Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Reading Silver Tiger’s post with the alluringly alliterative title of Drips on a Drab day took me back to the working summers I spent in Northampton during the early 2000s, where I used to stay with my father in his small pensioner’s flat. As he didn’t have his own washing machine I used to take the week’s laundry to the local launderette where I would ask for a “service wash” meaning that the ladies who ran it would also load the machines and driers and then iron the clean clothes while I was at work.

When commenting on this to acquaintances in Spain they almost invariably assume that the British must be grindingly poor if they can’t afford their own washing machines. In fact, I cannot, offhand, say that I’ve ever seen a coin-operated launderette in Seville.  I don’t deny that in some cases poverty might be the reason for their existence in GB, but I feel that practicality also plays a part. Small flats and houses mean that space is at a premium and so a large washing machine and the almost obligatory tumble dryer might be too bulky for some homes. Most people probably use the space more satisfyingly with a dog or cat basket and its corresponding furry occupant.

Although I used to ask for a service wash on weekdays, if I did the wash at a weekend I would invariably do it myself to let the whole sensorial experience – er – wash over me.

I love the smell of clothes being laundered. This might be a throwback to Monday washdays with my mother which were a very exciting event for a small child. These were the days before automatic washing machines and what we had was an enamelled tub filled with hot water from the geyser with an agitator at the bottom.

As the clothes swirled around the tub they could be pulled out with a large pair of wooden tongs and then passed through the mangle before being hung out on the line[1] Later the mangle was made obsolete by a primitive manic spin-dryer that hopped across the floor, water spewing out of a chute arrangement at its base, water that the overturned bowl in the opposite corner of the kitchen would have collected had the spin-dryer not decided to go hopabout.

For me, going to a launderette therefore brings back the smells[2] of those days, as well as providing me with an ever-changing array of conversational companions – indeed, at “Bubbles” in Northampton freshly-brewed tea and coffee was on offer for a few pence.

Perhaps the launderette is to some extent replacing the disappearing pubs as the hub of an area’s social life and information exchange. Perhaps it always has been. 

[1] There’s a beautiful anecdote about Yorkshire-born artist David Hockney and his mother. Being shown around Beverly Hills for the first time, and admiring all of those beautifully manicured lawns, she turned to her son and asked why, if it was such a nice sunny day, they hadn’t hung out the washing to make the most of the good weather.

[2] Proust had his madeleines, I have boiled sheets!

1 comment:

  1. Launderettes remain enduringly popular in Britain where there is usually one on every high street. They are the heirs of the public bath house (which often provided laundry facilities) and the "steamie" in the tenements of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

    In the crowded conditions of the slums where people often had no room to cook, let alone do their washing, the existence of public laundry facilities is easy to understand but why have they survived so vigorously into the modern age?

    The answer is simply "demand". The launderette we frequent is patronized mainly by students from the nearby student accommodation block, by other independent young persons, by older people who obviously live alone, and by families on holiday in London. Many accents are heard there, some domestic and others literally from the other side of the world.

    It seems that in Britain at least, there is a broad clientele for the launderette. Having your own washing machine may be be convenient but it is an expensive item to buy - and to repair when it goes wrong and you have to call out the engineer. You have to find space for it and that would be difficult in a tiny flat like ours. For people living in flats there is another problem: if the machine leaks you may find yourself paying to redecorate your neighbour's flat...

    Our monthly trip to the launderette, while not something we enjoy exactly, is part of our routine and we have it down to a fine art. As we normally need at least two large machines, the cost of a service wash would be prohibitive.