It occurs to me that inanimate objects tend towards a sense of humour. The NorthernReader household had braced itself for the financial and physical onslaught of ripping out a lurid cloakroom and replacing it with a proper, glorious bootroom, with a huge sink for washing dogs as well as boots. Cue for our bathroom to give up the ghost. So I have spent the last few days with a lump hammer in one hand and a HUGE chisel in the other, bashing several million tiles off walls. The immediate future is one of strenuous manual labour punctuated only by the remorseless *CLICK* that is the sound of more and more money being spent online. It will all be worth it, I have no doubt, but for now I find myself with a morbid preoccupation with the bathing arrangements that crop up in books.
Oh for the up-to-the-ears bubbles of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day. Usually I re-read this entirely enjoyable short novel for its inherent promise that there is always another chance in life, but just at the moment it’s the bathroom fixtures and fittings that particularly linger. Quite apart from all its other delights, this is the best evocation of a Thirties London apartment that I know. And, hurray hurray, I have a new local heroine, because Winifred Watson was a Newcastle girl .
Bathrooms with gleaming tiles feature strongly in Dornford Yates’s The House That Berry Built, his lightly-fictionalised account of the building of his house in the French Pyrenees. Timing, alas, is everything, and Yates (the pen-name of Cecil Mercer) had less than two years to enjoy ‘Cockade’ before the German occupation of France forced him to flee. It says much, I think, that for his book he re-named the house ‘Grace-Dieu’, and certainly, whether you are charmed or repulsed by his characters – who are, shall we say, very much of their time – the loving detail with which he chronicles the construction of his hill-side house, and the description of rural southern France in the late Thirties, makes this an absorbing read.
Bathing brings surprising danger with it, if we are to believe everything that we read. Not just the awful consequences of painting the bath red, like Charles Pooter in the Grossmith brothers’ Diary of a Nobody, but death and destruction. No, this is not an encouragement to eschew cleanliness – although, come to think of it, Eeyore’s fatalistic, ‘so much for washing’ pretty much captures the essence of many a Greek myth. Be warned by the terrible fate of Actaeon, torn to pieces by hounds for having watched Artemis bathing, and remember to knock. I have never been completely comfortable with the voyeuristic implications of DH Lawence’s poem, ‘Gloire de Dijon’, for exactly that reason. Here is the first stanza:
When she rises in the morning
I linger to watch her;
She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window
And the sunbeams catch her
Glistening white on the shoulders,
While down her sides the mellow
Golden shadow glows as
She stoops to the sponge, and her swung breasts
Sway like full-blown yellow
Gloire de Dijon roses.
It’s that lingering that makes me uneasy. That and the fact that I may never look at a Gloire de Dijon rose in quite the same way again. You have to admit, that’s a …. creative mind that walked through a rose garden and was bowled over by the similarity. Did Freud read Lawrence? And did he find him a trifle tiring?
No, when I am done with all this building and tiling and painting and plumbing, I shall lie in the bath and read Amy Lowell’s poem, ‘Bath’:
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
Doesn’t look like a poem? Try it aloud and your voice will find that it is. Ooo, prose poems, a topic to which we might return one day.
It will not have escaped your childhood attention that personal hygiene is rarely much of a focus in children’s literature. Whether yomping across the fells courtesy of Arthur Ransome, or living in caves, on islands or with the circus in Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, our young heroes and heroines are blessedly untroubled by the sudden need to use the facilities, pop behind a bush or, in Autolycus’s gorgeous phrase in The Winter’s Tale (trust Shakespeare to have something to say on needing a pee as on every other subject) ‘look upon the hedge’. And we know what Pooh and Piglet would have made of all my efforts to improve the daily ablutions: after his heroic endurance of being bathed by Kanga, Piglet had to roll the rest of the way home, ‘so as to get his own nice comfortable colour again’ (yup, we’ve had toys that look like that). But Christopher Robin, at least, knew the pleasures of a good, long soak. I shall under no circumstances be echoing his invitation, ‘Coming to see me have my bath?’ (the very idea), but goodness, I am looking forward to a nice hot shower.