Ian Clayton column: New brooms sweep clean

Dennis Skinner talks to Martin Smith about his new book.
Dennis Skinner talks to Martin Smith about his new book.

When I opened my presents on Christmas morning I started to wonder if what you get says something about who you are, or perhaps more properly what you have become.

For the first time this year I couldn’t guess what I was getting. I went through the usual rigmarole of shaking the box, weighing it in my hand and trying to feel the texture through the wrapping, but until I had the paper off, my gifts from Edward and Heather remained a surprise.

Anyhow, I had a good Christmas on the presents front and I will make good use of them all. I got books: I always get books and I always start reading them on the day, even before my sprouts have settled.

This year I got the biography of a musician friend of mine called Robert Wyatt and the autobiography of the politician Dennis Skinner, intriguingly titled Sailing Close to the Wind, which is something I’ve enjoyed doing myself over the years.

I also got a quite beautiful volume of Arabic stories entitled Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, which was first written down at least a thousand years ago.

It’s an enchanting compendium of stories from the Middle East. It made me a bit sad when I started reading it, to think that nowadays we associate that part of the world with the barbarism of war and turmoil when once it was home to civilisation, fertile imagination and magical thoughts.

On the domestic front, I’m not sure what this says, but I got a new apron; not one, but two, pairs of oven gloves; and a set of acrylic kitchen tools so I don’t scratch our new enamelled cookware when I’m stirring a pan of stew. Heather got me the gloves and Edward bought me the kitchen tools and as there are only three of us at home, you can guess who is going to be doing a lot of cooking this year.

I reckoned to look for something amongst the torn-off Christmas paper. When they asked me what I was looking for, I joked that I thought they might have bought me a new sweeping brush while they were at it.

The other day, as Heather was on her way out to work, she looked over her shoulder and said: “Can you have a clean round while I’m out. I want this place looking spick and span when I get home.” I put my new pinny on for a laugh.

I said: “ Don’t worry, I shall have the kitchen not only spick, but very certainly span, as sure as eggs is eggs.” After she had gone, I thought about why people say spick and span and what those two little words have to do with cleaning. What does span have to do with house work and what on earth is a spick?

Back to my books, then, for a bit of research. My trusty Oxford English dictionary tells me that a spic is an old word for a spike, pin or a nail and a span is an old Norse word for a chip of wood.

If we follow this logic we can see that something can be clean like a new nail or a freshly-chipped piece of wood. It’s probably where we get that other saying “as clean as a new pin” from as well.

I spent most of my time while Heather was out reading and writing and completely forgot to do any cleaning. Just before she came in, I noticed I still had my pinny on and dashed around the kitchen with a sweeping brush. Heather came in as I was trying to get into the corners. She said: “You look like you have been busy.”

Then she looked at the worn out bristles on my brush. She didn’t say anything, but I think I know what I might be getting for my next present – and I won’t be waiting until next Christmas, either.

Heather is already talking about spring cleaning. She said: “What this house needs is a damn good bottoming.”

Now there’s a phrase that’s enough to put fear into the heart of any apprentice house husband, eh?