I step into a launderette on Blackstock Road in north London, the Arctic chill clinging to my overcoat as I make my way to one of the large dryers. The old machine sits among ten or so other old machines; opposite them is a row of washers of a similar vintage, a couple bearing “out of order” signs.
Pot plants punctuate the ledge above them. Someone has stuffed sodden blankets into a sports bag on the floor. It’s a familiar sight, accompanied by the familiar smell of soap powder and the familiar sound of “True” by Spandau Ballet emanating from a TV in the corner, tuned to the blue screen of a digital radio station. All the songs seem to be from 1983.
I come here once a week, sometimes alone, sometimes with my partner, Zoë, carrying cumbersome sacks of wet socks, shirts, trousers, pants, bras (hers, not mine) and all the other bits and pieces to spin-dry that would otherwise have to be draped on the radiator in our bedroom or hung from the shower rail, damp for days.
The trip should be a chore but I look forward to it. The basic functionality of washing or drying clothes, the reality that there’s little option but to wait till it’s done, frees this hour from any other obligation; just sitting here is making good use of my time, even if I am half in a doze, lulled by the methodical rhythms of the machines.
The 18th-century Scottish doctor William Cullen prescribed travel as a cure for melancholics, since a journey has “the effect of interrupting all train of thought”. Cullen’s observation rings true in the admittedly more mundane context of the laundry trip – it, too, provides an interruption, a pause in the bustle of day-to-day life in the city.
Launderettes are also social spaces: it’s no coincidence that so much of EastEnders, a soap about an imaginary London community, has taken place in one, despite the steep decline in the service’s popularity over the past 30 years. In the mid-1980s, there were roughly 13,000 launderettes in Britain. Today, there are just 3,000.
The artist Clare Qualmann, whose 2008 project Spinning Stories documented what launderettes mean to those who use them, tells me she “found them intimidating at first”. However: “In the more sociable ones, I soon began to enjoy the enforced hour of small-talk and gossip, mostly about things and people I knew nothing of.”
It is this aspect that gives Michael Fox, the owner of my local launderette, the most satisfaction. “I meet people and help people,” he says. “And I see their children grow up and get married. I’ve got local people who’ve been coming here 15 years or more.” Fox has been in the business since 1985. Reflecting on the changes he has seen in that time, he uses an apt turn of phrase: “It revolves.”