Time to come clean

Doing the laundry is not what it used to be.

One of the items on my wish-list for a house is a laundry room. I realise this seems like I'm not aiming very high, and as if I'm betraying Emmeline Pankhurst, but I find great peace in doing laundry. Some years ago, I stayed at Goddards, the Edwin Lutyens-designed house in Abinger Common, Surrey. (Incidentally, Lutyens's chat-up line to his wife rates among the best ever: "Do you dance until you're dishevelled?") Among apparent modifications to the house was a laundry room that my best friend and I marvelled over.

For my mother, doing the laundry as a child in Italy in the 1930s and 1940s wasn't an indoor affair. She and her siblings would tie themselves to a tree and wade into the local river to beat the laundry against the rocks. She'd sometimes feel eels swimming between her legs, and she fell in once and had to be saved from drowning by her elder brother. Women carried the laundry home on their heads, a sight that was still common into the 1970s, when the women did the washing at a row of eight communal sinks, thoughtfully sheltered from any rain by a little roof but otherwise open to the elements. It was a fantastic place to catch up on gossip, and an unbelievably evocative sight. The 1980 earthquake destroyed this landmark, and in its place today stands a little park - a rather quiet, soulless spot that, when I pass it (which isn't often these days), makes me feel almost unbearably sad. I can almost hear the great clatter of voices as the Neapolitan women all spoke at once while slapping pure linen bedclothes against the porcelain sinks. No one needed expensive oils to help them relax in the evening bath at the end of the day: wringing out great big sheets involved enough muscle groups to tire you out, properly and physically. And no problem was so big that the combined wisdom of eight women couldn't solve it.

I think of them, and of my mother in the river as a child, when I use "put ting things in the washing machine" almost as a method of tidying up. In other words, the clothes aren't particular ly dirty, but rather than deal with them, I give them up to my laundry system, which is a complicated, tiered, wire- basket affair. I'm sure that when you are forced to scrub with your bare hands, come sunshine or cold wind, you don't chuck things in the laundry quite so devil-may-carely. In any case, before doing the washing, my mother and grandmother would have soaked the laundry in white ash and water, a mixture known as lye. It worked because lye is alkaline and helps to remove grease.

I once wanted to write an entire book on the laundry and all aspects of it. My then-publisher told me this was the sort of thing "only women's magazines would be interested in". Tsk. Is there anything more fascinating than talking about dirty linen made clean?

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war