Soul-death and the ceremonies of suburbia

This is the first in an occasional series on suburban symbolism.

Symbol Number One — washing the car.

A symbol is something that has a meaning beyond itself. So two raised fingers are a symbol because they mean more than just two raised fingers.

If raised palm outwards they mean V for Victory, if palm inwards, emphatic disapproval. Similarly washing the car means more than washing the car, to me at least, and here’s how.

I was brought up on a housing estate — and if the words "housing estate" don’t shrivel your groin we have different groins.

The houses were newish and designed to be subtly different which only emphasised their uniformity.

Across the road from us lived Mr and Mrs Smith, and, if you think you sniff a pseudonym, all I can say is that you have splendid nostrils.

There were four little Smiths — all bespectacled from an early age — and Mrs Smith was rarely without one on the hip and another at the side and nappies on the washing line and a bottle on the hob and all the other paraphernalia of procreation.

Meanwhile Mr Smith drove to work each morning at the local polytechnic where he was a lecturer in Electrical Something and drove home again each evening to the housing estate to be with Mrs Smith and the little ones.

Except, that is, at weekends when he put on his having-a-weekend clothes and — I’m gritting my teeth as I type this — washed the car.

The car was an Austin Average, or perhaps a Morris Median, a car that kept its head down, that didn’t stand out, a herd car.

It was the sort of car that Mr Smith could be statistically expected to have, as suggested in the poem by Auden that he definitely hadn’t read, and that I’ll save you the trouble of looking up. It ends:

"Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard."

First he wheeled the car out of the garage on Saturday morning, then he washed it, though the word washed is a misnomer because — and this is the salient point — the car, having been washed the previous Saturday, wasn’t dirty.

So it was a sort of ceremonial washing, a representation of washing, because that’s what you did on a Saturday morning, just as going to church was what you did (and indeed what the Smiths did) on a Sunday morning.

In both cases it was a ritual, a way of propitiating the gods. You washed the car to appease the gods of disorder.

First Mr Smith hosed the car free of imaginary dirt — including hosing under the wheel-arches which is the vehicular equivalent of washing behind the ears — and then he fetched a chalice of warm soapy water and lavished it on the bodywork with a sponge. The film of warm soapy water slid ever downwards on the bodywork like a falling negligee.

Then he hosed the car again and finally he rubbed it all over with a soft cloth.

And to the extent that Mr Smith was capable of doing anything sensuously — and, if I am to be frank, the notion of him making the beast with two backs with Mrs Smith for the engendering of further little Smiths was one at which the mind rebelled — he rubbed the car sensuously.

And even as he performed the various elements of the ritual it spread like a contagion over the housing estate.

Other garages opened like waking eyes and other husbands and fathers wheeled out their much loved Triumph Timid or Vauxhall Vapid and set about hosing and lathering and rubbing it till it shone, though, as I recall, each was so engrossed in his own ritual that he barely acknowledged his fellow worshippers.

And then, the service complete, they all put their cars back in the effectively identical garages, leaving a damp rectangle on the driveway and a residue of suds.

And that was that. That was washing the car.

And it filled me then, even at a very early age, with a sort of horror. It seemed to encapsulate an oppression to which I didn’t want to succumb. Washing the car was a symbol of soul-death.

Why mention it now? Because for the first time in my life, at the age of 66, I have just washed my car.

And so far I feel fine.

 - Joe Bennett is a Lyttelton writer.