Saturday, 14 July 2007

Being eaten by a washing machine, nostalgia and George Szirtes

Today I woke up at 5 am, sun breaking through and the wind blowing. My mother’s voice seemed to echo from beyond the grave…”A good drying day" so I get up and wash sheets. Now of course washing these days only demands hurling things into a machine, reading the paper or doing some writing whilst drinking tea and then pegging out on the line…the ultimate solar dryer. This hardly seems to deserve the word ‘washing’. I can still clearly recall the palaver of Monday as a child, the set wash day all over Nottingham. Bubble and squeak and left over meat from the roast on Sunday was the usual menu as this required less preparation and left more time to engage in the ritual of ‘the washing’. Pre a twin-tub and post ponch and tub era there was an enormous green enamel vat wheeled out that churned grey sludgy water round with a huge central paddle that looked as if it could have been stolen from a Mississippi river boat. Attached to this monster was an electric mangle, the well to do’s step up from the old free standing mangle with a cranking arm that prescribed a circle of Olympic proportions. Washing women did not require gyms in those days, arms were toned heaving a solid wet mass of sheets up to the mangle and wrestling with it to feed it through the two rollers that turned inexorably. If the amount became too bulky the rollers did spring apart without warning usually smacking the bent over woman in the face and causing major nose bleeds and two black eyes. Not all facial injuries to 1950’s wives were caused by domestic violence.
My mother believing that a girl should start to know her housewifely duties at a young age would sometimes leave me in charge of feeding small titbits such as tea towels to the electric mangle god. The art was ensuring you fed the item through evenly and straight. A tea towel at a wrong angle could start to bunch and ruche and there would be that frightening experience of something going in but nothing coming out. I learnt that lesson young, dear reader, no matter how carefully you prepare and work if you don’t come at something from the right angle it can all go pear shaped or rather in my case bunched wet tea towel shaped. One Monday, being ill with bloated white tonsils the size of small embryos, my mother decided that my illness whilst necessitating time off school should have the family motto applied to it “You’ll work it off”.

This motto had stood generations of my family in good stead and incidents of women going shopping three days after having’ everything down below taken away’ or men back at work the day after being run over by a carthorse were told round the fire in the evening to ensure these prime examples of ‘working it off’ were taken on board. I tried to apply it to the Boo and as a working mother it did prove useful sending her off to school feeling lousy with the family motto ringing in her ears. It stood her in good stead as she only had eight days off school in all of her school career and little time off any paid work she has undertaken since. Of course there was the time she projectile vomited into her Thunder Cat packed lunch box and the lunch boxes of the children either side of her but we won’t go into that.

Anyway the tale of me as small child trying to get the tea towels through the mangle. I was pretty good at it but no doubt on this occasion the tonsils must have meant I wasn’t at the top of my mangle feeding game. The tea towel started to go crooked so my six year old fingers decided I could wangle it through the mangle at a better angle (completely unintentional rhyme there). The mangle proceeded to eat my finger, then fingers in the plural, past the first joint and it just kept eating. I have to say it didn’t hurt that much; a doctor subsequently told me children have very pliable bones in compression situations. Just as well they were malleable as the hand went in then as far as my wrist and then I was up on my toes as the mangle was quite high off the ground and my arm seemed to be following. Where was the bloody automatic springing apart business I remember thinking, my skinny arm couldn’t have yet been as indigestible as a big screwed up bed sheet. I was bright enough to realise that I would not end up being eaten whole by the mangle. Then of course I did something really clever (I subsequently passed my eleven plus) I could just reach the plug flex and I yanked it out. Mangle stops but no springing apart; automatic disgorging of chewed items does not occur when the electricity supply is interrupted. My father read me the relevant passage from the Servis Washing machine manual afterwards in a slow ‘this is a lesson for life’ tone later. Indeed it has been a lesson for life I have never since pulled out a plug of any electrical item that is attempting to eat me.

My mother did release me manually with her usual accompanying quick slap to the head for having got my arm stuck in the first place and making wash day even more stressful for her. ‘Can you move your arm, can you move your fingers’ she said. I could so that was it, no ambulance, no sympathy, other than arnica for the bruises. As I was fine, not even a slightly flat arm to show at school later in the week, I felt somewhat cheated rather than relieved, children have strange priorities. I tell you this tale now because it popped into my head as I was pegging out the tea towels just now. I could use it in a poem but then there is probably too much nostalgia around these days anyway but I do recall it with something bordering on nostalgia.

The Boo tells tales of her childhood with definite nostalgia, she can talk for hours with friends about Thundercats and She-ra . In Prague not so long ago we even hiked up the steep hill to the castle to see The Barbie Exhibition at the little Toy Museum hidden in a back street. Nostalgia is something more than just memory; maybe it is the capacity to recall something with particular emotions attached, fondness, longing, even sadness without necessarily letting fact intervene. It can even occur when you would think there would be no capacity for any positive emotion to attach to an experience at all. I have worked with children, teenagers and adults, who have all experienced horrific things in their lives yet each one of them have had some things they remember with fondness, even a strange wistfulness in the midst of what we might see as unrelenting anguish.
I could make endless suggestions as to why this should be but the one that keeps coming back to me is the recent research I read that said that humans are ‘hard wired ‘ physiologically for narrative, we seek out the story. If I were to say barking dog, broken window, sound of running feet I expect each one of you have already joined up the dots to make those events into some sort of story. If it were the case that the dog is barking in Australia, there is a broken window in Islington and the sound of running feet is in an alley way in Iran it would indicate that there is no narrative, no causal link between those events at all but yet I know I still try to connect them. Time lapse animation works because the brain is not fooled into joining up the dots I think it demands that they join in order to make sense of something. So perhaps with nostalgia we do like to tell ourselves our own story about our own past and nostalgia is a tool we have in making that past less one dimensional, adding a warn fuzzy texture to the life we have led. Just a thought.

Read this poem by George Szirtes that literally plays with that idea of making our own story from half remembered, half forgotten things; which half dominates may be due to the emotion the memory evokes.

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