So what about Cath Kidston, then? What about Kirsty Allsop? What about Anthea Turner and ‘Perfect Housewife’ series of yore (which I loved, and won’t even call it a guilty pleasure). There is nothing more therapeutic, I have found, than learning to fold a towel so that none of its edges stick out and it looks like a towel folded at a shop – new, pristine, full of possibilities.
What the hell, you say. What possibilities? It’s a towel. It will go beyond the possibility and definitely get wet. And not be washed when it should, because your partner dropped it on the floor and left it there. Or your son borrowed it for a pouring station floorcloth and spent all day getting it increasingly more and more soaked, pouring from one small plastic cup to another. Missing a lot. He will take off his small socks with the rabbits on them and determinedly dunk them in the cups, helpfully washing them for your delectation. You will scrunch up your nose and not say anything when he pushes them deep to the bottom of the cup, and the water slops over the sides, again. The towel is drenched. The carpet is drenched. You think about mould, and mildew – and critters! You cringe. And smile when he holds up the sopping dripping socks, and just leaves them on the carpet. He’s a happy chappy.
There. That’s the possibilities of your towel. It will fulfil its towel destiny of getting very wet and smelly. Later, it will no doubt get hair dye all over itself too, and change colour in streaks: either it will bleach out entirely or it’ll have dark brown all over it. A strange dirty dark brown.
What’s the point of all this?
The point is…the other day, other week; I was feeling all unaccountably tense and uneasy and stressed out. The usual, worrying about stuff I can’t do much about. I get like this a lot.
Which makes me want to control such as I CAN control. Like some aspects of my immediate environment. My home. This was way easier before I had Fluffhead of course. Before Fluffhead, I Anthea Turner-ed the entire bathroom in our old house (because it was the smallest and easiest room to do). I had hampers for the towels, which were folded PERFECTLY IN ORDER OF SIZE AND COLOUR. I had a matching bath and toilet mat. I had a matching loo roll holder and loo roll container/ dispenser thing (what are those called?) that sat beside the toilet, looking all tidy and pleased with its shiny self. My loo rolls matched the other colours. Everything was mint green, white or cream. My eyes felt rested by this.
Looking at that one perfectly ordered room (all its shampoos etc tidily stacked in little baskets on the ledge and dusted for that weird sticky bathroom dust) – I felt my chances of combusting in a fit of apoplexy diminishing exponentially. Before my eyes. I used to stand in the doorway to the houses tiniest room and just…not have tense shoulders. Breathing more slowly. Relaxing.
Stanley found it most amusing that he always had to elbow me out of the way to get into the room to have a pee. (After which I would sometimes supervise moppage in a very bossy and unnecessary way, because I am bonkers and men can be messy.)
Anyway. So when I think of my immediate environment, I think of all those images I have absorbed since I was small. The idea of a home, the idea of this cool, quiet, calm environment where you can rest (notice I didn’t say warm, noisy and full of children). It’s full of pretty things. Useful things. It’s more or less tidy. Not like a show house, it’s not pristine and scary; but it’s not a tip. (There aren’t children’s toys EVERYWHERE…and wet small socks randomly on the carpet where you’d least expect them, going quietly mouldy. There aren’t boxes in every room, on the floor, on the wardrobe, on every available surface, Amazon boxes, market fruiterer boxes; storing all your boyfriend’s models and computer bits. There aren’t computer bits – wires, cables, chips, bits of motherboard – everywhere. Next to the toaster, for gawds sake.)
When stressed I always get to a point where philosophical viewpoints cease to soothe me, ethics and magick seem like the background to someone else’s life…
First I notice I want to read magazines more. I don’t do Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmo etc. They seem from my looking, to be full of vacuous looking ultra thin fashion victim ads, and precious little content. I read (when I do, which is thrice a year-ish now), Prima and Essentials. I first bought those years ago because they came with free dressmaking patterns. They aren’t home-making magazines, but they have doable, beautifully photographed craft, cookery and sewing sections. They count as Aspirational Home Porn fodder. I swim in the pastel sea of gentle crafts and improvements, and A line skirts cut on the bias you can sew in an evening: ‘little skill needed’.
Then I dive into fiction. When I get to an even more precise stress point, only utter escapism will do. The world of grown up chick lit. Where Jane Green lives. Where Lisa Jewell lives (though, if you’ve read her last, you may well agree with me that she has gone mainstream and shouldn’t be hindered or limited by the chick lit label anymore). Where the Queen Marian Keyes lives. They write about real life issues and dilemmas that women encounter, but with compassion (not treacle) and humour. Through a veil of friendships, pretty landscapes. Homes.
I’ve given up watching rom-coms in this state. They are usually U.S. made, and not only do I want something a bit more familiar and close to home to identify with, I also want the bad teeth of the UK people, our speech mannerisms, our diffidence, our national pessimism. I want less gloss, groomed-ness and perfection from my fictional females. Less husband hunting.
I never read chick lit where the women are super rich. I like my women at or close to my own level – i.e. the escapism works best if I can imagine being you or I can imagine getting to where you are. Its escapism, but only because of the story structure, the happy ending of one sort or other, guaranteed. And the depictions of solid friendships among women, without competition or back biting. That’s worth aspiring to.
And sometimes it’s lovely to read the descriptions of the homes.
Which brings me back to Cath Kidston, Kirsty Allsop, and Anthea Turner.
It’s a whole different post to talk about why baking, home-making and Being a HomeMaker, in a 1950s approved perfect hair smiley keep the house nice for your husband kind of way, has become a mini subculture among some women in the last 10-15 years. Why some feminists are worried by it. In that: it is a choice among many to choose to be an old style housewife; but some of its manifestations are sexist and retrograde…are some women that subscribe to this new HomeMaker culture simply abandoning their hard won lives outside the home with careers and later or no children; are they simply and deludedly hiding from 21st century life with their floral housedresses and tiered trays of cupcakes? There's more than one reason for doing this, too. Do not bother to get mad with me or send me answers on a postcard. I’m just describing the debate for you. As I say – not going into the ramifications of that, here. I’m not a paid up member of either side of that debate. I see the feminist worry and I share it. But…
Oh my lord, do I see the lure of the idea of a perfect home. A ‘Perfect Home’. A sanctuary.
So: Cath Kidston. I won’t pretend to know a lot about her. All I know, is that our shops have been increasingly invaded by overpriced (ok quality) lotions, handcreams, pots, canisters, storage thingies of multiple sizes and patterns, aprons, mini rucksacks – also of all types and patterns, but mostly very very floral. You name it, it will have her name on it and it will be floral or dotty, very colourfully, yet delicately. (Think old time Laura Ashley, of the1980s.) I know there’s lots of craft products, and cooking products. She seems to be the highly floral backdrop to the crafty/makey things at home element of the homemaker movement. I don’t own any of her stuff: too pricey. And it’s become so ubiquitous I rebel. (Even though there’s a strong part of me that will always be floral, and want to store things in pretty matching tins.)
And Kirsty Allsop. All those programmes she does about relocating, and making things: another proponent of the perfect, tidy, handcrafted home: smelling always of baking things with cinnamon. I mention her as she is also something of a phenomenon in the HomeMaker movement. I don’t go for her at all. I like the fact she’s a properly decent sized female – no size 0, 8, 10 or even 12 there. I have no idea what size she is, but she eats that food she makes. I do like that. But I dislike the crafty side of things. All the bits and pieces and ingredients: its all too fiddly, too enormously expensive. I don’t have the spare money to go and get all these supplies. I don’t have a car to get me to the craft shop out of town on the motorway. I don’t have time to go to papier mache and pottery classes. And that’s a little tiny bit of the point about Kath Kidston and Kirsty Allsop: its all a bit overly upper middle class role playing. Passionately devotedly real to them…but when I try it, it doesn’t feel real, it feels like role playing.
It’s nothing to do with the real world where I live, where I count the pennies with increasing worry and recently learned to darn socks properly. My craftyness is mixed with much more of a Wartime Farm feel, its very make do and mend.
I think Anthea Turner will have to be my favourite. I loved her military control freakery as she tidied other people’s houses, and forced them to store their bits of RANDOM COMPUTER CABLE, STANLEY! in pretty matching storage boxes. (Some of which were painted shoeboxes. Easily done.) I love the way she decluttered. I love the way in the Christmas episode, she used old crappy jewellery for Christmas Tree ornaments, the way she iced biscuits with a child. Not expensive biscuits. Regular biscuits. Her crafts were doable, quite simple.
She restored order. She made melba toasts from old bread. She showed me how to make cheap cocktails. I can hear reassuring Northern in that voice, much as she seems to have tried to lose it.
Through Anthea and her shiny eyed perky haired obsession, I saw how at some point, an orderly pretty home, with children in it, was a real possibility. (When they’re a bit older than Fluffhead.)
Seeing through her eyes, I can pare down my space (er, I have books floor to ceiling on 2 walls of my room) and make it more breathable and liveable. A place I can dream and work towards a dream. I can be Perky Chicklit Juniper there.
I could sit under the cherry tree, currently still exploding with (wet soggy) blossoms, with my Cornish friend aka Daisy Ginn, and sip at our ice cold cheap Bellinis, as I promised her. It’s a lot about a sort of simplicity. About things not being as complicated or hard on the head as they are in real life.
I could have a life I enjoy being in as well as observing for its colour and light, its taste and tactility.
In this world, I am soothed by the thought that for 15 minutes straight my towel will remain perfectly folded – all will be well with my small corner of the world. Mmmmm.
I finish reading Rachel Hore’s The Dream House (2012). I pick up the recently started A Girl’s Guide to Home-making (2011) by Amy Bratley, and sip my camomile tea. Both these heroines also got caught in the Lure of the Perfect Home. Different results…it’s a fictional subject that keeps being returned to. We keep worrying away at it, wondering how achieving it would change things for us; make us feel safer, or more in control, ready to face the world. It’s a powerful dream.
Back to the real world then…but maybe a bit later. I can’t have my perfectly folded towels right now; but I can read about other people trying to have them, or whatever it is that signals peace and order to them. It fascinates me, just as it fascinates so many other women.