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Wash your hands. Have you washed your hands? Good. Now wash your hands. Did you touch the soap while doing it? Oh dear. Wash your hands. Never in our lives have we been so conscious of the need for cleaning, which is your subject today. This year has been a festival of hand-washing, sanitising, disinfecting, wiping and scrubbing. Even for people who are normally scrupulous it has become a chore: for those who are genuinely obsessive-compulsive, it must be a living hell. If you want to look at this time of plague, then go ahead – talk about your cracking skin, your cupboards full of sanitising gel – but there are other ways to tackle the theme.
The tasks of cleaning are physical and mindful. Each task – washing the car, knocking out a pipe, doing the laundry, scrubbing potatoes – involves smell, sensation and the repeated rhythms of a simple task. Wipe surfaces clean of the fine sawdust that gathers in a workshop, scrub away the smell of cat pee or the trace of sticky fingers; polish shoes or clean windows; each chore is full of potential. Describe the job at hand, or follow a string of associations.
The inequalities of cleaning are well-known. Make use of that. Why are you cleaning the toilet again, and how come your partner spills coffee only on the freshest sheets? Does a professional cleaner do the dirty work of your house or your street? In the office, you might clean the hard drive, disinfect a virtual virus. Or look carefully at the vulnerabilities of personal cleanliness – bathing a child or a parent, teaching a toddler to brush her teeth, visiting a Turkish bath or getting your hair washed at the hairdresser; performing wudu in an inappropriate space, or just relaxing in the tub.
If you’re stuck, think about the opposite of cleanliness. The dirt of a teenager’s room, the pithead baths, the garden shed, the attic; each is distinctive. Disgust is a powerful and under-used tool in poetry. You might tackle the bloodstained crime scene, the flooded cellar full of debris, the industrial grime of the railways or the thick filth of a Sheffield smog in the 1950s – this, after all, is not the first time we’ve had to wear masks. Dirt isn’t always a bad thing. My dad, who saw me only at weekends, used to survey the mess in his house and say ‘Cleanliness is next to….. loneliness.’
Now wash your hands.