Lost in Brussels

AL Kennedy on the perils of visiting Brussels, how to spot the British amidst a foreign crowd and on

Sadly, I missed getting hit on the head by police batons at the anti-Bush protests. (Why is it - and I’m asking seriously – that police are so very suggestible ? Dress them in riot gear and they do like to bust things up. Mix them with US enforcement and they get all Vietnam on your ass.) And, as we know, the police usually try to bully crowds if they are not composed of football supporters and then get pre-emptively tense about the consequences of their own actions. Inflicting head wounds with metal bars isn’t what I’d call an appropriate response to a peaceful demonstration, but then what do I know about democracy…? Depressing.

Why wasn’t I in London being prevented from walking up Whitehall in a perfectly legal manner ? Because I was working. (Ish) I had to go to Europe – by train. (Indulging my own irrational fears without hitting anyone at all.) So, up at the crack of dawn, down to London, through the Chunnel – a huge undersea chimney within which I could sample the delights of being drowned, crushed and incinerated, perhaps simultaneously. And yet I doze peacefully through it - perhaps due to lack of oxygen: many others seem to doze, too – and am relaxed as a drugged puppy. Then on to Cologne and on even further by car to Bitberg which is in Eifel, which has its own international literary prize. (Imagine Berwick having its own international literary prize, or Kettering – we just don’t do culture, do we ?)

The journey out wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d anticipated. First I had to negotiate the mingled British and non-British crowds at St Pancras – duly noting that the two groups were instantly recognisable – the non-Brits weren’t pissed, tense, whining and hitting their toddlers with shoes. Then I had to negotiate Brussels Midi, not the world’s easiest or loveliest railway station. Many of its platforms are ridiculously long and curved which means you (or indeed I) could be waiting docilely on the correct platform while a train sneaks in invisibly around the curve, hides and sneaks out again without you. (Or indeed me.) Having missed my first train, I then descended to the ticket office, where you have to take a ticket to stand in the queue for a ticket, then conduct extensive negotiations to have your ticket – the first ticket – turned extremely slowly into your third ticket, before running up to the platform in order to miss another secretive train and repeat as necessary. There was a point at which I believed that a) I would never leave Brussels again and/or b) I had died and would never leave Brussels again and/or c) I was taking part in some kind of perverse psychological experiment and would begin stress-induced gnawing at my own limbs within minutes.

But – on the bright side – Bitberg was friendly, The folks were delightful and gave me their International Prize in return for making a small speech, while lavishing me with free food, much of it asparagus-based. (It is the season for it.) The only blot on the landscape was provided by the German football team who have managed to qualify for something or other – this causing me to have to converse about football in German, when I cannot do so in English and lack essential vocabulary like goal, nippy winger and I’d rather pluck out my own eyes and throw them in a blender. That’s a fib, actually – I know how to say the last one in many languages, because it comes up so often.

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.