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The satisfactions of homeliness



The advertisement is brief, almost cryptic: ‘Ron’s Cleaning. SAPOL registered. Fully equipped. Reasonable rates, twenty years’ experience.’ It sits alongside three other more flourishing, colourful and elaborately designed offers awaiting a click of the mouse to reveal their wonders. A quick random choice from these three reveals a well-known, thoroughly commercial outfit. I decide — for no reason that I could clearly detail — to ring Ron.

For my next move I chose the ‘Selected Home Services’ column in our very modest, local Hills paper. In the Gardening section I found a few possibilities but again, even in this much smaller, proudly local Newsletter, a well-known, awesomely outfitted heavy hitter dominated the alternatives — except for one, which stood out because it was not only confidently individual, even eccentric: it was also poetic.

Its proprietress, Geraldine, is like Ron, fully equipped and promises reasonable rates for mowing, edging, redesign. She seems somehow less experienced and, judging from her fascinating advertisement, she inhabits a world which is full of colour and promise, even if also full of Bridal Creeper, Milk Thistle, Bindi, Lycium Ferocissium and unwanted Kikuyu. Every garden for Geraldine, or Gerri to use her preferred diminutive, was an Eden-in-waiting ready for the attention of us Adams and Eves. So, I rang Gerri.

Well, alright: why?

Because, a month or so ago, my own relationship with our sliver of the natural world — which is about an acre, overshadowed down one side by eucalypts several hundred years old and presided over by bird life ranging from the lyrical and tuneful to the raucous and screeching — changed suddenly and radically when I discovered I had done some serious damage to my sacroiliac joint. Don’t ask, look it up: whatever way you approach it, it’s no fun, it’s disabling and, along with my wife’s badly sprained ankle, is the unexpected cause of our falling back on the extraordinary resourcefulness of the Gerris and Rons of our peninsula retreat. 


'With a war or a pandemic destroying lives and hopes all around you, is it wrong to be taking pleasure in the flowers of the field or the satisfactions of homeliness, art and labour while doing what you can to foster, preserve and protect the very processes of life?'


Ron — a slightly overweight looking forty-fiveish — rolled up on time in his SUV from which he extracted a dazzling array of household cleaning gear, some of it familiar, some never before encountered — not by me anyway. As he deployed his materiel, occasionally pausing to brush back his thick swathe of tangling black hair, Ron talked: he ranged over some aspects of that morning’s political events, the beauties of our rural surrounds, the outstanding quality of his personally selected equipment and the mind-bogglingly shoddy character of what was commercially available, the new lambs gambolling in the back paddock, the strange possible ambiguity of the word ‘gambolling’, and so on … Ron is a committed talker but he is also interesting and chooses silence at just the right moments and for good reason as he turns his attention with wordless bursts of whirlwind momentum to the tasks at hand.

Gerri arrives as arranged a couple of days later. She drives a Ute with impressively organised storage drawers and tool cupboards in the tray section, and tows a trailer carrying a Ride-On Mower and its wheel ramps, all firmly strapped down. Noting my obvious admiration of this very professional outfit, Gerri explains that her father-in-law is ‘an incredible handy man’ and, when she announced her intention to leave her senior public service position and set up the gardening business she’d been thinking about for years, he immediately began constructing or adapting ‘all the necessary gear’.

While she is explaining all these details Gerri is preparing to get the job started. In stature she is what used to be known as a six footer. She wears a Hi-Vis top, overalls, Blundstone boots and Bowyangs spattered with grass cuttings; her blonde hair is coiled and ribboned beneath a cap extolling ‘Cooper’s Pale’. She moves with athletic precision, manoeuvers the Ride-On with Formula One panache and the Whipper Snipper like a flame thrower. And so, inside the house: Ron bends and lifts and polishes and vacuums and defies the marks of Time; and outside: Gerri joins with or redirects the forces of Nature under instruction from us, the Lieutenant Colonels of the Aged and Infirm. With this team, our campaign to literally keep the wheels turning until recalcitrant joints and scarcely heard of muscular connections can be coaxed back into grudging motion doggedly continues.

But should these kinds of energies be better employed during the outrages and dangers of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic? Do they count anymore?

I’m reminded of George Orwell in smashed-up thoroughly locked-down, wartime London welcoming the first signs of spring amidst the ruins and winter’s lingering cold but wondering whether he should. ‘Is it wicked,’ he asks, ‘to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible?’

To phrase his worry in contemporary terms: with a war or a pandemic destroying lives and hopes all around you, is it wrong to be taking pleasure in the flowers of the field or the satisfactions of homeliness, art and labour while doing what you can to foster, preserve and protect the very processes of life? If the modern alternative is antinomianism or the bleak world of the denialists then the answer is a no brainer.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Main image: Close-up of vacuum cleaner on pink background (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, maintenance, homeliness



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Existing comments

‘Gerri explains that her father-in-law’ One wonders what women’s literature would look like if women followed the simple premise while shopping for a man that there should also be a two-for-one of a father-in-law who has her back. Or, for that matter, what the cultural specimen of men’s rights would look like if men followed the equivalently simple premise that for a woman should come a mother-in-law who has his back. A reed might have the backbone (or cellulose, rather) to sway in the wind without breaking but most people, like disciples sent out in pairs, need trusted humans as struts to forestall the psychological atomisation that precedes that prowling and wrathful leonine, the Devil, from picking off victims one by one.

roy chen yee | 10 October 2021  

Vita enim dies amicus meus Brian and if you live on the Peninsula, take your diving knife, snorkel and fins to Fisherman's beach. The abalone are not far below and easy to prize from the rocks. The tang of salt will clear your head and the cold water will give you goosebumps. Apart from the odd white pointer, the only thing you have to fear is getting the spines of a sea urchin in your fingers.

Francis Armstrong | 12 October 2021  

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