I began writing a new blog a week or so ago, but changed my mind. Instead of trying to answer a question addressed to myself, Where am I (in this once again Covid-affected and increasingly polarised world), it seemed a lot easier – and more fun – to write about brooms.

Do you want to be great? Pick up a broom and sweep the floor. Mother Theresa

Road in Etten, 1881. Artist Vincent van Gogh. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

I was listening to a BBC World Radio programme on this very subject, called Sweeping the World, and images began to dance before my eyes. Not only the leaves drifting in desultory fashion past the kitchen window, signalling the arrival of autumn, but brooms past and present.

It’s time to start sweeping autumn fall into huge golden heaps readied to decompose into leaf mould over the winter. (Neighbour Tom will climb over the fence to transfer buckets to his compost heap, to be layered with summertime grass clippings for rich potato pickings next year.)

Problem is, no besom. They seem so hard to find around here. And using a rake is just not the same.

I loved my besom broom in Japan, purchased from a shop in downtown Zushi that specialised in the most amazing and creative ranges of kitchenware and garden tools imaginable, all manner of useful equipment made from bamboo and wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stored in our cave (Household Stories/Katei Monogatari, page 19) and lasting for years, it was immensely satisfying to use, sweeping up and down the drive, and all around the house.

Swish, swish, swish.

By the time we left to come here, to Scotland, the twigs had near worn down, but still did the job until the day of closing up the genkan for the very last time. Its remains? Secreted high on the mountainside to return to nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was eight, my pals and I went up to my bedroom, put on our party frocks and mimed to ABBA records using broom handles as microphones. Kylie Minogue

In Europe besom are traditionally made of birch twigs, gathered around the base of a branch and tied into place. In the UK, the craft appears centralised in and around in Hampshire, where the broom maker “by appointment to the Queen” is based. (www.besombrooms.com)

Visitors to Aberfedy, Perthshire, Scotland are often drawn to The Birks. In Gaelic, birk means birch trees. It strikes me that there is a small business here, should anyone fancy the woodland life and working with trees rather than against them.

Besom of course are for outdoor use. Softer brooms are used inside. Again in Household Stories/Katei Monogatari, this time on page 47 (and an illustration on page 44), I describe how I bought such a broom from a Japanese woman in her eighties, carrying her hand-crafted wares on her back. Woven from rice straw, it is far too beautiful to use, and now hangs on a wall. 

For centuries then brooms have been regarded as practical and effective means by which to keep floors and living spaces clean. Nor has their basic design changed much, wherever you are in the world. Based in cheap and simple practicality, they fall into that category of refined and even revered everyday objects known as folk craft, or mingei in Japanese.

The first time they became linked to the supernatural was in the 14th century, when illustrations in Austria showed two women riding broomsticks. Rumour spread of a witches coven, and their rounding up and execution resulted in the burning and drowning of five million predominantly women through the next century. 

For today’s generation, brooms have become magical enough to make author J.K Rowling a millionaire, and Harry Potter a household name. 

Too bad brooms can’t really fly. Now if you miss the bus you can go to your room and fly to school on a nimbus two thousand. Rupert Grinch

While a dying craft when compared to numbers produced in the past, there is a revival of interest and they are increasingly snapped up at fairs, agricultural shows and farmers markets. Plastic? Definitely had its day.

Or has it? My daughter bought a boat the other day. An old houseboat moored on Toronto Island in Canada. It came complete with an ancient broom, that is part wood (the handle) and part synthetic fibres. Does the job, she says, when needed!

When asked about it, she revealed that Max (my grandson) had named it ‘spiders bane’, because it came with the boat and on the first day the boat was like a scene from a horror movie. “So many cobwebs that we designated it the cobweb broom.”

Be amazed to know that the oldest broom of natural materials known is dated 200BC. Discovered in a watchtower in China, it still had the original ties, and the handle displaying a fine patina. At 2,000 years old, this is both astonishing and yet unsurprising in its familiarity.

Painting, 19th century. Japanese artist Shibata Zeshin. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Even today, go anywhere in the world, and the basic design of the broom has not changed. Tie some fibres to a stick and away you go to do the job.

My Japanese husband can remember his mother scattering tatami matting with wetted newspaper (to collect dirt and dust) and then sweeping clean with a broom not dissimilar to the one shown below in Africa. 

Mukuni Village, Zambia. (Photo by: Edwin Remsberg/VW PICS/UIG via Getty Image)

A new broom sweeps clean but an old broom knows the corners. Irish proverb

So why this sudden foray into brooms… swish, swish, swish…

Imagine a broom that would sweep not only dirt and dust but germs, pandemics, misguided policies, inept and dangerous politicians over the moon and far far away…

Swish, swat, scram …

It feels like I have somehow come full circle and the last thing you need  is a downer at this point. May this quote by the reclusive but ever inspiring Milan Kundera (b.1929) – he who wrote The Unbearable lightness of Being –  help lift your spirits, calm anxiety, raise a smile, feed your soul.

Stay safe everyone. 

Sleep in my arms. Like a baby bird. Like a broom among brooms … In a broom closet. Like a tiny parrot. Like a whistle. Like a little song. A song sung by a forest … within a forest … a thousand years ago.