Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Callum John is a writer who lives in England. He has contributed to various publications during a long career. He is also a gardener, a cook, a walker, an odd-job man, a raconteur, and many other worthwhile things.

With sincere apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning*, as a consumer of tissue let me ask: “How do I use thee? Let me count the ways.”

There are all the obvious ways, obviously, but I’d like to start off by paying tribute to the dexterity of this really rather amazing product. I mean, it has come all the way from being a tree, having chain-sawed and chopped up a few in my time, I can assure you is hard and not on first impressions the most likely object in the world destined to make a nice soft hanky. (For the many who are not well up on English slang terms … that’s a handkerchief.)

I have a vague idea about what goes on during this transformation. Things like long and short fibres, eucalyptus may also be involved, and bamboo, there’s something called pulp, and a ‘mash’ which looks a bit like mashed potato which has had too much water added but is mashed wood fibre, and there is a lot of machinery and a lot of technology, and somewhere along the way a little design can be embossed on and a nice whiff of lavender may be added. Or sandalwood. But essentially it’s wood. How many facial tissues can be made from one tree, I wonder?

Apologies for this essentially layperson’s concept of the manufacturing process, but
I do appreciate the end product. It’s about contradictions … soft and strong, dry and moist, resilient but easily scrunched up and disposable. It can be gentle and scented for a polite dabbing of the face. It can be tough and multi-layered enough to take on the less aesthetic functions.

It is, I believe, good at removing a woman’s make-up at the end of the day. And with men, men like wiping off the 2-stroke engine oil which we (I) have spilled onto the hot carburettor while filling up the sump on the sit-on petrol lawn mower.

Like wiping the overflow oil off the small chain-oil tank on the chain saw. I don’t have a motorbike, but I imagine tissue comes in handy (more slang … comfortably fitting into the hand for generally useful activity) there too. And also, when we come in from a walk and it’s been raining and the dog is looking a bit miserable as his face is wet. He appreciates – mainly because he loves the attention – having his face wiped with a kitchen towel or two. Also, when a spider climbs into the bath, a gentle scoop with a tissue and she (I think) is popped out the window.

Likewise with wasps. We are very rural, and when a wasp buzzes in a tissue … facial, kitchen, toilet, whichever happens to be within reach … folded in half or quarters and with a gentle scoop he (I think in this case) is popped out the window.

I blow my nose with a tissue which, surprisingly given the size of my nose,
is not a man’s size but a more moderate family utility size. I wipe the perspiration off my sunglass lenses, and I haven’t even mentioned the kitchen yet. In there, they’re irreplaceable (I don’t prefer kitchen cloths) for mopping up any number of spillages; for holding the handle on the over-heated copper pan or iron griddle; for resting my spatula on as I haven’t got round to buying one of those rests yet.

The basic kitchen towel can be folded for table napkins. How folded is interesting … it’s in half rectangular for basic meals, in half triangle for something a little more special, and in half triangle with beautifully floral scented design to make the social statement one wants to make, when one wants to make it. Amid all this multi-usage, I don’t really give much thought to sustainability and environmental production and the kitemarks … only because I assume that has been taken care of. I should be more attentive, I suppose, but I’m aware the industry is very keen on all that important stuff.

We buy white, I can tell you that, other than the beautifully floral scented napkins, and across brands. Sometimes famous names and sometimes plain packaged supermarket own brands. Variety, as you can see, is the spice of life.

*Elizabeth Barrett Browning: English poet who wrote the acclaimed sonnet “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”