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About A Week: Beware Those Germs

Peter Hinchliffe’s mother was tough on grime, and tough on the causes of grime.

Sixty years on, and the truth finally emerges. I was right and my mother was wrong.

“Wash your hands before you sit down at the table,’’ was the daily command.

“Aw mam,’’ little me protested. “I’ve already washed ‘em.’’

“When? I didn’t hear the tap running.’’

“Er… this morning.’’

“Well it’s tea-time now and you’ve been playing out all day. Look at them hands. You could plant potatoes in the palms.’’

So it was a case of shake hands with the carbolic soap, or no tea. Mam was tough on grime, and tough on the causes of grime.

I remember a hot sunny day, when the tar was all runny at the sides of Whitley Road. We scooped it up, rolled it into balls. I went home looking like Brer Rabbit’s Tar-Baby. Smears on hands, wrists, elbows…

Mother soaked a rag in turps then vigorously set about changing me from black to white. When the last trace of tar had disappeared she took off a slipper and thwacked my legs. “Now go and have a bath,’’ she ordered. “We don’t want you stinking the house out when your dad comes home. And you can make do with cold water.’’

Tough and ever tougher on grime.

But scientists now tell us that obsessive cleanliness in the home can increase the risk of children suffering from asthma and eczema. A team at Bristol University’s Institute of Child Health, after studying the development of more than 14,000 children, report that the more often youngsters have their faces and hands washed the more likely they are to develop eczema and wheezing.

Dr Andrea Sherriff says that exposure to harmless bacteria may stimulate the immune systems of children.

Mam would have told those Bristol researchers a thing or two if they had come to our house for tea. She’d have sent them all scurrying to the kitchen sink to meet Mr Carbolic before allowing them to feast on light-as-a-feather jam sponge cake.

Only once have I visited Israel. We drove north from Jerusalem, stopping off for a bite to eat in a bus station cafeteria. A spotlessly clean place, with a sink at the starting point of the serve-yourself line. Hands were washed and dried before customers chose food.

“Mam would have loved this place,’’ I thought, startling folk by laughing out loud.

Hand-washing becomes obsessive. I remember, with mild horror, a story told on the old BBC TV Tonight show. Remember Tonight? Cliff Michelmore, Alan Whicker, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Fyfe Robertson…

At one year’s end the show’s reporters were asked to recount their most bizarre experience during the past 12 months. Fyfe Robertson recalled a trip into the London sewers to interview the men who kept the…ah…the system flowing.

At noontime one of the chaps put a plank across the stream, sat on it, reached down to wet his hands in the flow, wiped them on his britches, then unwrapped a bundle of sandwiches.

Seeing Fyfe Robertson’s shocked expression he commented through a spray of crumbs, “Got to be hygienic, haven’t you?’’

Mam would be pleased to know that I eventually became a regularly hand-washer. Not a trace of eczema and no wheezing.

Maybe I became a soap fiend late enough in life for it not to do me any harm.

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