The trouble with Henry

I hate Henry.

I hate to admit is, but I loathe the happy, grinning face on the body of our vacuum cleaner.

It’s worst when the cleaner (I refuse to call it ‘Henry’ or ‘he’) has wedged itself on a chair leg and I have to trail back to untangle it.

Or the flex has become entwined in the banisters and I have to struggle back downstairs to release it, carting said vacuum with me. And all the while, I’m being stared at by that unrelentingly cheery look.

The origins of the face are, according to Wikipedia (that source of all accurate information) to ‘prevent late night and early morning workers from feeling lonely.’ Created and built in the UK, it first started sucking up dust in 1981. If there were such a crime as violence towards inanimate objects, what might the incidence rate have been before that date and after? A sharp rise, most likely.

Described variously as ‘iconic’, ‘loveable’ and a ‘legend’ by the manufacturers, Numatic, Henry has been joined by other family members. There is a Hetty, whose contribution to equality of the sexes is a pink body and large fluttery eyelashes. Whether this subtle femininity would help me contain my bursts of anger I can only conjecture. There are also Henry’s cousin’s Charles, James and George and probably, before long, a Boris, a Kier and a Sir David.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the vacuum cleaner is only in use when I’d rather be doing something else. It might be the result of a three-line whip to clean the house, often in preparation for a cleaner coming. The house apparently mustn’t be too dusty or untidy for such visits.

Or it’s a displacement activity. Like when I’m agonising over writing a particularly troublesome paragraph. Getting out the vacuum cleaner to suck up a cobweb that’s been irritating me for months is one way of escaping the frustration of writer’s block, at least temporarily. But it means I’m already predisposed to rage. It inevitably erupts when, perched on a chair and stretching, the nozzle doesn’t quite reach, the face topples and I lose my balance, leaving me on the floor alongside that face baiting me., still grinning.

Perhaps the answer is a cordless vacuum cleaner. My experiences have not been good, though. Scarred in my youth by a Pifco cordless, a Ewbank, and a battery driven cleaner that neither cleaned nor lasted long enough to manage a rug, I am left deeply distrustful.

A recent arrival is an Amazon Robotic Vacuum Sweeper. Like a floor-mounted drone, it buzzes across the kitchen and aggregates an alarming amount of dust and detritus, no matter how many times the floor may have been swept already. But although spared the Henry face, it still drives me mad, demanding attention. Its apparently random movements and wild trajectories make escape from it like some futuristic game of dodge ball.

And if you leave it to its own devices, it’s quite likely to fall down a step or trap itself on some unlikely obstruction. Then, like an ostrich stuck in a corner, it will bounce endlessly from side to side until it’s rescued. I want to punish it for its stupidity, pick it up, shake it, except that’ll result in all the dust its collected returning to the floor.

But the truth is, I guess, I just hate housework.

And at this point, I was planning on concluding that I should acknowledge the efficiency with which these devices have the desired effect of cleaning dusty surfaces and it’s really all my fault. That the problem is mine, not Henry’s.

Then I changed the end and decided to suggest that maybe the manufacturers of Henry, Hetty and the rest could help me out by creating a different face; one that is responsive to my mood, offering me an expression that is non-patronising, sympathetic and understanding.

Then I changed my mind and went for an excoriating paragraph on anthropomorphism, that a face on a vacuum is entirely inappropriate. I’m quite justified in my ire, I was going to write. But then again, isn’t that a sign of personal weakness . . . ?

At which point, I concluded it was all just too problematic to find a decent end and  . . . if I’m not mistaken, is that not a sliver of dust under the sofa? Excuse me while I go and fetch the Henry . . .

If you enjoyed this blog, maybe you’ll enjoy my first novel ‘Homeward Bound’, a feelgood tale of family, ageing and ambition. Available from bookshops, Amazon (paperback and e-book) and other online retailers.

Every home needs two dishwashers

“Two dishwashers? Why do you need two dishwashers?”
That was the question the lady designing our new kitchen asked me.
It struck me that if she was any good at kitchen design, she’d know the answer.

“Two dishwashers? Why do you need two dishwashers?”

That was the question the lady designing our new kitchen asked me. It struck me that if she was any good at kitchen design, she’d know the answer. But I could tell from the way she was staring at me, she was waiting for an answer.

“You take plates from cupboards, cutlery from drawers and glasses from shelves and use them for a meal,” I patiently explained.

“Yes.”

“When you’ve finished, you put them in the dishwasher.”

“Yes.”

My wife was rolling her eyes as she knew where I was going with this. Our designer manifestly did not.

“You wait until it’s full, then turn it on and when it’s finished, you take out the plates and put them back in the cupboards, the cutlery back in the drawers and the glasses on the shelves.”

“So?”

I think I hoped for a sign of recognition. Instead there was a blank expression with a soupçon of impatience. My wife just stared daggers at me.

“So next time you have a meal, you go back to the cupboard for the plates . .”

My wife interrupted. “I think we’ve got that.”

I needed to complete the cycle. “But with two dishwashers, next to each other, of course, you cut out all that unloading, putting away, fetching out again. You leave the clean stuff in one dishwasher until it’s needed, then take it out, use it and . .”

“. . .  put the dirties back into the second dishwasher. I get it now.”

“Exactly. And when dishwasher two is full, you turn it on and dishwasher one becomes the place where the dirties go.” I was pleased she didn’t pick up on the one flaw in my plan; what happens when you’re mixing dirties with unused cleans.

“What a good idea.”

And so the dual dishwashers were integrated into the new kitchen plan. It would make shelf, cupboards and drawers in the original scheme redundant. For the moment, I kept secret my hopes for using them as overflow storage for my records and CDs.

And so the dual dishwashers were integrated into the new kitchen plan. It would make shelf, cupboards and drawers in the original scheme redundant. For the moment, I kept secret my hopes for using them as overflow storage for my records and CDs.

Photo: Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

What has fascinated me is that no-one else seems to have cottoned on to this idea. I did a quick Google check and could find no manufactures that have created a double dishwasher, though surely there’s need for a new products with a unique design in a crowded market. Nor have retailers seized the moment to sell two instead of one to every customer. I offer them the concept. It could be my small contribution to helping the UK out of recession.

Inevitably this has led to me to re-evaluate other ‘givens’ of domestic life.

A full plate and plentiful supply of a good red is one not to change. And somewhere warm and safe to sleep is essential. The sofa with the TV on or music playing is as good a place as any.

But if we must have beds, why do we need to ‘make’ them?

If it’s straightened sheets and pillows you’re after, why not do it before you go to bed rather than waste time and energy in the morning, especially when there’s already the tedious routine of shaving for men and make-up for women. Though I’d go one further and say why bother make the bed at all. The sheets will be crumpled up within minutes of getting in anyway.  When the reaper comes calling, how much of your life will have been wasted making beds – smoothing sheets, hospital corners, plumping pillows and all? And if you really feel the need for crisp, cold sheets, tightly tucked down, then make it a treat to look forward to every couple of months when you change the bed or go on holiday and have hotel staff do it for you.  

And don’t get me on duvets and duvet covers. I had an eiderdown as a child. It needed no constant wrestling with a cover, just pulled up over me at night. No-one admits to inventing the duvet but its popularity in the UK seems to have arisen as some sort of fashion statement, when we were in the thrall of Habitat and Laura Ashley on every High Street. And where are they now, though we persist with the duvet?

And then there are cushions. What are they for? Show me a house with cushions and I’ll show you the influence of a woman. No male that I know would even consider buying a cushion, let alone festoon sofas and – worse still – beds with them.

But back to my genius dishwasher idea. I’d put it out of my mind to concentrate on writing Homeward Bound,  though I did get the occasional twinge about whether it would work and was I being a mite extravagant, decadent even.

I needn’t have worried. There was a late change. When the old kitchen was just a shell, I was informed that there was insufficient space in the new one for two dishwashers. And anyway, the plumbing couldn’t be adjusted to accommodate them both. I might have protested, but my wife and the designer presented the news as a fait accompli.

So we have a new kitchen but just one dishwasher, and I spend probably twice as long a week in the cycle of dishwasher-storage-dishwasher-storage as I do making the bed and plumping up cushions (though luckily I’ve never mastered the duvet, so that’s a task avoided).

But if you like the dual dishwasher idea, feel free to use it.

As for me, my disappointment was mitigated somewhat by an unexpected addition to the kitchen, one that required minimal space and no extra pipework; a wine chiller. And I couldn’t argue against that.

Richard Smith’s novel ‘Homeward Bound’ is out now and available from bookshops and Amazon (paperback and e-book).

A version of this blog first appeared during Rachel’s Random Books Tour

The tyranny of the pen

We weren’t allowed to use ball point pens at my school. The very word, Biro, was never mentioned. All writing had to be with a fountain pen, preferably using Quink blue-black. We also had lessons in how to form capital letters, and no essay would be accepted if the wrong form of ‘F’, ‘G’ or ‘T’ was used, or words were not joined up correctly.

I was sitting with my feet in a pool a while back, reflecting on life, and this early ‘60s memory flashed back to me. Having published my first novel, Homeward Bound, I’m often asked how I write; longhand or straight into a computer. My first response is it’s a wonder I write at all after that induction and suffering the tyranny of the fountain pen.  But the answer is that once I’d been given a Parker for my 18th birthday, I never looked back and now I compose entirely using its cheaper successors – a Biro, Bic, or one of those freebies you collect at exhibitions.

Why I like a ballpoint is it’s so easy to write quickly and even easier to make changes, ideal if thoughts are spilling out of your head at a rate of knots. And if there’s an inspiration for later, a word that’s just come to me to improve a previous sentence, or a paragraph that needs moving, I scribble it down and add an asterisk, a box, or an arrow to signal something to come back to later.

It takes just a second and  – more importantly – it doesn’t interrupt the flow of ideas. Add to the fact that I write on scrap paper – the reverse of single-sided photocopies or envelopes that held today’s consignment of bills and begging letters and I can add feeling virtuous about my recycling into the argument for longhand.

I’ve tried starting on a computer but, for me, it’s a slow, laborious and stultifying experience. I’m quite fast – a self taught two fingered style serves me quite well – but the plethora of red underlines and strange line spacings distract me, making me want to correct as I go, and the practicalities swamp and submerge the original inspiration. Using a ballpoint, the ideas can just flow.

There is a downside to paper. A puff of wind and the pages scatter across the room, a disaster when I’ve not numbered them. And worse, the speed that the ballpoint allows me invariably comes to the detriment of legibility. I’ve invented my own form of shorthand, with vowels omitted and words often just a squiggle between first and last letters. Their meaning is all so obvious as I write, but when it comes to reading back, it’s often impossible to decipher.

The answer? I don’t read it back! For the next stage is to transcribe my manuscript into my laptop and as often as not, I make it all up again. This is partly because I can’t make head nor tail of my longhand, but also because, having created a sense and the structure, I can recompose it straight into my laptop from memory. A second draft, as it were.

Once the page is on the laptop and saved (how many times did I use to lose a day’s work because I hadn’t saved my manuscript – and pardon me while I save this one, it’s still Document 29. Done it), the next question is proof reading and revising for a next draft. My preference would be to do it by printing out the pages. I find reading for content easier on paper, and making amendments using my ballpoint brings all the advantages of being able to scratch out words, move paragraphs and make comments to myself along the margins. But this is very wasteful of paper, even if the reverse does provide new scrap for the next handwritten manuscript.

My solution is to use an iPad with one of those electronic pencils. That way I have all the advantages of longhand and the sheaves don’t blow away. Then it has to be transposed on to the master laptop, but that’s OK as it’s yet another drafting and improving stage. By the end, I may have dozens of fragments of manuscripts on paper, laptop and iPad, not to mention bits I thought were good but left out, in case they should come in handy for something else.

It was one of these I was searching for just the other day. While working on my second novel, I thought I might be able to incorporate a section I’d written and left out of a first draft of Homeward Bound. I rummaged through a box stuffed with papers.

They’d been hidden there, away from my wife’s perfectly reasonable wish not to have every surface in the house awash with scrap paper and old envelopes. It didn’t take long to find the very manuscript I was seeking. Except I couldn’t read a word of it. Completely inscrutable.

But also in the box, an old school exercise book, with my handwritten notes on Shakespeare in blue-black ink, clear and legible.

Perhaps my school had a point

Cheering people up!

I’m really pleased with this review/blog, saying that, ‘After struggling at times during lockdown to have a desire to read, this book was exactly what I needed to remind me why the world of books is so wonderful.’

With more COVID restrictions, maybe this will cheer a few more people up!



Homeward Bound on tour!

All these reviewers will be feasting their eyes (or sharpening their pens!) on my novel Homeward Bound in the next couple of weeks. I’ll post their comments here.

As they say on the BBC News before Match Of The Day, ‘If you don’t want to know the results, look away now!’

Music with a message for our times . . .

An album and two singles with titles that sum up these distressing times

. .

My novel, Homeward Bound is available from Amazon and Waterstones online.

What Rebecca’s Read wrote: “Homeward Bound” is a funny, feel-good read that I’d highly recommend. With music intertwined throughout, this is a story of family, love, hope and dreams and finding your purpose at different points in your life. 5 stars!”

Five recommended books, self-isolating or not!

Looking for something to read? Five new books explore the experience, opportunities and issues of ageing, each bringing a unique take on the subject.

Hazel Prior Away With The Penguins is about a cantankerous but charming woman, her estranged grandson and a colony of penguins. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Richard SmithHomeward Bound follows a 79-year-old musician who is expected to be in retirement but isn’t ready to close the lid on his dreams, and his 18-year-old granddaughter, who shares his house and the dreams he once had. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Salley VickersGrandmothers is the story of three very different women and their relationships with the younger generation. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Francis LiardetWe Must Be Brave explores the fierce love that we feel for our children and the power of that love to endure. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Anne Youngson Meet Me At The Museum is a celebration of long letters, kindred spirits and the possibility of writing a new story for yourself, at any stage of life. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)

Click on the links for more information and where to buy them online (if your local bookshop is closed and can’t deliver to you). Amazon offers ebooks as well as hard copies. The e-book link is to a Google site. There are other links to the ebooks (like kobo) that need a sign in to a free account.

All the books were part of the Age UK Camden Literary Festival in March 2020.

This post first appeared on richardsmithwrites.com

Want to know about the book?

For those who don’t know about Homeward Bound, I talk about it to Hannah Murray on Talk Radio Europe‘s Book Show. You can hear it Wednesday March 4th from 6pm (UK time) and repeated Saturday 7th from 7pm (UK time). https://www.talkradioeurope.com/the-book-show/

And in the meantime, I talk about it here . . . .

Of course, if you’ve already bought the book and read it, please hang on for a new and different blog!!

High Street is best – but Homeward Bound is now an e-book

For those of you who prefer screens to paper,  Amazon.co.uk now has Homeward Bound as an ebook https://www.amazon.co.uk/Homeward-Bound-Richard-Smith-ebook/dp/B084G6NXF6/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=homeward+bound&qid=1580811121&s=digital-text&sr=1-4.

And it’ll start to appear on other sites too. But of course, the best place is a bookshop. I always urge people to use the High Street. For me, there’s nothing better than browsing – well, browsing books and records. Not when it comes to clothes and shoes which are high on my list of things to avoid!

Below is a link to an interview I did with the Islington Tribune.

http://islingtontribune.com/article/highbury-authors-vinyl-destination-a-novel