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She may be my ‘wife’ but it is time to rebut!

Posted on 3 March 2009 | 10:03am

I knew something was up when I got a rash of texts about dishwashers yesterday late morning. I was working on a speech at the time, so pushed the phone to one side and ignored them.

Then, out on my bike in the afternoon, a fellow cyclist overtaking me in Regent’s Park (an increasingly frequent occurrence I’m afraid) shouted across to me ‘surprised you put up with all that this morning.’ He was gone before I could establish what he was talking about.

Finally, on the way in to the cinema last night, a couple of women greeted Fiona with a quiet, conspiratorial welcome and the words – ‘well done on Women’s Hour.’ Then the penny dropped.

I was being done in by my own partner as part of the publicity drive for ‘The Secret World of the Working Mother’ by (said partner) Fiona Millar.
It started in The Times recently. Fabulous picture of Fiona and the dog (Molly) on the sofa, surrounded by paintings by our kids atop an interview saying what it’s like living with someone who may be a ‘fabulous father’ but is a workaholic, prone to depression and utterly useless around the house.

Allow me to quote from the book, and then judge for yourselves the glee with which the publisher’s spin department will have seized upon this section as they put together a media plan (oh yes, I know how it all works …)

‘Having lived for over 25 years,’ she writes (it’s 30 actually, and as someone said on Mumsnet yesterday, you should consider yourself lucky, but let’s put that to one side) ‘with someone who still can’t start the washing machine, load the dishwasher in any way that could possibly allow the dishes to be cleaned, doesn’t do lightbulbs, fuses, flat tyres and once told me, when I suggested that he might mow the lawn, that if he had wanted to mow the lawn he would have become a gardener, I am fully acquainted with the dual burden.’

I have been trying to hear what she actually said on Women’s Hour but despite my new found attempts to go digital, I don’t appear to be able to work the ‘Listen Again’ thing on the BBC, and Fiona is not around to help me, which as you will guess from the above paragraph is the usual way of things when it comes to anything technical. (Which reminds me, I need a new cartridge in the printer. But she’s busy doing another interview no doubt.)

I assume from yesterday’s texts that she was elaborating on her claims about me not being able to load the dishwasher, and I must say, in forcible terms, that the claim is NOT TRUE. I accept that I cannot start the dishwasher, nor the washing machine. That is a fair cop. I confess that I have never changed a light bulb, nor a fuse, and the only time I ever tried to replace a flat tyre, a passing woman driver took pity on me as she watched my pathetic efforts to put the jack in the right place, and changed it for me.

Equally, I may well have said what Fiona said I said in response to her request to mow the lawn. She may even have toned it down that bit, as I think I had a couple of F words in there. So tha

t part of the charge sheet – all true. Also, all blindingly obvious to her when we first met.

But it is simply not

true to say that I put cups and glasses in the dishwasher the wrong way round. There, I feel better having rebutted that.
In any event, I think this is all part of a very subtle game that women play to have complete power in the home. Though I have always been the main breadwinner, she handles our finances (or, as she boasted to the Times, I don’t know our bank account password. I didn’t know you needed one. Maybe that was the start of the banking crisis. Passwords indeed.)

She makes nearly all the decisions about holidays, major purchases, furnishings and decorations and social engagements.
On the rare occasions I have tried to make the bed, she has immediately re-done it. So what is the point, I ask whenever I look at rumpled sheets, in wasting time making it in the first place when I could be at my desk writing a key scene in the next novel? There, I feel better having justified my non-bedmaking to myself.

Anyone who has read The Blair Years will know that Fiona and I have the occasional right old tear up, sometimes about policy but mainly about me having done a job which required 24/7 intensity and so even less time for washing dishes and plumping up cushions. But with time and patience comes the ability to forgive, and I will forgive her the dishwasher calumny provided she and her spin doctors stop repeating it and limit the charge sheet to washing machines, fuses, lightbulbs and tyres.

I will also recommend her book – and if she is nice to me might even allow it onto my books page. It is a very good analysis of the challenges facing working mothers, research and real people stories running alongside each other. And even though I might be too far gone to change my own outmoded ways, at least after reading it I felt I understood better what she’d been on about all these years. (There you are – stick that on the cover of the next edition, Ebury spin doctors!)

* The Secret World of the Working Mother by Fiona (‘lucky enough to be married to Alastair Campbell’ – Mumsnet) Millar (Ebury Press, £12.99, published March 5)

PS, she’s doing a live webchat on Mumsnet today. I’ll be stacking the dishwasher.

  • Mark Hendy

    Alastair, I’d a woman – man thing. All women are genetically programmed to believe they know best how to stack a dishwasher, along with the genetic predisposition to moan and berate men about it. My advice is to back off slowly avoiding eye contact and occasionally muttering “yes dear”

  • Karen Redman

    At least no one need tell you not to wash your dirty laundry in public … that’s just not going to happen, is it? I’ve found in my limited experience that there’s one thing worse than a husband who can’t (or won’t) load dishwashers or washing machines and that’s one who can! The results of over-eager husband’s attempts at domesticity are far more likely to bring us to the brink of divorce than if he would just PLEASE LEAVE THINGS ALONE!

  • Mark Bennett

    I can vouch that you can indeed stack a dishwasher, having seen you do it. Though it must be said my partner routinely rearranges the dishwasher if I’ve stacked it.

  • liz biddle

    Alastair…your wife and I are definitely married to the same man…you may look different on the outside but that doesn’t fool me. The last time my husband attempted to get something out of the dishwasher he cut his hand three times…and then blamed me !!!! All of this just adds to my theory that the grass is never greener on the other side so you might as well stick with what you have (except in exteme circumstances of course).

  • Gabrielle L-P

    Alastair this can all be explained by the fact that you are an uncompromising, workaholic, Alfa Male of a certain age/generation (Not a criticism, just a statement). Having said that Fiona did know what she was taking on. She also stated on W H that she had enabled you to fall into this pattern over the years. This behaviour is set early in life; it is not too late for your sons though!

  • Rob Atkins

    Alastair – your blog needs a catchy title if it’s really going to take off. How about “Fiddling while the country burns” or “Reflections on life from a champagne socialist” ?

  • Gabrielle L-P

    ROB – I would say that ACs blog has already “taken off”

  • Julia Braun

    That really brightened up a rather bleak morning, thanks! My girlfriend was asking why the hell I was laughing so much. đŸ™‚

    I hate housework and whole-heartedly agree that it takes time away from much more important things such as writing (occasionally), reading (a lot) and brooding (mostly).

    A few years ago, I used to be quite neat, but nowadays, I leave all housework until I can’t ignore it any longer because I’m tripping over it. Unsurprisingly, my girlfriend disapproves.

  • Wera Hobhouse

    I allow my husband to make the bed occasionally and try not to make it again. It’s called empowerment. But he has been slow in improving his skills over the last 20 years.
    I think it’s lack of motivation. Maybe he needs some sort of community champion. I wonder whether he actually WANTS to do the job properly.

  • Jo Christie-Smith

    Hmmm…what she needs to do is focus on the outcomes.

    From the start I made sure my workaholic, political lobbyist, partner understood that the cook does not do the washing up. And I’m the cook.

    This was painful to start with as said partner was not used to dishwashers but in the end, after giving a few pointers, I just left him to it – finding it easier just not to look, frankly – and instead just focus on whether the plates and glasses I get out of the cupboard are clean or not.

    He may well have put them the right way up in the dishwasher, etc, etc but he’s responsible for getting the things clean, not solely putting them in the dishwasher.

    It’s the focus on activity, rather than outcomes, that has made many Govt targets fail to make things better.

    (Sorry, didn’t mean to make a political point, but couldn’t help myself).

  • clare mccarthy

    If anyone in our house loads the dishwasher,my husband rearranges it ! Hows that for having a well trained partner, even if it does drive us all mad ! Ps. He is also very good at ironing

  • Judith Haire

    This is a storm in a teacup as far as I can see. Rise above it AC! You’re a bloke and that’s all there is to it, I’ve found the Listen Again thingy to be unreliable – I don’t think it’s you.

  • AC \’The People\’s Dishwasher\’

    Some very good soundbites being posted by my Facebook friends rallying to my cause as FM continues to exploit my name and reputation in shameless pursuit of book-plugging on Mumsnet.
    ‘Tough on grime, tough on the causes of grime.’
    ‘We don’t do dishes.’
    ‘I don’t miss the microwave and hoover. I do miss … what do I miss. I do miss the dishwasher.’
    I’ve added a couple ‘Ask me my three priorities for the future and I tell you – dishwashing, dishwashing, dishwashing.’
    ‘What’s wrong with a bogstandard sink and scouring brush?’
    ‘The People’s Dishwasher’

  • Raphael

    Actually, that aspect of you was quite apparent in the Comic Relief Apprentice show you did, no? If I remeber correctly you did not know how to change the staplers in a stapler…

  • Robson Stroud

    Tough on grime, tough on the causes of grime!

    (thank you! I’m here all week! Try the fish!)

  • Alina Palimaru

    I do hope that this unpleasant public turf war shows a need to re-think traditional roles in society. Alastair, you are right to defend yourself for (not) doing the dishes, replacing bulbs etc just as Fiona is right to reap praise for handling her career and/or housework. It’s all about choice and one’s wish to comply with the terms of a partnership. But I am rather disturbed by women who are fiercely defending their domestic territory. This will only re-enforce male expectations for women to stick with it. These roles are not innate, but constructed. And we cannot talk our way out of something into which we behaved. I am a 24/7 fiercely career-oriented type of woman, but also do my own dishes, laundry and ironing, replace bulbs, and even advised a poor fellow down the hall on how to unclog his sink (Jesus, dude!!).

    I am my own trouble-shooter, and if I think it’s worth it, I may decide to live with a man who can’t do any of this. But the last time I told a guy about my terms, he asked me if I had any morals, and then dismissed the whole thing with the cheapest shot: “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” (i.e. I am not putting up with this attitude, but will pretend to until I get what I want). My response was: “why buy the entire pig for just a tiny sausage?”

  • Hadleigh Roberts

    At least you have a dishwasher! We actually have to do the washing and drying ourselves…

  • Cate C

    What advice do you have for a career focussed woman, who cannot manage housework, partnered with a career-focussed man similarly housework-challenged? Can’t get a housekeeper; too poor and too socialist. I fear we are condemned to live in intellectually stimulating squalor.

  • Liz Main

    It’s most certainly not a woman – man thing…. I am genetically untidy (my excuse, but seems to apply to the entire family, male and female) and rely on my husband to do everything except cook and iron. Not sure that he could change a tyre, but he’s very good at all the rest. Especially making the bed. As for the dishwasher thing – it’s a mystery to me. I do load it, but I’ve no idea if I’m doing it right.

  • Katie

    If you want to find out more, we (her publishers) have launched a website for the book.

  • Erica Braithwaite

    I think you should get Bono and Geldoff to organise a fundraising concert to endow every household in the UK with a dishwasher. It would halve the divorce rate. The concert could be called Rinse Aid.

  • mikey

    Hi Ali….sorry Burnley were screwed in the Carling Cup….about the dishwasher? Remember Dziadek Donald’s system…”You’ll wash,He’ll dry. ” Rememeber my b’day on the 11 th….Mikey

  • Joanne Sheppard

    I don’t think this a gender issue. Apart from cooking, mowing the lawn and assembling a flatpacked item of furniture about once every three years, I am largely incapable of household chores. Well, not so much as incapable as unaware. I don’t notice that washing up needs to be done until there are literally no more clean plates, or that bins need to be emptied while it is still possible to close the lid, or that ironing needs to be done… um… ever. This means that every time my boyfriend (partner? common law husband? Never quite sure what to call him) has to go away for a few days, the house degenerates into chaos and squalor within an hour or two of his departure. He’s been known to come home and discover that I have inadvertently left wet clothes in the washing machine, and that they have gone mouldy.

    On the other hand, while he is excellent at domestic stuff, he goes into a blind panic at the first sign of any minor hiccup involving computers, whereas I’m at least semi-competent on that score.

    Talking of which… if you’re having problems with Listen Again, it might be because your browser is set not to enable plug-ins. If you’re using Internet Explorer 6 or above, try going to Tools, then selecting Manage Add-ons. That brings up a list of extra stuff that you can add to your browser to make it do interesting things. Look for RealPlayer, or RealPlayer Active X Control, and check that it’s enabled. If it’s disabled, select it by clicking on it, then click ‘Enable’.