Last Sunday my iron gave up the ghost.
I almost invariably do the ironing at some point on a Sunday evening. I put it off, like I used to put off homework when I was at school, but as Monday approaches, so does the prospect of the ironing basket full of clothes and the clothes full of wrinkles.
Besides, my mother used to iron on a Sunday night. It was one of the few times she stopped rushing around and stood still for long enough to have a conversation. I could sit and learn my French verbs while she stood at the ironing board, pressing and folding.
I must be able to remember – I think – a time before steam irons became ubiquitous, because I’m sure she had a little jug of water, from which she flicked drops across the garments. Thinking about this has led me to a fascinating website I didn’t know existed – ‘Old and Interesting’. (Our iron did not, thankfully, plug into the light fitting.)
And I recall being taught to iron – imagine longing to be allowed to iron! – and practising on my father’s handkerchiefs, because they were easy. The only hard bit was folding them so the monogram appeared on the corner.
And then there were steam irons and the comforting hiss of the steam, and the button you could press to send a fine spray over the garment if you wanted to. And it was warm in the room where the ironing went on, because my mother plugged in the iron beside the coal fire, and I curled on the settee with my work, and we chatted.
My memories of Mrs Tiggywinkle and my mother are very close together, and this perhaps, is the source, the ‘urquell’ of the ironing poem genre:
Lily-white and clean, oh!
With little frills between, oh!
Smooth and hot – red rusty spot
Never here be seen, oh!
Now that preceded the steam iron: you had to be good and careful in the days when carelessness could lead to rust and burns. Mrs Tiggywinkle was an expert and a heroine of domestic achievement.
No wonder I don’t mind ironing. It remains a comfort activity for me, and a harbinger of doom when the iron finally dies, as they do now and again. Ironing and irony are indissolubly and irrationally linked in my mind.
But there is an ironing poem genre. I have been watching them pop up over the decades. I have written at least three myself – not intentionally, but by accident. And lots of people will know the remarkable Pauline Prior-Pitt’s ‘Ironing with Sue Lawley’.
You would think ironing poems might always be authored by women. I have a feeling there was no Mr Tiggy-Winkle, though it is impossible to be sure. However, these days domestic tasks are less gender-connected. Women carry in the coal (except the coal, too, is running out and soon there will be none for them to carry) and men iron their own shirts. This is one of the reasons why I particularly liked finding an ironing poem in Matthew Stewart’s HappenStance pamphlet, Inventing Truth. It is called ‘La Despedida’ and it is rather sad. Before I go out and buy a new iron, I will share it:
There’s a regular slopping of water
up and down the iron. He juggles it
with all the collars, cuffs, pockets and sleeves,
shrugs blouses onto hangers, places them
in wardrobes, his hands precise and routine
as if he weren’t about to leave at last.
Her clothes will wait their turn till none remain,
just the hangers drooping like empty yokes.