The Thing Is with Steve Canavan

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Disaster struck this week when our washing machine packed in.

It is, I believe, the worst moment in life, surpassed only by the death of a loved one or getting a supermarket trolley with a really wobbly wheel.

In our house we seem to put clothes washes on every day, mainly because I have a small child whose aim is to put more food on her clothes than in her mouth and a wife whose hobby is running and so every evening chucks yet another pile of heavily sweat-stained Lycra outfits in the laundry basket, where it releases an odour so powerful that next door have twice rung the council to complain about a ‘mysterious smell coming through the wall’.

Back to the washing machine. Like Alan Shearer’s hair, it has been slowly dying for a while now and the rinse-spinner thing (I think that’s what the experts call it) is clearly knackered as our clothes have been increasingly saturated each time we have taken them out of the machine.

Finally, at the weekend, and midway through a 30 degree delicate fabrics wash, our machine made a huge wheezing noise – like an overweight cyclist halfway up a hill – and stopped.

It was clearly time to buy a new model, so at the weekend that’s what Mrs Canavan and I did.

I won’t bore you with the details (but for those interested, we opted for the Zanussi TXG457 Spin Turbo With Built In Shaft Release Deluxe Edition) but it did get me thinking about how marvellous a washing machine actually is.

When I was a nipper, I remember my mum hand-washing clothes all the time, which got me thinking about when machines become the norm.

So I did an hour or two of research in the library (I clearly had very little to do at the weekend), and I just know you can’t wait for me to share my findings.

In the real olden days people cleaned their clothes by pounding them on rocks, then rubbing abrasive sands on them and washing the dirt away in local streams (which possible explains the colour of the River Ribble). The fat of slaughtered animals was sometimes used as soap (which must have been less than ideal when a bloke was choosing what to wear on a date ‘hmm, should I go for the shirt that smells of bludgeoned rabbit or the one that stinks of deceased fox?’ Tricky decision).

The first machine, of sorts, was the scrub board in 1797, but the first to use a drum - a big breakthrough - was dreamt up by American inventor James King in 1851.

Twenty years later, a chap called William Blackstone from Indiana built a birthday present for his wife. It was a machine which removed and washed away dirt from clothes. The first washing machines designed for convenient use in the home had arrived, though I can’t help feeling that Mrs Blackstone might have preferred chocolates and tickets to an Ed Sheeran concert.

And so it went on, improvements and refinements here and there and by 1940, 60 per cent of homeowners in the US had an electric washing machine.

They didn’t become popular in the UK until the 1950s, mainly due to the economic impact of the Second World War. But it wasn’t until – and this surprised me – the 80s, even 1990s, when fully automatic machines, where the temperature and length of wash could be controlled, became widespread.

What I didn’t realise was that we in Britain and Europe are different to elsewhere. Our machines are front-loading - in other words, we stick our dirty underpants in that circular bit. In the US, Australia, Africa, pretty much everywhere in fact, the predominant machine is a top-loader - they put their clothes in a hole at the top.

Which is best? Well, ours use less energy, water and detergent, but theirs wash better – so in other words we’ve got the moral high ground but we smell a bit worse.

Different ideas and designs are cropping up all the time but the future might have been developed not by some brainy boffins in Washington or London but by a group of people in West Yorkshire.

In 2008, a team at the University of Leeds created a washing machine that uses only a cup (less than 300ml) of water and some re-usable plastic chips to carry out a full wash. The machine leaves clothes virtually dry, and uses less than two per cent of the water and energy otherwise used by a conventional machine. It could save billions of litres of water each year. Known as the Xeros washing machines, it is on the market, but only available to businesses as it stands.

So there you go, fascinating, eh? And on the off-chance a relative or friend phones tonight and says ‘my washing machine broke earlier, do you know anything about them?’ you can say ‘well, actually I do’ and spend the next five minutes boring them rigid ... much as I’ve just done to you.

Getting husband priorities spot on

A quick shout-out to a couple of staff at Ribby Hall.

Months ago I spent quite a lot of money – by my frugal standards – on a birthday present for Mrs Canavan: a massage and a meal at the spa there.

I’m not normally this generous but earlier in the year I had an affair with a lady at work – Barbara, smashing girl, small birthmark on her shoulder, drags her right leg a little when she walks – and I felt as though I should make up for it.

I booked it for Mrs Canavan only but she pointed out it wouldn’t be much fun on her own. ‘Who am I going to talk to in the sauna?’ she said.

“You could pretend there was someone else in there with you and have an imaginary conversation,” I suggested, helpfully, but she didn’t seem taken with the idea and insisted I accompany her.

The only snag was that it was on Tuesday – which, by the law of sod, coincided with the night England played in the World Cup.

I’d booked some massage treatments for 4pm and the meal at 6.30pm. With the game starting at 7, this meant I’d miss at least the first half. I’d not been so distraught since 1987 and the day my mum accidentally squashed my pet hamster, Edna, as she ran to answer the phone.

But after tearfully explaining my predicament to a very kindly member of staff (‘so, you see,’ I said between breathless sobs, ‘it means I won’t get to see kick-off’), he had a word with the chef and they said they’d serve our meal at 6 instead.

We had a belting massage and meal, and then watched the whole game, penalties and all, in the bar afterwards. Cracking stuff – and cheers to the staff for being so understanding.