine experience. When mum and dad got married in June 1960, one of their wedding presents was … a washing machine – An enormous, circular, top-loading monster that made a noise like a helicopter lifting off the ground at close quarters. As far as I can remember it was a Bendix model that incorporated a spin dryer. When dryer kicked in, the machine would shake, rattle and roll, and occasionally jive and jitterbug its way across the kitchen. I can’t remember it being plumbed in to anything. When mum did the washing, she would drag the machine as close to the sink as possible, then attach a tube to the tap to let the water in and then put the outflow tube (or pipe) from the machine into the sink. It was hassle, and, the machine broke down on several occasions. Far easier to go to the local laundrette.

Smelly shirts

Of course, the weekly wash meant that you had to wear clothing for longer than was healthy. School shirts were a problem. I only ever had one school shirt that did me right through secondary school. In winter when it was covered by a sweater and a blazer it was fine, but in summer, when the school authorities allowed pupils to strip off their winter layers and work in shirt sleeves – danger YELLOW ARMPITS.

“Er, mum, any chance of you washing my shirt tonight, erm it’s got erm ….”

“If you think I’m humping big bags of laundry down to the laundrette, you’ve go another thing coming.”

“What about a new shirt…?” I ventured

It was a typical mum solution to the problem. She put some bleach on a sponge and proceeded to wipe away the yellow patches.  This was just one of many shirt solutions – if, for example, a button fell off, she wouldn’t sew it on, she’d just tell me to use a safety pin. By the time I left school, my shirt had home in the armpits where the bleach had eaten through, and it was held together with safety pins. And when the shirt got too smelly … just zap it with some spray-on deodorant and leave to air over the back of a chair.

I never got a new shirt because … (according to mum)

“Why bother with a new shirt, I mean you only wear it for school.”


“You don’t need a new shirt, you’re only at school for another couple of years. It would be a waste of money.”

A pair a day

There was however one article of clothing which mum insisted we change regularly – UNDERPANTS – a clean pair everyday.

“You never know what’s going to happen to you,” the standard maternal lecture. “Imagine if you had an accident and were wearing dirty underpants? What would people think?” Mum was deadly serious. It seemed to matter little to her that I get run over wearing a stinky shirt or smelly socks. Clean “undies” though – that was a different matter. It seemed that social standing could be measured in terms of the cleanliness of one’s underwear. Presumably only children from “bad” homes had skidmarks. So, I never got a new shirt, but I had draws full of underpants, and when there were no clean ones left, mum would go out and buy new ones.

21 Pairs

Anyway, today, I have no clean underpants left and on this damp, overcast, breezy late October afternoon, I am in Marks and Spencer’s buying underpants. I can’t wear dirty pants to mum’s funeral, it just wouldn’t seem right.

In underpant terms, I have been here for 21 pairs. The outcome of my journey was obvious, mum only had a few days to live, however, I did not expect the mechanics of death to take so long.

Now, I know what you are thinking – couldn’t I have washed a few pairs? Well, no. Mum’s washing machine died on the same day she did.

End of the cycle

I owe you a washing machine explanation.

In 1994, when it was pretty clear that my brother and I had finally left home, mum sold her crumbling semi in Bromley and moved in to a new flat in Beckenham. (Leaving one sinister part of south east London for a slightly less sinister part) The flat had a new fitted kitchen (mum’s first ever) and fitted in the kitchen was a washing machine and a tumble dryer. Both appliances worked and mum used both, she even said on occasion that if they broke down, she’d just buy new appliances – “you get cheap washing machines now, no point in getting them fixed if they break down.” For 14 years, the machine worked perfectly, then in 2008 it started to malfunction, roughly the same time that mum did. In and out of hospital for two years with no time or inclination to sort out the machine, it was never used until the evening of her death, when it became clear that I would be over for far longer than expected and thus decided to wash a few things. Besides, I needed to do something practical to take my mind off things.

Mum quietly faded away at the end of her cycle. The machine stopped in mid cycle. It made a horrible clunking sound and died.

Apart from phoning family and friends to break the news of mum’s death, I also spent part of the even scooping water out of the washing machine, wringing out soaking laundry and trying to find enough radiator space to dry it all. Then I had a brainwave – go to the laundrette – well, in the coming days I spent hours traipsing round Beckenham, humping a big bag of sodden laundry and … no laundrette. It took about four days to get everything dry, which of course meant nipping into Bromley by bus to buy some interim clothing.

Now after a failed washing cycle, here I am on this damp, breezy, overcast, late-October afternoon in M&S choosing new underpants for the end of mum’s life cycle.

I‘m quite enjoying this most bland, banal and boring of activities.  I need the familiarity of High Street names. I need to know that life goes on. Mum is gone but Marks and Spencer’s is still there. I need everyday actions that come as refreshing distractions after weeks of dying. Buying underpants in M&S –