• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The spicks & the specks

Shannon Lush is Australia's goddess of clean. What she doesn't know about cleaning house would be less than a speck of dust in a sandstorm. Saleswise, her book Spotless has cleaned up. And she's into fine arts restoration as well.

How did it all start?

They had a radio programme called Spiders and Lemons and people would ring in with their questions and others would call in with the solutions, and they were all wrong. I couldn't let that keep going, so I'd ring back and say, "No, you'd do this and this", and I'd solve all of them. Eventually the announcer asked, "Who is this woman? Why does she know everything? Get her in here." And it just went bananas. I do 16 radio shows a week now and the phone lines go into meltdown on every single show ...

People actually book in advance to talk. They're queuing for hours. I thought it was just my friends who didn't know this stuff. I thought they were a bit thick. But they're not - most people just don't know it any more. I find it quite strange. I find it quite astounding. In our family it's normal.

When I went through school sewing and cooking, the domestic subjects, as such, were at the bottom of the scale. Now, fashion and cooking and even cleaning are cool.

Yeah, you were a bit daggy if you did those subjects, weren't you? Because I come from a matriarchal family, women's liberation never affected us, because we already were expected to be businesswomen, housewives and mothers, and have been for generations.

So, when people started deciding they were going to teach their daughters to be businesswomen instead of housewives and mothers, for our family it was always "and" not "instead", so that information didn't get lost in our family, it was always passed down. I was doing the family mending by the time I was four. Kids can be taught to clean when they are two ...

There are all sorts of things they can do. And that's what cleaning should be: it should be a family thing that's done together. But we have this attitude that it's something at the bottom of the scale. We treat cleaning as the worst possible job on the planet, we pay professional cleaners poorly, we don't think much of them at all. No! It should be fun.

Why do you think there's been such a revival of interest in these sorts of natural "granny's remedies"?

What I do is not just granny stuff, it's chemistry. People are used to going to the supermarket now, reading the product labels and trying to do what the labels say. But they get the bottle home and it doesn't work and people don't know what to do next because this knowledge hasn't been passed down to them.

Everything in my books works. I don't put anything in there until I've tested it myself. Unfortunately, in this and other countries we don't have strict guidelines about what's in a product. They can legally obfuscate. And many of the chemicals in a product actually fight one another; one might do what it says it does, but the others actually dilute it.

They keep trying to give us a universal stain remover, but if you know anything about chemistry you know that is not possible. It's like saying one and one is three.

Stain removal is chemistry. We all remember from school what an acid and an alkali do to each other. They cancel each other out and in the right amounts they will create just salt water in the end, but there's a reaction in between. So, if you try to put that in the bottle, the reaction doesn't keep happening, it stops, so a lot of the products you buy are just salt water, which is great if you want to get rid of mould but nothing else.

It's just plain silly. People rely on advertising and if a product doesn't work they rely on advertising again and try another product and it's just one big circle. Not only are cleaning products harsh on the skin but they also stink. We have people who hire cleaners and go out while they're there because they can't stand the pong. How terrible is that? That you can't stand the smell of your own home?

You do recommend some commercial products, though.

Yeah, NapiSan's good. They don't have it or any equivalent overseas. America uses really nasty stuff. We have cleaning products in Australia and New Zealand that are quite different. Most Americans use disposables or a nappy service, so they don't wash their own. So it wasn't developed there. And the nappy services use stuff that I wouldn't put near a baby's bottom in a million years.

How did you learn about that chemical side of cleaning?

My father was an industrial chemist and by the time I was four I knew what everything in the house was made of. I have an unusual memory. I don't forget. Names, yes, but information, no.

I can even remember the order I laid buttons out on my grandmother's dressing table when I was three and I could do it again straight away. I file information in a different way to most people, so I don't forget.

But chemistry, to me, is like breathing. Everything is chemical, the air that you breathe, the water you drink. "Chemical" has had a different connotation lately because we associate it as being against the green movement. We think that chemical is bad. It's not. What they should be using instead of the word "chemical" in those cases is "toxic". Everything is chemical, but it's not all toxic.

Been surprised by your success?

We thought that Spotless* might sell 5000. We wrote it because people asked us to. We reprinted nine times before release. That was just astonishing. We've cleared 400,000, but I'm not sure where we're up to now because it just keeps selling ...

Speed Cleaning is not far behind. Each of the books is a progression on the last. The second one's how to do it fast, how to clean in 15 minutes a day. I have five jobs and I work 17 hours a day, seven days a week, and 15 minutes is all I have to clean.

We have things like the family Olympics, and it works. Hopefully, eventually people will be able to know what to do themselves.

It would put you out of a job, though.

This isn't about a job for me. I have five jobs. This was about trying to help people. I'm really terrible when I walk into other people's homes ... I have a tendency to sort of ... help. You know that song "In the Kitchen at Parties"? Well, I am. When anyone's having a party, I'm in the kitchen serving up and cooking. Someone drops something and I'm there.

So, are you a clean-freak?

No, I'm not. I'm a hoarder - a very ordered hoarder. I have to be a hoarder for my business, because I work in 27 different mediums and I have to collect things for what I do. The fine art restoration is very important to me and I love it.

I'm also an artist and always have been. I cannot stand living in a sterile environment; I hate that hospital feel, it's just revolting. It has to be comfortable, it has to be cosy. You should get that "ahhh" sort of feel when you get home.

It's really sad, but you know what I do when I'm miserable? I clean my linen cupboard. Everything in there feels nice and smells nice and when it's ordered I feel so satisfied.

Do you think you can also be too clean?

Yeah. There are a lot of things that are really important to be exposed to. Kids who don't get to play in the dirt need far more antibiotics in their lives because they don't build up resistance to things. We have cities where often people don't see a tree or land, and that's just ridiculous. It makes a huge difference.

Tell me about your fine art restoration.

I work with just about everything - paintings of all varieties, crystal, china, ivory, all the metals. You name it, I work in it. Fabrics. Antique wedding gowns, 16th-century tapestries, Mason's paraphernalia, so I work with leathers as well.

Do you think we have turned away from the 80s throw-away culture?

We're trying to, but it's not an easy thing to turn around. When you grow up learning to just chuck it, that's a hard thing to change ...

There's nothing in your house that you could not reuse another way. You can even save your urine. Do you know what we use urine for? Do you know you wash your hair in it?

Urine is used in nearly every beauty product you have in your cupboard, and human urine is actually used to clean paintings. It changes its chemical signature in UV light. They tend to use cattle urine because it's far more readily available and you can get large amounts of it. Urine is used in so many different ways.

So, would you recommend that someone wash their hair in their own urine?

Yes, but you have to rot it in the sunshine for about a week until it diminishes by about half. But I wash my hair with brown sugar and rosemary tea. If you have dark and curly hair and it's fine, it's the best thing to wash it in.

I like the sound of the brown sugar. Why does that work?

Sugar feeds your hair. Your hair contains sugar already, and the abrasive action of the brown sugar strips the excess oil out of your hair so it doesn't go greasy. It also helps get rid of dandruff, and if you get really bad hair you always use rosemary, a couple of teaspoons of dried rosemary and some hot water and wash it in that.

I seem to spill red wine on clothes quite often.

You get pissed a lot, do you?

No, I'm just clumsy.

Ah, you need bumper bars. You're supposed to drink it, you know. Red wine seems to get spilt a lot. The best way to get red wine out of something is to mop up the excess with a paper towel, sprinkle bicarb of soda [baking soda] on it and it'll change colour instantly; it's like playing with litmus paper, it will go straight from red to blue-grey. And then you just sponge it out with white vinegar and it's gone. But people don't tend to do the same things over and over again.

Some questions must give you quite an interesting insight into people's lives - do you wonder what they get up to?

There are some pretty strange ones. The lipstick on the ceiling was the one that got me. The moment you say it, everyone goes, "Right. What on earth were they doing?"

Are there any basic rules that people can rely on?

Never use hot water on a protein.

You claim there's never been a question that has stumped you.

No. I'd like there to be, because it would be a new puzzle, and I like puzzles. But so far, no go ...

We had one really funny fellow who rang up and said, "The dog's had diarrhoea, the wife's going to get rid of the dog and then me, it's all over the carpet and the curtains, what am I going to do?" He had used cornflour, detergent and carpet cleaner and mixed it all together and made poo glue. It stuck to the curtains and the carpet.

We went through it step by step and we kept him on the line and by the end of the programme he had got it all out. Five minutes before the end of the programme, the wife called to say thank you. She was in the other room listening in the whole time, happy to let him clean it up.