»  The Straggler, No. 24

September 27, 2004

  The Tiny Revolutions


I am not at my best in the shower. That is not an esthetic judgment — I leave the relevant esthetic judgment to others — but a temperamental one. The humid, claustrophobic ambience of the domestic shower stall just does not suit me. I do what is necessary to be done then get out of there as quickly as I can. So imagine my consternation the other morning, when, with the curtain pulled across and the water temperature suitably adjusted, I reached for the soap — to find it gone! No soap! Groping around desperately in the steamy murk, I could only find an assortment of plastic bottles containing what I supposed to be shampoo.

Subsequent irate inquiries revealed that I had, by no means for the first time, been blind-sided by the Zeitgeist. My wife, with heavy scorn, instructed me that nobody keeps a bar of soap in the shower any more. One of the bottles I had taken for shampoo in fact, she showed me, held something called "shower gel" — a far more hygienic, cost-efficient, environmentally-sound, dermatologically-friendly, life-enhancing and soul-uplifting body cleanser than my uncouth bar of soap.

In situations like this a conservative's role is to do what the founder of this magazine urged us all to do: stand athwart history yelling "Stop!" I have restored my bar of soap, with all its decades of familiarity and its pleasant hand-sized roundness. In a spirit of pure reaction, I have even contemplated buying a loofah. Yet I know that this fight will ultimately be lost. A year or two from now, bar soap will be available only over the internet from specialty retailers in Third World countries. I shall tire of the struggle, fall in with the herd, and start lathering up with shower gel. Life is too short to fight all the battles that ought to be fought; each of us must choose his ground.

And perhaps it is all for the best. This is one of those tiny revolutions in everyday affairs that, unlike their bigger, more world-shaking relatives, actually might leave us better off.

Take kitchen roll, for instance. In my childhood the family kitchen harbored a thing called the dishrag. When doing the dishes, you cleaned them off with the dishrag in a bowl of soapy water. In between times, you used the dishrag to wipe up spills on the kitchen work surfaces (though never on the floor — that was the mop's domain). The conscientious housewife rinsed her dishrag out after each use, of course, and it got boiled up with the rest of the wash every Monday. Still, you couldn't help noticing, towards the end of the week, a faint cheesy aroma developing on the dishrag. At the trough of its cleanliness cycle, the family dishrag probably contained more bacteria than the rest of the house combined. And then kitchen roll came in! You tear a piece off, mop up the spill, and throw it away! (While for dishes we now have an entire dedicated machine.)

Or consider handkerchiefs. These were once a mark of gentility and prosperity. This is still the case in less-developed parts of the world. (Chinese riddle: What is it that a rich man carries around in his pocket but a poor man leaves lying on the street?) One of Tom Sawyer's grounds for loathing Willie Mufferson, the town's model boy, was that he sported a handkerchief:

He always brought his mother to church, and was the pride of all the matrons. The boys all hated him, he was so good. And besides, he had been "thrown up to them" so much. His white handkerchief was hanging out of his pocket behind, as usual on Sundays — accidentally. Tom had no handkerchief, and he looked upon boys who had as snobs.

In 1950s England, in fact, the handkerchief was still being promoted as a hygienic advance. Public-service clips were shown between the features in movie theaters, urging citizens to sneeze into a handkerchief, rather than into other people's faces. I can still sing the accompanying jingle, to Haydn's Austria tune, a.k.a. "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles":

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases!
Catch the germs in your handkerchief!

Yet nowadays the humble handkerchief is fast becoming extinct, as in our well-furnished urban lives we are never far away from a pack of paper tissues and a waste bin. I still doggedly carry two handkerchiefs with me wherever I go, but it has been some time since I ventured to blow my nose into one in public, or saw anyone else perform this once-commonplace act. (Of George Orwell's unsleeping social conscience, Cyril Connolly remarked that: "He couldn't blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry.") Nor can I remember the last time I got a pack of good linen handkerchiefs as a birthday present, though this item once shared with the necktie the role of default gift from unimaginative relatives.

No doubt it is all for the best, all for the best. The most notable of these tiny revolutions in our own time has, after all, been the end of promiscuous smoking, a change I welcome. Now, I will certainly allow that the anti-smokers have gone much too far. I was astonished recently to find that smoking was altogether forbidden in the tony, and very expensive, gentlemen's clubs of New York City — "for the sake of the employees' health." I spotted one of those employees in the courtyard at the back of the club, whither he had excused himself to smoke a cigarette. Yet still I am sure that even those of us who are angered by these busybody impositions, if we were transported back in time three or four decades, would find it hard to contain our disgust at the ubiquitous sting and stench of tobacco smoke. In those cinemas of my childhood we watched the movie through a braided veil of smoke rising from hundreds of cigarettes. It's a wonder we could make out what was happening on-screen.

No, not all things are worth conserving, even to a conservative. While there is virtue in taking a modest, principled stand for the tried and familiar, common sense demands that we sooner or later accept changes that plainly improve our health and comfort. Those people who puff and preen by calling themselves "progressive" are, of course, liars, or crooks, or fools, every one; but it's hard to be consistently hostile to progress none the less.