Saturday, January 25, 2014


England once had OMO too. It's lucky I didn't know that. 

When I was small, the blue powder that stood on the washing machine in a box with a big white starburst was called Omo. 

Which, come on, is the best laundry detergent name ever. It is the laundry detergent name you come up with for your graphic novel. Its palindromic meaninglessness has everything: brevity, symmetry, slight tang of post-atomic science-fiction. Because your laundry powder should always be a bit Jetsons. Whiter-than-white, nuclear-powered. 

Omo was the middle of the road, along with Cold Power which was Unbeatable In Cold. The woman on the ad lied to her mum. Got my powder? Yes mum. Water hot? Yes mum. She clicked cold. This was so thrillingly subversive I almost wished it was our family's brand.

There was also Surf. Surf came in an enormous box and was advertised on cents-per-wash, a pile of folded towels stretching to infinity and a matter-of-fact woman with a laundry basket in her arms. Then there was johnny-come-lately Dynamo, which was the avant garde laundry liquid. A third of a cup on the stain, and the rest in the wash. The Dynamo ads had a man in a suit and tie, because science.

When I was an undergraduate the kids who couldn't hold their drink were called Cadburys. A glass and a half. But if you really couldn't hold it, you were a Dynamo. Third of a cup.

Laundry-detergent semiotics. And so here's me a few ahem years later standing in front of the selection at Sainsbury's.  I've been in England maybe a week. It's cold and Cambridge looks like something out of a sword-and-sorcery flick and man, there are a lot of cobbles and bicycles and iron fences with pointy bits on the top and the heating runs in copper pipes and I've been blinking at it all as if dropped through the looking glass. It is not real. It is not real like the beaches of a faraway resort are not real, and soon you're going to be back at the corner shop buying some milk and regretting that wrap-braid. 

This, however, is a supermarket. Its comfortingly familiar fluorescent strip lighting and neatly stacked primary-coloured packaging are delivering my very first proper experience of alienation. I don't know which detergent to buy. I haven't thought about laundry detergent in I can't remember. Boxes and bottles and colours and starbursts and babies and fluffy towels and it's like someone's punched me on the ear. You just sort of know which detergent is the right one. The good one. The one that makes the sheets wave gently and pristinely on the line in the garden you don't have. Right?    

Ariel? Like Shakespeare's sprite? How is that laundryish? No. Lenor. Sounds like a porn star. Wait ... oh, fabric softener. No. Daz? You mean short for Darren? I don't think so. What about this one. This one is called Bold. Bold like ... the brightness of your brights? The whiteness of your whites? OK. We'll call that a possible. Fairy. Fairy? I ... what?  

Persil. This is more like it. Space-ageish. Not in The Tempest. Also it's blue. And it smells mostly how laundry is supposed to smell. Persil. 

I took a box of Persil liquitabs home with me that day and for the first time in my life I wasn't sure my laundry detergent would work.  

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