Doing laundry is no one’s cup of tea. It’s a chore that’s either carried out dutifully, under the oppressive dictatorship of everyday life, or when it’s simply too late. You’ve put it off for too long; it must be done.
But walk into the Laundrette on New Cross Road, and the banal transforms into something else entirely. Your guide: Linda Manwaring.
She’s just finished smoking a cigarette, and remarks, apropos of nothing:
“Most women don’t know when to throw away their knickers. Sometimes it’s just time to say goodbye.”
The Laundrette buzzes with the hum of machines, the clinking of coins, the call-and-response of Manwaring’s banter with customers. An Ava Gardner movie plays on the television. No one watches.
“Are you paying attention?” Manwaring barks at a young woman fumbling with the spin dryer, as she helps the hapless customer sort it out.
“Next time, you can do it yourself.”
In the space of a couple of hours, Manwaring assumes this role of forbearing teacher many times, refusing to let new customers leave until they understand how the machines work.
“That one’s a bit lazy,” she warns another customer who’s stuffing a load into machine number 8.
Though Manwaring works at a very simply named establishment, her journey to the Laundrette has been anything but simple.
Having lived in Greece, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Hong Kong, she’s donned various hats over the years—English teacher, textiles trade magazine columnist, gardener at Eltham Palace in Greenwich, and entrepreneur.
Her travels began when her husband, who’d suffered two bouts of pneumonia in the same winter, suggested they move to warmer climes.
“We stayed in Greece far too long, so when we decided to go to Iran, it was snowing!”
The couple trekked from Iran to Afghanistan, where they eventually overstayed their welcome.
“It was a Russian-backed government at the time, and they found it embarrassing to have British passport holders living in the country. So one day, our visas were mysteriously revoked. We weren’t kicked out, but that’s essentially what it amounted to.”
Afghanistan, says Manwaring, was “lovely: like Disneyland!”
“The Afghanis are a wonderful bunch. They’re either fighting invaders or fighting themselves.”
Manwaring’s adventures in Hong Kong had her teaching English and writing a regular column for a textiles trade magazine. “Imagine,” she says, “writing 1500 words on sewing thread!”
Eventually, she came home to London and has lived in New Cross for the past decade.
“When I came back to London, no one would employ me. My gardening business was slowing down, and I was on Jobseeker’s Allowance. At some point, I got fed up with the way [the Jobcentre] were treating me, so I started working here. Thought I’d do it for a few months. Then the recession hit, and three years later, I’m still here!”
Though Manwaring eventually hopes to pursue other endeavors, for the time being she helps the New Cross community while away the grim evening hours, one load of laundry at a time.
“You’d be surprised by how many people don’t read the labels,” Manwaring explains, recounting the lessons she’s learned over the years at the Laundrette. “When it says, ‘Do not tumble dry,’ don’t whine when it comes out mashed, you know?”
“Also,” she continues, “any bodily fluid stains can usually be washed out at the time with cold water and ordinary bath soap. The minute you touch some stains with detergent, the stains are their forever. So wash it out at the time, and you’ve got half a chance.”
Manwaring says her favorite thing about working at the Laundrette is the people of New Cross.
“We have all kinds of people come in here. Anybody who is interested in the human race is welcome. It reminds one that any community consists of individuals, with their own likes and dislikes, their different perspectives, different colors.”
“I’ve tried to convince my boss to change the name of the place,” Manwaring confides.
“Rainbow Laundry. Good, isn’t it?”