Our columnist Jan Lee returns to give her top tips on how best to tackle that incessant bugbear: cleaning.
I’m not a clean freak. There, I said it. In fact, I believe we as a species need to encounter a certain amount of muck and germs every day to keep our immune systems from taking an extended sabbatical. Were I minded to look for it, I could provide you the scientific evidence to back up that sweeping claim.
So I do not sweep. Not regularly. And I don’t scrub at coffee rings in a blind panic. Cleaning is something to which I will never sacrifice an hour I could otherwise spend with a good book. Far better use that hour to cook up a messy feast and steam up the windows with lovely oven smells.
Imagine my state of mind when I arrive home to survey the results of several recent building jobs to find everything under an inch of plaster dust, brick particles and general grime, all trodden up the stairs into our cream carpets and lying over every book and armrest like a scene from a Satanic snow-globe. It wasn’t the filth and sneeze-inducing fog that got to me; it was the thought that, yet again, I would be on my hands and knees scrubbing and polishing, waging an endless battle with vacuum cleaner and microfiber cloth. I never saw myself as a housewife; but then, I never imagined living in a midden. Needs must. Out came the marigolds and the supply of cleaning products, and down on to my poor bruised knees I went.
Having done that at least four times since we bought the house ten months ago, I have amassed a knowledge of cleaning products to rival the combined genius of Kim and Aggie. Having gone through the inventory of Tesco’s entire household aisle, I feel I speak from a position of experience. I have wiped PVC shutters and wood in a variety of finishes, though in each and every case, the object was white and the muck distinctly less so. Walls that have been besmirched, wooden floors and slate tiles that were covered with plaster and soot had to be restored to their expensive former glory. Oh, and our homely hearth had to be disinfected after the dog lost his dinner all over it, but it wasn’t his fault.
So, here’s what I’ve learnt:
For assorted animal digestive products, there is nothing better than biological washing detergent diluted in warm water. The enzymes in the detergent kill off the nasty bacteria that leave a lingering scent, encouraging your hairy heart to return to the same spot next time the urge takes him. I have used this on slate tiles, wiping down with water afterwards so as not to strip the sealant away. It also works on carpets and wooden floors. His Canine Lordship has reported no ill effects, so I am assuming that the product doesn’t do to his skin what it has done to mine in the past. Use gloves if you suffer with sensitive skin. For accidental ‘Number Ones’ on your rugs or carpet, dab with kitchen towel, then soak with diluted household ammonia, leave for the duration of a soap opera and dab up. To get rid of the pungent whiff, soak again with water and dab up. Resist the temptation to take a good sniff of said ammonia. It is, I think, one of few substances that can dubiously claim to be favoured by hairdressers and terror cells the world over. It not only reeks, it can potentially damage your eyes, skin and hair if you come into contact with it. Handle with care!
To wipe down painted wooden surfaces, use white vinegar, mixed in a bowl of warm water with some bicarbonate of soda. Contrary to my fears, the house did not end up smelling of a chip shop, even after we doused the entire ground floor in this solution following a repair job on our fireplaces. You can also use diluted vinegar on its own to clean stains from rugs, to wipe glass and mirrors, and to brighten hobs and cooker hoods. I have since discovered it is one of the ingredients in a really great bathroom cleaning product, called Viakal. Coming from a soft-water area originally, I never understood the fuss in the adverts about limescale build-up until I moved to London. It’s nothing short of a biblical plague on the South East. Crusty kettles and stained loos, not to mention shower screens that turn opaque within a few weeks. Surely we should direct our pooled scientific resources at finding a weapon against this plague. But there is no need to scrub away resentfully while your other half invents some internet-based task. This stuff, on sale from most supermarkets for a few quid, keeps things clear and clean for at least a week. It seems to repel water, meaning that you won’t see that dispiriting immediate spatter of dried watermarks after a shower.
I am also a total convert to the JML Magic Eraser. It’s so cheap, and you can cut however much you need for each job. Dampen and wipe over dirty marks, stained grout, scuffs and even small-scale dog mess. In the latter case, bin immediately.
Slightly more expensive, but worth it if you suffer from allergies, steam cleaners have come a long way. You can now buy small, compact cleaners that disassemble for storing away. You’ll find your asthma improves once you have given the soft furnishings the once-over. Since you may use it in place of harsher products, it may also help with skin irritations. One drawback with these, however, is that you can’t pour water in straight from a London tap. The gear will clog up with limescale in short order. It has to be spring water, or filtered water, which I find morally offensive. I am holding out for a cheap and simple solution to this, as steam gives a quick, easy and deeply hygienic clean for upholstery, tiles, carpet, rugs, curtains and even mattresses. It also pulls out grubbiness from the grout between tiles. This was a huge boon after our early marathon-efforts with a toothbrush and bicarb of soda.
You’ve guessed it: I’ve not done much baking, for all my purchases of this raising agent. I did discover it helped to fasten on to damp dirt that had been trampled in to carpet fibres, which could then be vacuumed clean. Like the old Shake-n-Vac, you just sprinkle it over the damp, stained area, leave overnight and then vacuum. (Dancing to the 1980s jingle in your head is optional.) Tougher stains may need a tiny amount of brushing, not hard enough to push the dirt in deeper, but enough to help the bicarb work its way in.
After all this, you will be feeling slightly wary of having more work done in your house. But then, for the house you’ve always wanted, a few evenings spent scrubbing and mopping are worth it. I will certainly be stocking up on dustsheets and imposing a ‘shoes-off at the door’ rule on tradesmen.