photo taken on Southsea beach by Pathe Pictorial.jpg

The bare necessities of life

I had the radio on the other day tuned to the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC 2. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention at the time, when something a lady was speaking about caught my ear and I started to listen.

I would say she was probably of my generation and born either just before the war ended or shortly after, and was brought up in the “make do and mend” generation when we, as children, learned to do with the basics of a life that knew nothing of luxuries until the fifties.

The charm of this lady was enormous and she spoke quite candidly but firmly about her way of life, which, on a pension, was evidently frugal but happy. She assured us that she ate well but never overbought in case it would be wasted, allowed herself a luxury of perhaps chocolate once a week ( I imagine she shopped every day; most women these days don’t have time) but for her it was an exercise to keep herself fit.

The one thing that attracted the most attention with the callers who rang the show afterwards was the fact that she only bathed once a week. Horror of horrors! When asked why she didn’t bathe more often, her response was, “why should I? I don’t do anything to make myself dirty! I wash all the important parts every day and don’t see the need to waste water on showering, or my time wallowing in my own dirty water.”

Many of the listeners disagreed with some of the ways of life she described, especially the one on only weekly bathing, however, it brought my own mother to mind as she too was of the same thought but, unlike the lady on the radio, she never bathed at all except for one notable occasion.

I was quite young, probably about seven, and we were in Malta where my father, a naval officer, was stationed. We were living in naval accommodation in a block of modern flats, by the standards of the day. My mother had either decided to have a bath or my father persuaded her, but the performance was so memorable that I have never forgotten it.

First of all fully clothed, my mother had to stand over my father as he drew the water. When there was barely four inches of it, she said “enough” although was gently persuaded to add a little more. Then the water had to be checked for temperature and her soap placed within easy reach. Then, when all was exactly to her liking, she went to their bedroom and disrobed, finally reappearing with a towel covering all and gingerly stepping into the bath holding my father’s hand.

Much of the above you understand was not seen, but imagined by the conversation held inside the bathroom with the door almost closed but not quite. Other than this one occasion that I am aware of, she, like the lady on the radio, washed in the bathroom sink with a towel under her feet, another close by and her trusty flannel in hand, which I might add got boiled along with the hankies regularly. Her hair was, of course, permed and washed and set by a hairdresser once a month.

One of the things which I will always regret asking, along with so many others, is why she never wanted to bathe! Had she been frightened by water as a child? I don’t think so. I have a photo of her and her sister on the beach in their extraordinarily revealing knitted bathing suits, or did it happen afterwards?

I will never know now. She died 19 years ago and I had never even thought about it until I listened to that radio programme. I probably presumed that all women of that generation must have been the same but I now discover that there are women of my own generation who feel that way too, although I hasten to add that I have not followed in mother’s footsteps fully on that score.

There may be merit in not bathing every day; perhaps there would be less need for skin moisturisers if we didn’t. I doubt whether manufacturers of such products are likely to encourage this line of thought. Their moisturising shower gels and after-lotions must net a hefty part of their income, along with moisturising shampoos and after-cream, not forgetting the in-between masks!

Mind you, I personally think that hair does look a lot healthier these days and I speak as a sufferer for most of my life of dry hair, which I like to think shines more brightly these days. My daughter, on the other hand, uses all manner of products to straighten her beautiful, to me, curls. There is no accounting for taste when it comes to our ideas of beauty, is there?

So on that note I leave you to cogitate.

By Jenny Grainer
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Jenny Grainer arrived in the Algarve to live, work and raise a family in 1964. She is a freelance writer and her book ‘Portugal and the Algarve Now and Then’ is now in its 3rd printing.