Joe Bennett: That nameless anxiety that drives us to clean

Cleaning is a mindless job. It leaves most of your central processor idling.

Cleaning is a mindless job. It leaves most of your central processor idling.

OPINION: I had to collect a well-dressed person from the airport so I cleaned my car. The simplicity of those last four words is deceptive.

Since February 2011 the car has been a refuge for my dog. He goes there whenever there is a large earthquake, a small earthquake, an earthquake too small for any one else to notice, or a noise that scares him. Noises to scare him include fireworks, thunder, containers dropped on the wharf half a mile away, cap guns, balloons bursting, certain makes of helicopter, the chainsaw, the lawnmower and rain on the roof. The dog, in other words, is in the car a lot. Which is why I never get round to cleaning it.

Bravo on spotting this week's deliberate lie. The dog isn't the reason I don't clean the car. The actual reason is two reasons: that I don't mind a dirty car and that I do mind cleaning. And if anyone were to suggest that the second reason was the father of the first reason, I wouldn't put up too much of an argument.

I lured the dog out of the car with a biscuit, then I went at the back seat with the vacuum cleaner. I am no fan of the vacuum cleaner. I have only to pick it up and my back aches pre-emptively. But my reaction is as nothing compared to the dog's. When I take the thing out of the cupboard he growls at it. When I turn it on he runs to the car and trembles. So to take the vacuum cleaner to the car was a particular cruelty: like bombing a refugee camp.

On the back seat, several years of dog hair had matted into felt. The nozzle gagged on it and the engine wheezed like a consumption ward. I found more joy in the foot-wells, where a lot of gravel and a few coins rattled pleasingly up the pipe.

Cleaning is a mindless job. It leaves most of your central processor idling. As I set about shifting dust from the dash board, dust deep enough to beg for a scribbled witticism, my mind idled back to childhood and a neighbour called Mr Perch. There was never dust on Mr Perch's dashboard.

I was brought up on a middle-class housing estate. I saw it as a sterile place, a place where niceness ruled and nothing happened. But looking back now with adult eyes I wonder that I could ever have thought such a thing. All human life was there. Homer would have spun myths from it. Shakespeare would have found a dozen more tragedies. The fathers on that estate were every man who had ever lived.

I shall leave for another day the doer of good who went around the village in colossal shorts collecting rubbish in a sack and whom little boys learned to avoid. And I shall ignore too the mild-mannered auto-electrician whose wife claimed agoraphobia and issued him with gardening instructions from suddenly opened windows. And even the curly-haired gentleman who walked his dog till its paws bled, and who knew everyone and saw everything, like a constant pedestrian god. I shall concern myself only with Mr Perch.

I don't know what he did for a living but it required a tie and a serious look and leaving the house at the same time each morning. And every Sunday he drove his wife and bespectacled daughters to church in the car that he had spent Saturday morning cleaning. Cleaning very thoroughly, inside and out.

Only he cannot have been cleaning it for it had had no chance to get dirty. His cleaning can only have been metaphorical, a cleaning ritual, swabbing at something that was more than car. What? Well, Robert Graves would say Lollocks.

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In a poem of that name Graves describes Lollocks as being born "in all disordered backs of cupboard drawers".

They are the gremlins of chaos. They lurk in mess and decay. "When the imbecile aged are overlong in dying," says Graves,

"Lollocks come skipping

Up the tattered stairs

And are nasty together

In the bed's shadow."

The signs of their presence are boils on the neck.

And ways to keep them at bay include

"... hard broom and soft broom,

To well comb the hair,

To well brush the shoe,

And to pay every debt

As it falls due."

What Lollocks were eating Mr Perch? I'll never know, and he's dead now. But I have to acknowledge my own inner Mr Perch. The clean car pleases me more than I want to admit. I keep going out to admire it. The dog, however, is unimpressed. He's pleased only to have his refuge back.

 - The Dominion Post


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