dubiously true stories and cartoons

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Washing Powder

Back in the 1970s packets of OMO washing powder could be seen everywhere. Adverts appeared on television extolling the virtues of its ability to transform the filthiest of whites into something so dazzlingly bright that you had to wear sunglasses to look at them. Gazing at a white sheet washed in OMO was akin to staring at the sun with the naked eye. It was amazing. So, if the cleaning power of OMO was so astounding why is it that it mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of grocery stores and supermarkets throughout the UK?

Fortunately I have a theory about that.

In the 1970s I was in the Royal Air Force and a member of the Tactical Supply Wing (TSW), which was made up of cadre (full-time) and non-cadre (part-time) personnel. TSW was based at RAF Stafford and its primary task was to provide front-line refuelling of helicopters. For the personnel involved this included six-week tours in Northern Ireland as well as various field exercises living in tents in all kinds of weather in the UK and abroad. Non-cadre personnel had regular jobs at Stafford and at irregular intervals throughout the year they were called away from their posts to support cadre members on selected exercises. Cadre members, being full-time, were able to pick and choose the good exercises for themselves, leaving the non-cadre members to contend with the rubbish ones. 

For example, during one particular year a series of three exercises were carried out. The first, a one-week exercise in Lincolnshire in February where it was so cold and the earth was so hardened with frost that it took a monumental effort just to hammer the tent pegs into the ground was comprised of 10% cadre and 90% non-cadre. Those of us selected for this initial exercise were told that in order to maintain continuity and effectiveness we would all be selected for the two exercises that followed. This is what is commonly known as ‘bending the truth’. The second exercise, two-weeks in Denmark in April where the weather was starting to warm up and a free day was included where we could drink ourselves into oblivion in the nearby town of Vejla was comprised of 60% cadre and 40% non-cadre. The third, a three-week exercise in Turkey in June, where the weather was hot and the accommodation was purpose-built fan-cooled barrack blocks was – Surprise! Surprise! – comprised of 100% cadre. 

As a non-cadre member of TSW you didn’t volunteer to go on exercise (unless you were a military cabbage or a straight out-and-out nutter) – you were selected and there was no getting out of it. I was a non-cadre member and, as such, dreaded the arrival of the chit that fluttered its way through the internal mail system informing me of the imminent exercise for which I had been arbitrarily selected. For most of the non-cadre personnel, it was a week or a fortnight of hell but for some, two weeks away on a TSW exercise was a welcome break from the monotony of their jobs and/or their wives, even though it meant living in a smelly six-man tent in a field in the middle of nowhere with rudimentary washing and toilet facilities and subsisting on an exclusive diet of Compo rations that made you fart and backed you up for about a month afterwards. 

Compo (or Composite) rations had a long shelf-life and were designed, using a variety of canned, pre-cooked and freeze-dried foods, for minimal preparation in the field, and the TSW Compo-fed fart they induced was something to behold. It was long, fruity and stank to high heaven. No-one escaped the combined effects of eating Compo rations and using rudimentary washing and toilet facilities and after a relatively short period of time (usually a couple of days) tents and clothing were permeated with the noxious odour of a combination of aviation fuel, fruity farts and unwashed sweaty men. After another couple of days no-one noticed the smell because everyone had got used to it. There was, of course, the occasional fart that was so disgusting it cut its way through the pervasive stench like a hot knife through butter and caused everyone in the tent to choke as if they were being strangled by invisible hands and we would dash outside to breathe in some welcome fresh air, but after another couple of days even those farts didn’t bother us. 

I was a married man at the time and the first thing my wife ordered me to do when I arrived home was to strip off my clothes. This was not a signal for sex – she wouldn’t even kiss me. It was so the clothes I had been wearing for the past two weeks could immediately be placed into the washing machine. My wife refused to even touch my clothes (or me) after I had returned from an exercise until I had spent at least thirty minutes in the bath, scrubbing by filthy body and washing my greasy hair. While I was in the bath my clothes were being cleaned in the Hotpoint twin-tub washing machine using OMO washing powder. After bathing and then scrubbing away the scum of two weeks in a tent with five other men from the inside of the bath, I would shave the stubble from my chin, splash on some Brut aftershave, spray my body with deodorant, get dressed and go downstairs. Then, and only then, would my wife welcome me home with an embrace.

Most wives hated it when their men went away on exercise, but one in particular took her hatred so much to heart that she began to lose her grip on reality. She began to incorrectly suspect that her mild-mannered husband (a Corporal who lived opposite us) was not going away on exercise at all but having an illicit affair with another woman and in her increasingly delusional state of mind she went to insane lengths to ensure he never went away anywhere – or at any time. One afternoon, as he was getting changed into his uniform to start an Orderly Corporal duty, he opened the wardrobe doors and discovered to his horror that she had taken a Stanley knife to all of his RAF shirts and slashed them to ribbons. On another occasion my wife and I were woken in the early hours of the morning by a commotion going on outside in the street. My neighbour was about to go away for a six-week stint in Northern Ireland. A Land Rover was parked outside his house and the two SACs who he would be sharing the duty with were desperately trying to remove his wife from his leg. She had her arms locked around his thigh and was being dragged along the ground in her nightie, screaming: “Don’t go! Don’t go! I love you! I love you!” The two men managed to extricate his wife from his leg and they bundled him quickly into the Land Rover and drove away at speed, leaving his wife sobbing and screaming on the lawn outside their house.

Some wives, though, were happy to see their husbands go away. With so many men away from home for long periods of time it was inevitable that a minority of unscrupulous wives would begin having affairs and a packet of OMO was essential for their nefarious nocturnal activities. A carefully placed packet of OMO in a street-facing window by the cuckolded man’s wife was an all-clear signal to her lover, an unholy acronym that stood for Old Man's Out.

This practice went on for months without anyone ever realising, or even noticing. This was understandable as most married men are not particularly observant at the best of times when it comes to the whys and wherefores of their wives behavioural patterns. A woman can change her entire appearance – like, for instance, getting her long hair cut short – and three whole weeks may pass by before her husband looks at her and says: “You look different. Is that a new dress you’re wearing?” 

Like all secrets, the secret of the OMO code eventually came out. How it happened no-one knows, but once it was out it spread like wildfire throughout RAF Stafford and within a matter of days made its way to every RAF station in the UK. Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) shops were the first to bear the brunt of this revelation as sales of OMO plummeted sharply to zero. Civilian grocery stores and the rapidly emerging supermarkets were the next to be hit as husbands began to accompany their wives on their weekly shopping trips, informing them in the detergent aisle that they preferred to have their clothes washed in DAZ instead of OMO.

The affairs still went on of course, but sales of OMO, in the UK at least, went into a rapid decline. It’s still sold overseas in places like the Philippines and New Zealand, but it’s hard to convert OMO into a lover’s welcome call as the Philippines first language is not English and New Zealanders have all but eschewed the use of vowels in their everyday speech, therefore making it nigh-on impossible to form an acronym using just the letter ‘M’.

So, there you have it – my theory. You may choose not to believe it and discard it as just the ramblings of someone with an unhinged mind and too much time on his hands. But if you think about it for as long and as hard as I have you’ll come to the same inevitable conclusion. And you’ll know that I’m right.


  1. Brilliant as usual. I remember the OMO thing from when I was at Stafford in 79 and then Chivenor after. Well funny.

  2. Brilliant as usual. I remember the OMO thing from when I was at Stafford in 79 and then Chivenor after. Well funny.