Joe Bennett: Use a tumble-dryer? Knickers to that

There's something quite noble and honest about a traditional clothesline laden with those things that would otherwise ...

There's something quite noble and honest about a traditional clothesline laden with those things that would otherwise not see the light of day.

OPINION: Sturm und drang, sturm und drang, everywhere is sturm und drang, with sturm meaning storm, of course, and drang meaning, well, I've never felt the need to know. The sound of drang is enough. Oh lord save us from drang, now and in the hour of our death.

But the lord is not saving us from drang. The dear old lord has gone all old-testament of late and is dropping drang like a B52. Earthquakes, hurricanes, monsoon flooding, North Korean nukes and Buddhist butchers, misery in Yemen, misery in Myanmar, all the old tribal divisions flaring up, fascists drifting back into Western parliaments, and the most powerful political office in the world delivered into the hands of a maniacal toddler. It's drangland to the max. Drang wherever you look. Unlimited fodder for the columnist. So I'm going to write about washing lines.

I may as well, because there's nothing new about drang. "If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident," wrote Thoreau, "or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter – we never need read of another.'' But also because of a hedge.

It's a north-facing hedge, a sun-facing hedge, and here in Lyttelton at this time of the year sun is precious, and so the owners of the hedge have taken to pinning their washing to it. And I am delighted.

Most of us have a washing line and we hide it out the back. We see it as a necessary blight, an unseemliness it is better not to advertise. For there is something confessional about washing. Washed clothes are not new clothes. Rather they're honest clothes, tailored to imperfect bodies, and in a world ruled by shopping, where commercial fantasies have replaced religious fantasies, there is less and less room for imperfection, for the body unbeautiful.

These days when I peg out a week's worth of underpants, peg them out side by side, then stand back and gaze on their expanse, their XXOS acreage, my inner teenager gasps with wonder and with horror. "How did this happen?" he whispers, "this was not what I meant at all." But his piping treble is quite drowned out by my inner ironist, who flings back his head and guffaws. Time tells only one joke but it's a cracker.

I once saw a washing line hung with half a dozen boiler suits. A breeze had plumped their arms and legs and they looked like hanged men dancing. I like the way a pegged shirt streams out with the wind, its arms reaching for the horizon. I like the flawed honesty of a single sock, better still of a single sock with a hole in the heel. And I like to see old bed sheets, the wind filling them like sails and cracking them like whips, so when next they cover the sad sag of a mattress they bring a fillip with them, a whiff in their threads of the fresh spring air. For to peg out clothes isn't just to dry them. It's to infuse them with the world's breath.

The enemy, of course, is the tumble dryer. It's too easy, too convenient, too close to the washing machine. It crumples shirts and it costs me money and it infuses my clothes with nothing but static, but I am a lazy beast and I often succumb to sloth.

My mother never had the chance. She got from nought to 94 without a tumble dryer and for most of the 20th century she had washing on the line. To her the sound of raindrops was a starter's gun. She'd sprint for the back door and the line of washing, ripping down a family's worth of socks and shirts and towels and knickers, dashing back with them over her arm, racing against god.

My mother's pegged her last sock, but in her time she formed one link in a chain of washing and drying that goes back centuries. For when I saw the hedgeful of Lyttelton laundry I immediately thought of Falstaff, Shakespeare's Falstaff, coward, braggart, thief, drunkard, liar, glutton and one of the most endearing characters in literature. In Henry IV he recruits some rag-tag soldiers to fight for the king, mostly broken old men and paupers, but who, he reasons, "will fill a pit as well as any".

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As for their uniforms, "there's but a shirt and a half in all my company, and the half shirt is two napkins tacked together," he says, "but that's all one; they'll find linen enough on every hedge".

Drang comes and drang goes, but some things stay the same.

 - Wellington


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