T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!
This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.
But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.
A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.
She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.
Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:
Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.
I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.
I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!
They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.
I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.
We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.
We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.
I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.
Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.
I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.
I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?
I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.
There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.
Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.
I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.
When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.
And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.
Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason, (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pinkwas the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.
Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!
I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.
I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’
Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.
For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.
but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)
So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.
Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra) ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’
But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green. Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?
Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:
‘Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.‘
Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)
‘The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’
Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)
‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’
William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)
‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)
Believe it or not, behind that silk-covered chair is a silk-covered door which houses a stunning ‘secret’ bathroom built specially for King George V in 1925, and never used by him, because his visit was cancelled.
When is a door not a door?
Ok I know we all know that old joke. But when I was walking around a beautiful country house recently, I was struck (not literally) by all the different styles of door, and I thought about what they could mean.
(I should just quickly add that I was completely convinced I’d written a previous blog post about doors/portals, but after wasting half an hour trying to find it, I’m now convinced it must have been a dream…???)
A rather scary back door at Calke Abbey. For the use of staff, obvs, no posh people here.
Doors. The thing is, a door is an everyday piece of equipment, if I can put it like that, and yet it contains the power to take us from one place, from the present, to a different place, the future. We know that when we open a door, we can move from one space to another. Sometimes it’s as if we were moving into another world. In fantasy literature, doors are seen as portals or magical spaces of transition.
But even in a country house, the door takes us from one sphere of life to a completely different one, say, from the sumptuous drawing room into a back hallway used purely for the convenience of staff, or from a dusty, intriguing library out into a beautiful garden.
Sometimes a door won’t open because it’s not a real door. This one is just to make the room appear symmetrical, and doesn’t open, as it’s just a bit of wood stuck onto a solid wall.
Doors are ordinary, and yet special. In books, or TV shows, or films etc, doors have the power to transform our lives purely because they exist. All the time you and I are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, we can’t be absolutely certain what we will find if we open the door. It might be that we will find dinner is ready and on the table, or we might find a fairytale castle perched on a precarious mountain-top. A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, we can’t be sure until we open the door which of the alternatives are actually before us.
A beautiful curved door to fit a curved wall. This is at Kedleston Hall.
What if we can’t even open the door?
What if we find something unexpected, even unwelcome, on the other side of the door?
We won’t know until we open it. And by then, it could be too late.
In real life, we will open the door and find the washing machine has finished our towels, but in literature, in the country of our imagination, we could be anywhere.
Sometimes doors show you not just the next room, but the one after that and the one after that. You are looking through them all at once as if they are a series of views, of points of interest on a tour.
So literature has a lot to tell us about doors, it seems. I’ve only shared a small number of door-related quotes here, if you are desperate, I’m sure you will find more. Or maybe you’ll catch yourself watching a little more closely as the characters in your current reading material or viewing material each have their entrances and their exits, and move on the stage of your imagination. Like me you might be struck by just how often a character moves through a door and ‘something’ happens.
And lastly, I hope you won’t mind me adding my own work into this illustrious company:
Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.
I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.
How do I react to reading my own work after a break?
I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.
When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?
I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…
Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.
As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.
I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.
Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!
What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.
It needs a bit of work…
The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.
You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.
So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.
I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.
It’s been thirteen years since we lived there, but the house looks the same. Even the vertical blinds at the windows don’t look any different. The place has that half-familiar look, as remembered places do. A brick semi, with a small tarmac front yard surrounded by a perimeter of unruly shrubs liberally sprinkled with empty whisky and methadone bottles and syringes.
I know the streets were this busy when we lived here, but I seem to see all the traffic as if for the first time. Why did we choose to live somewhere so congested? But I know why, of course. It was the garden.
The street-front gives the passer-by no clue as to the possibility of a garden. But it was the garden of our dreams. It was because of the garden that for two years we put up with the ridiculously high crime-rate, the constant sense of insecurity, the dark gloomy house, and the heavy traffic.
In case you think I’m exaggerating the crime: the day we moved in, a guy down the street shot his wife in the street, then himself, right in front of their teenage daughters. I know that’s more of a family tragedy than a crime, but it didn’t bode well. Within two weeks we’d been burgled and had our car vandalised twice. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the house. My husband was on first-name terms with the local police officer by the end of the first month. We saw a woman thrown out of a moving car. Truly. We saw another woman repeatedly kicked and punched before she limped away, screaming profanities from a bleeding mouth. We found syringes, empty bottles and condoms scattered in our front yard regularly. We had a man stabbed literally on our doorstep as he leaned on the doorbell at eleven o’clock at night. We had the police come to the door and tell us to stay inside as they were after someone sheltering in our back yard (my precious garden!). Someone tried to snatch my money as I stood at the ATM putting my card away. Drunks were heaved almost senseless out of the pub to sleep the drink off on the pavement outside. My teenage daughter was followed home by two men who tried to grab her. Good thing we lived literally fifty yards from the bus stop where she’d got off. And that she had a good pair of lungs.
But the garden…Oh it was a slice of heaven. One hundred and thirty feet long, and thirty-odd feet wide. That’s huge by inner-city standards. The top twenty-five per cent, nearest the house, was a patio, unevenly paved, and populated with plants in pots. Tiny solar lamps indicated the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. The lawn took up about fifty per cent of the garden, and was uneven and veined with ancient tree roots and edged by borders containing ugly plants behind even uglier mini-fencing. I know it’s not sounding great at the moment…
Dotted across the lawn and in the bottom twenty-five per cent of the garden were several old apple and pear trees, and a cheery tree. There were two small sheds, all but falling down, and an oval flower bed intruding into the top part of the lawn. The final section at the end of the garden was fenced off and badly overgrown. Paving slabs had been loosely laid, perhaps n an attempt to curb the growth of the weeds, but they presented a grave danger to ankles and toes as the slabs tipped up as soon as you stepped on them.
We gathered these slabs up into two stacks. Then we cut back the trees and shrubs to a tidy and manageable size. We dug up the weeds and created veggie patches and a herb garden. We filled tubs and pots with sunflowers and cosmos and anything that bees or butterflies might like. It was a secret, sunny spot, seemingly miles from the house and the noise of the road beyond, hidden away from prying eyes.
We often used to see a fox snoozing in the sunshine on top of the slab-stacks. Or at night, I’d hear a sound and look out to see three or four fox cubs chasing each other around the lawn or hopping back and forth over the plant pots and yapping at one another. I’m not one of those who believes wild animals are there to be shot or poisoned. I’m definitely a bleeding-heart liberal and proud to be so. My family and I derived great pleasure from watching the birds, the foxes, a squirrel, and some hedgehogs enjoying the amenities of our garden, drinking out of a plant saucer full of rainwater or foraging amongst the bushes.
Our neighbours on either side were very elderly and their gardens had been left untouched for years. The neighbour on the right-hand side had a World War II Anderson shelter at the bottom of her garden, and this was where the foxes lived. The neighbours’ gardens and ours created a little oasis of wildlife-friendly space in the city, and the wildlife seemed to be thriving there. I hope they never bulldoze that block.
The area had once been an orchard. The trees in our garden were donkeys’ years old, and our neighbours had a number of equally well-established fruit trees. The trees were huge, too, due to their great age. I’ve never seen fruit trees the size of woodland oak or beech trees. I suppose normally when orchard trees reach a certain age, they are replaced, to ensure maximum yield.
It was the kind of garden that made us strive to overcome all the other obstacles to living happily in that location in our attempt to create a home. It was the kind of garden you long to pick up and take with you.
That house was never a home, and we were so glad to leave it. But the garden belonged to another age, and another plane altogether. We still drive past the house regularly, the house itself so dimly remembered, and yet we continue to rave about the perfect little world hidden away behind it.
Yes, that is my cat, in a deep blissful sleep in the middle of the rather long grass – never seen her so carefree as she was here.
If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I love the autumn. My birthday is in October, so that’s why I think that for me autumn is the time for rebirth and growth. In the summertime, it’s too hot to work my brain, (apart from this year where in my area, we only had two hot days – but wow, they were soooo hot) so the cooler temperatures of autumn bring a welcome respite from the summer, and a new influx of energy.
Or maybe it’s just that thing that all parents have, where, come September the kids go back to school and finally you have the time to sit and think quietly for more than thirty seconds. My kids are adults with their own lives, but the old routine of the school year still lingers on.
I found this short passage on autumn in an old journal:
The leaves of the plum tree are turning yellow. Although most of them are still green, within a week or two the tree will be bare—how quickly the season marches on, and there is nothing any of us can do about that. In the garden at the bottom of ours, their silver birches are also covered in yellowing leaves.
In the last half hour, almost without me noticing, the world has lost its sunny autumnal afternoon look and is now overcome by the gloomy dullness that heralds the imminent arrival of evening.
The leaves are changing, turning yellow and orange, but mainly yellow. A sickly speckled unhealthy yellow. Soon the branches will be bare and we will be in the grip of winter.
One or two birds dash to the bird table and snatch some seeds. Their movements seem urgent, as if time is running out and they must hide before it’s too late.
The day is fading, night is almost here.
But I’m not the only one who mulls over what autumn means. Here are some thoughts from authors to inspire us all to take up our writing projects and search for the poet inside.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
Albert Camus: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
But not all authors have the came rosy outlook when it comes to the winding-down of the year. Many portray it as a doom-laden promise of misery and gloom.
Dodie Smith: “Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad?”
Stephen King: “The wind makes you ache is some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die – migrate or die.”
Francis Brett Young: “An autumn garden has a sadness when the sun is not shining…”
David Mitchell: “Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”
So which of the autumn types are you? Are you a happy golden-hue embracing energy-filled person, or are you more of a Mr/Mrs autumn-is-the-end-of-everything? Let me know!
As you will know if you’ve been to this blog before, I’m a bit of a history nut, and in particular I love the history of the private home. I mainly write mysteries set in the 1930s, although I set my books in other eras too from time to time.
Because of my daft preoccupation with the first part of the twentieth century, I visit a lot of English country houses and I take LOADS of pictures. I’m particularly interested in the more ‘basic’ aspects of life. I want to know about how meals were created, how houses and clothes were cleaned, and how people cleaned themselves. So I thought I’d tell you a bit about my childhood, and also next week, a bit about the rise of the modern domestic bathroom.
I was born in 1960 in the South of England. Contrary to many peoples’ view, this was not a time of universal comfort and modernisation. Not that I was particularly aware of it as a child, but looking back now, I can see we were very badly off by modern standards. Yet we were not alone, and I doubt if our experience was a rare one.
From when I was about three, or a little younger, we lived in what can only be described as a bedsit, though in those days we gave it the grander name of a one-room flat. Mum and I slept, cooked, and relaxed in that one room in an old house, with many other such rooms. If you read books written in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you will often come across mention of these grand old houses gone down in the world and divided up into flats or bedsits. Larger private homes became unmanageable without a staff to run them, and after the first world war, wages rose, and labour was scarce, lured away by the higher wages and often shorter working weeks in the factories. We lived in one of those grand old houses, a handsome very square, white-washed Georgian villa over four floors.
We were on the first floor ( second floor to you guys from the States), and our room faced out the back where there were the remains of a beautiful garden. Our neighbours on the same floor were two men sharing a room. They were British but called themselves Pierre and Rene, and they worked as hairdressers. They were young, noisy and seemed to have a lot of fun. They gave me gifts and sent postcards whenever they went away. I realise now they were a gay couple. But not then. Then, we thought they were just good friends. Really good friends…
Next door to them was ‘Uncle’ Harry, an elderly refugee from the former Yugoslavia. He’d been living there for fifteen or so years, since the war ended. He gave me tinned fruit and cream as a treat, and told me stories. I think he was lonely. He had lost his family in the war. He proposed to Auntie Zonya regularly but sadly she always turned him down. It was normal for children to call adult friends Auntie or Uncle, even if they were no such relation.
Across the hall was Auntie Zonya. I adored her. She was a strong influence on my early years. I have written a number of short pieces about her, including Jazz Baby, Patrick’s Irish Eyes, Big Knickers, and others. More importantly, she bought me my first cat.
There were others too, who were out for most of the day or kept to themselves, so we didn’t know them so well as these four. Upstairs in what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic, was Miss Lilian, who was the owner of the house, and I was always told to behave and be polite when she came down to our floor, as she had the power to throw us out onto the street. I remember her as seeming incredibly old, with very white wavy hair, and not much taller than me. I’d love to know more about her life and whether she remembered the house in its prime, when it was all for one family. There’s never a time machine around when you need one.
There were people who lived downstairs in the basement too, but I only slightly knew the couple with the little girl who I played with occasionally. They had windows that were below the level of the garden, with little dug-outs around them to bring in the light. These were presumably the old kitchen, scullery etc of the house when it was in its heyday.
There was a shared bathroom on each floor. I remember we shared our bathroom with at least three and sometimes more other families, though usually these families consisted of single people or couples.
It wasn’t unusual to be on the loo or in the bath and someone else needed to use the facilities. It wasn’t unusual for there to be no hot water because someone else had used too much for their own bath. (No shower!) Most of the time when I was having a bath, someone would come in to shave, or wash, to rinse some clothes, or to use the loo–not a pleasant experience for either of us!
One friend in the house–my Auntie Zonya–used a chamber pot until well into the late 60s. I found it (empty I hasten to add) under her bed once and thought she was putting out cups of tea for an invisible giant. (I was an imaginative child) I only found out what it was when I asked her where the saucer was, as the ‘cup’ was shaped and patterned just like a huge teacup. I’d say that the fact that I didn’t know what it was shows that usage of chamber pots was in decline by the 60s, although clearly not completely done away with.
Even when we moved from there to a house–one bedroom upstairs and a kitchen/sitting-room downstairs, with a toilet in the backyard under a lean-to roof and with no light and loads of spiders–we still had no bath of our own. That was around 1966 or so. But it was private, and cosy, and I remember I loved that house. I was about 6 when we moved in, and only about 7 when we left, so we weren’t there as long as it seems in my memories. It’s gone now: that and the house next door–that belonged to a blind gentleman who was a piano-tuner–were bulldozed to create something a bit nicer. Auntie Zonya lived in the house after us, when we moved on. She said the piano-tuner’s house was haunted. Then again, she said that about everywhere.
Hot water had to be boiled. Baths were not available at all–we didn’t have one of those old-fashioned baths you see in period dramas. We had a plastic washing-up bowl and used to put hot water in it, stand in it and wash ourselves down. I had long hair. Washing that was a nightmare. We used to take a torch out to the loo when we needed it. As a lean-to shack, the loo had no light, no windows, and was freezing cold – even in summer. And the spiders…
When we moved into a council flat (again, for those from outside the UK, I mean an apartment complex in social housing/government housing for the needy/low-income families) we had a big dining/sitting room, a separate kitchen, two bedrooms. AND–drum roll please–a bathroom!!!!!!!! Not to mention under-floor heating. (That was blissful) We had to go to the flat to clean it the week before we moved in as the previous occupants had left it dirty, and this gave us the perfect excuse to have a hot bath, which seemed to us the height of luxury and I can remember it even now, more than fifty years later.
The most exciting part of this house, apart from the bathroom, and the two bedrooms, was the coal door next to the front door. Basically if a thief timed it right they could get into the flat through this coal door and take whatever they wanted (not that we had anything!) and leave by either the front door or the coal door. Not a great feature from a security point of view. As an avid Famous Five reader, I loved the idea of the coal door giving absolutely anyone access to our home.
From there, we entered the modern world of running hot water, central heating and baths, then showers, of washing machines, then tumble driers, fridges, freezers, microwaves, toasters and colour television, computers, the Internet, eBooks and self-publishing…
But long before I came into the world, the common approach to washing, going to the loo, and in personal grooming had undergone massive changes. Read more next week!
It’s no secret that I live in a slightly dodgy part of town. In fact there are dodgier areas, but there are also–rumour has it–nice areas where there is little crime and people don’t let their dogs cack on your driveway.
I don’t drive. I passed my test back in the day, when Methuselah was a lad, but that marked both the beginning and the end of my driving career. I’m just doing my bit to keep road fatalities to a minimum. However, this means I use the bus a lot.
This week I was trundling into town, Riverside blaring through my earphones, blissfully drifting away on a happy cloud of bellowed F-words in Artificial Smile, and the bus made a stop in Allenton. For those of you who live outside of the city of Derby, it’s a busy ”low-income” suburb on the route to the city centre. Now I know that 95% of the residents of Allenton are pleasant hard-working people just trying to get by. But some of them are not.
Other writers may witness drug deals ‘going down’, as we hardcore crims say, on a daily basis. I’ve only seen a handful over the years, living in my book- and music-induced sheltered little world. So I was quite surprised that I saw a drug deal take place right before my eyes. I suppose it’s just about possible the guy bought a teeny tiny packet of popping candy or artificial sweetener, or indeed a single teabag. Those are so hard to get if you only want one; you don’t always want a box of 80, do you?
The bus stop at the stop (it’s what they do). No one got on. No one got off. But we were running five minutes ahead of schedule, so the driver had to make up time. So we sat there. Like a bunch of tourists on a not-very-exciting tour.
A scruffy weaselly little bloke was mooching around the stop, but not making for the bus. Then further away, an over-grown kid was doing wheelies on a bike and generally twatting about getting in everyone’s way, for all the world as if he was still a teenager.
Artificial Smile ended, Volte Face started, (I’ve got a number of tracks from different albums on my phone). I was still daydreaming. But the guy on the bike caught my eye, doing his stunts a wee bit too close to the rest of humanity. He’s going to hit someone if he’s not careful, I thought. Suddenly he made a dive for the weaselly guy, they shook hands in a weird way and one of them not-very-secretly gave the other a folded banknote and the other gave him a teeny tiny packet of drugs or a teabag. Maybe it was dried catnip, that’s supposed to help you relax. Not sure if you can smoke it, though. I think it was hash or maybe worse. Then, Weasel dived on the bus just as it was finally about to pull away.
He sat at the back. Right across the aisle from me. Great. I reflected it was a good thing I was listening to music on my phone rather than using it to film the ‘transaction’. A scenario ran through my head where said weasel followed me and mugged me for my phone, or whipped out a knife. The only weapon I’ve got is a one inch blunt penknife on my key-ring, given to me by my 82-year old Dad. I doubt it would cut through butter let alone a vicious drug-thug. Or a pen. Matt Damon and Daniel Craig know how to use a pen as a weapon, I however, only write with mine. It’s not mightier than the sword when someone else has an actual sword.
He reeked of marijuana–it’s a horrid smell, especially when stale. And to keep up his hard-man image, he put on some ‘music’, sans headphones,which consisted of someone screeching profanities, making Artificial Smile sound like a lullaby. His knee bounced uncontrollably. He couldn’t sit still. He really needed that fix.
A lady sitting further down the bus with her small daughter, asked him to turn it down a bit. But all she got was a stream of obscenities in return. So she started to scream obscenities at him in her frustration. An elderly man with a hearing aid waded in, whilst Weasel began to defend his human rights to listen to vile, hate-filled stuff really loudly in public. Ah the benefits of public transport. The council will never get people to give up using their cars until they get people to be pleasant and considerate towards others. I don’t see it happening, do you? Needless to say, the rest of the journey was a filth-addled nightmare.
This is why I like writing stories about a world when a gentleman would doff his cap and say, ‘Excuse me madam, please forgive the intrusion, but could you possibly turn down your Polish Alternative Rock for a moment or two, I’m trying to catch the jolly old cricket score on the transistor radio. I’d be most awfully grateful.’ Upon which I would say, ‘Gosh, yes, I’m so sorry, I had no idea it was so shockingly loud. How silly of me. I do beg your pardon.’ And we’d all get along swimmingly. That’s not much to ask, is it?
When I was studying history as part of my Literature and Arts degree programme, we debated the the purpose of studying history, and decided on something like this definition: ‘we study the past to illuminate the human present and plan for the future’. The past is vital to humans. I’d say the past pervades our lives continually. If the past is an important part of our lives when we are young, I’ve been told that as people grow older, the past assumes even greater importance. Certainly I’ve seen this in people I know, and in my own life. The past can sometimes have an almost unbearable significance.
Why do we live in the past? Is it because the outcome is known to us? I sit safe? Or a source of disappointment with a sense of ‘the road not taken’? Do we seek to relive our ‘glory days’? Or have we left something behind that we haven’t quite finished with? I often wonder if the past is/was quite as I remember it, as our memories are so subjective. And I wrote ‘is/was’ because even as I put pen to paper, I realised that in many ways, the past is ongoing. As often as I remember it, it lives on, never ending, never a closed file but always, always, always being updated, catalogued, reviewed, reevaluated, upgraded and rewritten.
Does the past really fade away, or is it ever-present, a continuous ongoing exploration that runs in parallel with our own sense of ‘now’? The future is seen, in the words of Star Trek (or was it William Shakespeare ;D ?) as the Undiscovered Country, and the past must surely be the air-miles capital of our emotions.