Report from a Mop Bucket revisited

28th of December 2022
Report from a Mop Bucket revisited

Lotte Printz on a Swedish cleaner and author, Maja Ekelöf, whose biography has just been released.

”Ugh! Most people would probably say when they think about working as a cleaner. It’s a dull word. You can almost sense the smell of dust and dirty water. You also sense the back pains and the chapped hands. This is a low-income job. All hard manual labour is, I suppose. You don’t think you need education to become a cleaner. It’s such a demanding job that not anybody can manage it… you’ve got to be fit. (…) Even though I’m fed up with this work, I feel it’s important… Everything gets so shabby when not kept clean.”

Written by Swedish Maja Ekelöf, a divorcee and a mother of five, the youngest nearly 18 and herself on the road to 50, in her diary… in 1968, mind you! But couldn’t those words not have been written today?

At least the author of a new biography about Maja Ekelöf thinks so. “Many of her arguments hold true even today and we discuss the same questions and issues whenever cleaning is brought up or the view on low-income jobs. (…) And even though some things have changed in the industry, cleaning is still toilsome and heavy manual work and the wages for work so essential to society too low,” Nina van den Brink says speaking to the Swedish cleaning industry magazine Rent.

Reading about the biography, I heard about Ekelöf for the very first time – a cleaner who became an author at the age of 52. I was intrigued. And set out to read her diary novel, Report from a Mop Bucket, from 1970.

I have to say it grew on me. Not just because of the way Ekelöf describes her own life and work as a cleaner. Her diary also gives an insight into the early Swedish welfare system and almost takes the reader on a Forrest Gump-like trip to world events of the 1960s.

Maja Ekelöf, who completed six years of school, took on many different cleaning jobs in her day and often got up in the middle of the night – after having attended evening classes sometimes. Yet, she was struggling to make ends meet. Her body ached, she had varicose veins and it was “quite the art to clean without the uterus dropping when worn down”, as she puts it herself in her diary.

At one point she wonders: “how am I supposed to keep on working as a cleaner until I retire?”, considers asking for early retirement and talks about the anxiety of the poor. Yet she doesn’t really seem to pity herself for long – if at all.

“It’s better to work as a cleaner than to go begging at the Social Security Office,” she writes. She is pleased that her job is fairly independent and free of foremen bossing, as in the factories. And “as long as I have the strength to carry on this grind, I know my place in life,” Ekelöf points out.

She types her handwritten diary ‘borrowing’ the typewriters at the offices where she cleans, managing a couple of pages a day, and submits the diary to a publisher’s competition. She ends up winning for best political novel, her diary is published, and six editions are printed in the year of publication alone.

Ekelöf only published one more book in her lifetime. But she continued being a keen debater, declared her support for a cleaners’ strike in 1975 at a press conference held in her home and never really lost her position in the public eye.“ It’s sad people like Maja Ekelöf do not get their voice heard today,” Nina van den Brink says.


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