Thursday, May 27, 2010

CELIA AND THE WASHING UP

Part way through the writing course people are settling in comfortably. That's when the questions start coming, and one of the first - a question writers are often asked - is, how did I start writing.

Writers have a variety of answers, ranging from the I-just-had-to of the wracked poet in a garret, to Barry Crump's dedication on the title page of one of his novels: "For L.S.D." * Many women like me, stuck in dreary suburbs with small children, lurching between self-pity, trying to make the best of things, and dreaming of escape by means of impossible riches, begin writing because it doesn't involve housework and babies.

The writing that I tried to do back then was of the kind that Malcolm Muggeridge, when he was editor of Punch, loftily dismissed as of the "Celia and the Washing-up" school. It depended on taking some domestic situation (the washing-up, the teething baby, the kitchen disasters) and turning it over to see the funny side. The reader was expected to laugh, and get a warm fellow-feeling about it as well. This must be done superbly well if it is to succeed, and I didn't do it nearly well enough. I sent my wretched, heavy-handed pieces off to magazines and they came thudding back insultingly quickly. I was always half relieved, because I knew, in that deep place where you know uncomfortable things, that they were awful.

Other people, mostly women, were doing it very well indeed. Betty MacDonald had made a fortune writing about chicken farming in The Egg and I. Jean Kerr (Please Don't Eat the Daisies), Irma Bombeck and countless others were writing sharp, funny books and articles turning the trials of domesticity on their heads. Even a few men wrote that sort of thing, usually about DIY - like trying to change a tap-washer and flooding the basement.

The tone was rueful yet upbeat, down-to-earth but bracing, and we were cheered as we struggled with our own small domestic dramas. Hey, we're not alone, we said and shovelled another spoonful of moulied spinach into another protesting baby mouth. We understood that our problems were shared, and that some of them at least could even be solved. And we could laugh at them. As T S Eliot observed, humour can be a way of saying something serious.

The next wave - women like Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Marilyn French - put some muscle into a movement that became the second (or was it the third?) wave of feminism. There, I've used the F-word. Because writings by women, about women and their perceived place in society, and the questions they asked, and the demands they made for equality and respect and justice, were and are part of the (on-going) feminist movement. Celia acquired a little sophistication and style, and moved away from the kitchen sink. Domestic humour, quietly and not so quietly, became a political tool, even a weapon. Women wrote about anything they wanted to, risking public scorn and private battles. Rebecca West once snapped back that people called her a feminist whenever she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from a doormat or a prostitute.


Trailing behind those forthright women, I began to see that writing could be about more than domestic matters. My articles started appearing in newspapers and magazines - it was a rosy time, when freelance writers could expect a kind reception if they offered pieces that were timely, and competently written. If they had style and personality as well, all the better. Journalists were out chasing real news and didn't have time for the more leisurely kind of writing that freelancers do.

It is different now. Columns are syndicated, and not so many are written by people in our own communities, about things that other people can relate to.

Celia is getting older, and out of date. Washing-up is done by a dish-washer. What's funny about a dish-washer?

Painting is "Begonias" (detail)

* money