FEW tasks," said feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, "are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition; the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day." I could not agree more. As a lifelong sloven, I stand little chance in the race to become Britain's most houseproud individual, which has been launched by the manufacturers of Miele vacuum cleaners. The brand's UK Cleaner of Excellence competition is an attempt to locate housework heroes, whose commitment to tidiness, cleanliness and floor polish finesse have hitherto languished unrecognised.

Personally, I am not surprised by the results of Miele's survey, which appears to show that standards of household cleanliness are slipping. Half of the 2000 adults questioned said their own houses were less clean than their childhood homes: a response that was most common among the younger age-group. One in 10 of us spends less than 60 minutes a week on housework, and only 32% - most prominently, the over-65s - devote more than six hours to the task.

Yet though we are less willing than ever to get down on our hands and knees and scrub, we remain committed to the ideal of sparkling windows and spotless floors. According to the British Retail Consortium, sales of household cleaning products and perfumes grow year on year, our anxiety fed by commercials featuring talking toilets that whisper conspiratorially with visitors about the state of the bathroom.

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According to US psychologist, Professor Paul Harris, fear of being judged on the state of our homes is not mere paranoia. In his study Is Cleanliness Next To Godliness?, respondents rated poor housekeepers as less agreeable, conscientious and intelligent than those with more pristine homes.

No wonder more and more of us are turning to the professionals. According to a recent report by cleaning franchise Molly Maids, the domestic market has grown some 90% in recent years, making it worth £9 billion. One in seven modern households employs a cleaner.

Kath Ogilvie, pictured right, from Paisley, who works for Molly Maids, is not surprised by the results of Miele's survey. "A lot of younger people just don't bother about housework," she says. "When I go into some houses, I can't believe the mess, particularly in their children's bedrooms, with clothes and toys all over the place.

"These people are just too busy out working to tidy up. I sometimes think they'd feel better if they worked less hard and had more time to take care of their homes." She insists she is not complaining, however, since other people's sloth keeps her in a job.

Yet here's the thing I find most curious. Ogilvie likes cleaning. "You couldn't do this job if you didn't enjoy it," she says. "When you go into a house and it's a mess, it's a good feeling to leave it looking great."

At the end of a hard day she doesn't put her feet up, either. She admits: "At home, I'm very particular. If things are untidy, than I feel that my head's a mess as well."

Ogilvie is not alone. The joy of cleaning is a dirty secret kept by quite a lot of people. "My favourite job is cleaning the bathroom," says 24-year-old Lynne Maxwell, an office manager for Edinburgh lifestyle management company My Organiser, which arranges services from cleaning to childcare and dog-walking for busy professionals. "When it's all white and gleaming, the feeling I get is one of contentment."

Alison MacGregor, a 33-year-old TV producer from Glasgow, can relate to that. "I don't like cleaning," she says. "But I like everything to be tidy and I hate surface clutter. I can't relax if I know that the place is dirty."

It seems domestic concerns are still very much with us and although the gender division has eroded a little, surveys consistently find that women perform far more chores than men.

MacGregor admits: "I cleaned my boyfriend's flat the other day because he didn't notice it needed doing. I'd rather just do it thanbe there among the mess."

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that women still dominate the domestic sphere. Lynn Abrams, professor of gender history at Glasgow University, points out: "The notion of housework as women's work has a very long history. Even in pre-industrial societies, women were more associated with the home, mainly because they were less mobile for work due to pregnancy and their childcare responsibilities."

By the end of the 18th century, women were increasingly employed as domestic servants, while the number of men in the role fell - a trend that continued through the Victorian era, adds Abrams. "Domestic service was devalued in financial terms, therefore men were less likely to want to do it. This was when the status of domestic work tumbled."

Though there may previously have been a rumbling of discontent at this state of affairs, the backlash didn't really begin until the 1960s, when feminist Betty Friedan's seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, pointed to the impossibility of ever finding meaning in a life of housewifely domestic drudgery.

Housework came to form a bone of contention within the women's movement.

Some feminists argued that women should have the right to choose to stay home and raise their children; others called for wages to be be paid for housework, as a way of raising its status and rewarding women for the part they played in creating household harmony.

Today, the debate has been somewhat dampened, to the extent that the domestic goddess has been welcomed back into our living rooms. In recent years, TV stars such as Anthea Turner and How Clean Is Your House duo Kim and Aggie have become unlikely feminine idols.

Women, however, are not the only ones to value spotlessness - even if the object of male obsession is less likely to be their home. On any given Sunday, the individuals seen meticulously washing their cars in suburban streets are far more likely to be men. Men such as 39-year-old Richard Carmichael, who devotes much of his waking life to carefully cultivated routines of cleaning his most prized object - his limited edition 1995 BMW.

"Every other weekend I'll spend three or four hours cleaning it but before a car show I'll spend up to 20 hours, day and night," he explains.

Car detailing is a serious business according to Carmichael, who talks expertly and enthusiastically about the best products for conditioning the champagne leather interior, and which wax gives a superior shine.

"I get enormous satisfaction out of it," he says. "I'm not so into cleaning the house but I think the feeling is probably similar."

He believes gender has little to do with it. Instead, he thinks "a certain type of person will always want to take the best possible care of the things they value".

Psychologist Dr Felix Economakis, who has conducted research on tidiness and cleanliness, agrees that there might actually be such a thing as a cleaning gene. "People who enjoy cleaning put a high value on orderliness," he says.

And while the desire to improve the surrounding environment can be a healthy one, it can get out of control. "For some it becomes a way of micro-managing," he says. "People can equate their anxiety with the state of the house and feel they can only relax when it is completely clean.

"The problem with that is, by its very nature, housework is never complete. As soon as somebody uses the bathroom, or puts more dishes in the sink, the process of cleaning has to begin again. The goal should not be to completely eradicate mess because that can never be achieved."

Or, as Simone de Beauvoir once said: "In the face of an obstacle which is impossible to overcome, stubbornness is stupid."

Nominations for Miele's Cleaner of Excellence can be made online at www.milesbetter.org/competition until November 10