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9 December 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 9:57am

From the NS archive: Back to the mud

4 June 1938: We have gone cleanliness-mad. Is mud-wrestling a means to rebel against that?

By New Statesman

“There are men, indeed, who wash their hands so often that you would almost think it natural. Psychologists who have studied the matter tell us that this excessive addiction to washing is a sign of a guilty conscience,” wrote “YY” in this humorous 1938 article. This sentiment feels uneasy in 2020, when we have all taken to washing our hands rather more often than usual. But the author, after hearing of the new fad for mud-wrestling, in which “two powerful men slither about and tussle and tumble and roll each other in the dirt”, decided “we have all gone cleanliness-mad”. Cleanliness in a metaphorical sense – in literature and in theatre, for example – had already been done away with, he wrote. So perhaps, he concluded, the fashion of mud-wrestling is a sign that a “widespread revolt against soap-and-water in the physical as in the intellectual sphere” was on its way in – until the novel coronavirus struck 82 years later, of course.


When I saw all-in wrestling I thought that the inventors of eccentric forms of sport had surely reached their limit. I gather from those who have seen it, however, that mud-wrestling is an even odder entertainment designed for the delight of those who are weary of over-refinement. Here two powerful men slither about and tussle and tumble and roll each other in the dirt. And one of the most generally attractive features of the sport is that, not only do the wrestlers paint each other with mud, but the ringside spectators get liberally splashed with it as well. You have probably seen photographs of them, wrapped to the chin in paper garments in order to save their clothes from the flying mud. I cannot, by the way, see why they use these paper coverings. Surely, if it is fun to get splashed with mud, the clothes as well as the face should be exposed to the showers. What fun to see a man in evening dress getting a well-directed dollop in the middle of his white tie! I have been told that, some nights ago, a young woman was hit by a pretty piece of mud on the left temple, and that she and the rest of the audience laughed uproariously. Would they not have laughed still louder if she had been soused with mud from head to foot and a new and expensive frock had been irretrievably ruined?

Psychologists, no doubt, will offer us some explanation of the popularity of this curious sport. Why is it that we, who have struggled so far out of the mud that we regard most of our ancestors beyond our great-grandfathers as unpleasantly wanting in cleanliness, now find pleasure in wallowing, so to speak, in the mire?

Consider the pains we take to make ourselves clean. Fortunes are made by bath manufacturers, basin manufacturers, soap manufacturers, toothbrush manufacturers, nail-brush manufacturers, towel manufacturers – all because we cannot bear to be even a little dirty. We should be ashamed of appearing in public with black fingernails. If we went out without having washed our teeth, we should feel that everybody was looking at us, and looking at us with abhorrence.

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The bathroom has become a private chapel in which every morning we go through a religious ritual. The man who takes a bath only once a week – it is usually on Saturday night – has become a theme for jokes in the comic papers. The poor never seem so far beyond redemption as when stories are told of their using the newly installed baths in their dwellings for storing coal. We have grown so finicky about cleanliness that we can scarcely bear to eat food that has been served by a waitress with dirty hands. A dirty tablecloth in a restaurant is repellent to us. Even a dirty napkin that has obviously been used by some previous greasy-fingered diner offends us. The truth is, we have gone cleanliness-mad.

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It is impossible to say who first imposed the code of cleanliness; but it may be that, in making it so severe, he put too great a strain on human nature. Certainly, millions of human beings begin to revolt against it at an early age. There used to be a famous soap advertisement which showed a nurse vigorously washing a cross and rebellious boy, and I fancy that no boy takes naturally to washing. And, as for that form of cleanliness called tidiness, he bears it resentment. If he were left to himself, I doubt whether the ordinary boy would take the trouble to brush his feet on the doormat after coming in from the muddy street. He has no desire to be a spick-and-span paragon in a spick-and-span home. Who knows what repressions he may suffer from in later life as a result of his having been forced to use so much soap that he did not want to use and to wipe his shoes so often on the doormat against his nature?

In time, it may be argued, he gets used to it. As he grows older, vanity persuades him that he even likes it. There are men, indeed, who wash their hands so often that you would almost think it natural. Psychologists who have studied the matter tell us that this excessive addiction to washing is a sign of a guilty conscience. Even with those who most love washing,

However, there are moments at which the early passion for the mud returns. The growing boy takes to football and tumbling in the mud as the ideal pastime. I am sure, if some less strenuous and bruising form of football were invented, men would continue to play it till late in life for the sheer joy of getting into closer contact with Mother Earth.

Over-cleanliness may give men an Antaeus complex. It is always dangerous to draw an analogy between the mind and the body; but I sometimes wonder whether the revolt against over-cleanliness is not even more conspicuous in our intellectual than in our physical life. Literature, for example – how it was soaped and towelled during the Victorian era! Every novel came from the publishers with a shining face as if fresh from the ministrations of a tyrannical nursemaid. The bathroom was becoming popular, and the new craze exercised a subtle influence on literature.

The stage, too, apart from some burlesques and musical comedies, was cleansed as it had never been cleansed before. Those who hankered after the mud of their ancestors had to go to the music-halls, and, even in the music-halls, the managers were so pure-minded that they printed a notice in the programme, begging clients to notify them if anything objectionable were sung or spoken by any artist during the performance. The reign of soap was all but supreme. There was a weekly paper that was widely read in secret by the hereditary soap-haters, and there was a comic paper about which there were frequent rumours that, if you held up one of the pages against a strong light, you could see a joke that was not quite pure. So rigorous was the dictatorship of soap-and-water, however, that even acknowledged literary classics were locked away in special cases in public libraries; and if you wanted to buy a book described as “Aristotle’s masterpiece” you had to go to a shop where, for some unaccountable reason, none of the other works of Aristotle were on sale.

Then came the revolt. Probably, it had been simmering for years. Its origin can be traced, I fancy, to the Victorian critics who in their innocence kept proclaiming that foreigners who did not wash wrote better books than Englishmen who did. There were critics in those days who believed that Flaubert, who had been prosecuted for publishing Madame Bovary, was a greater writer than Dickens. In addition to the undermining work done by the critics, we have also to remember that, in their antipathy to mud, the over-washed leaders of public opinion in England went too far. They denounced Tess of the d‘Urbervilles as a book that sullied the mind, and agreed with the critic who renamed Jude the Obscure, Jude the Obscene. They banned George Moore’s Esther Waters from the railway bookstalls. Finally, they drew upon themselves the wrath of Mr Shaw by refusing to license Widowers’ Houses for performance in the theatre. Gradually, a powerful body of public opinion came to the conclusion that, if a choice had to be made between literature and the tyranny of soap-and-water, the tyranny of soap-and water must go.

They did not, perhaps, foresee all the consequences of dethroning the soapy tyrant. Most of them, I imagine, were in favour of soap-and-water in its right place, and objected to it only as a dictator. Some of the more ardent of the younger spirits, however, saw in it a dangerous and inevitable enemy which must be pursued with remorseless bitterness even in its downfall. They proclaimed a new reign of mud and set about paying homage to the new god in their books as devoutly as the Victorians had paid homage to soap-and water. Even the followers of Rabelais cried out in alarm at the turn things were taking. “Rolling in the mud,” they said, “should be a rollicking sport, but these fellows go in for it solemnly as if it were a religion.” And, indeed, I have read books in which it was quite painful to watch the desperate efforts of the author to make even moderate addicts of soap-and-water shudder. No doubt, he felt like Antaeus regaining contact with earth as he wrote. But what agonies his efforts must have cost him!

Now that mud-wrestling has come in, we may, perhaps, see a more widespread revolt against soap-and-water in the physical as in the intellectual sphere. A young man told me the other day that several of his contemporaries had already given up the use of the toothbrush. That is a good beginning.

Next to go will be the daily bath. This may affect the health injuriously, but, after all, one has to make some sacrifice for one’s ideals. The abolition of the doormat will, no doubt, mean a muddy carpet; but, as for the carpet, our servants can clean that for us. Anyhow, we shall have registered our protest against an over-clean world and done all in our power to get back to the mud from which, we are told, life originally emerged. The mud-wrestlers may be the pioneers of a great revolution. But I think it is a little namby-pamby of the ringside spectators to shelter themselves from the mud with paper clothes.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)