Suburban Hearth and Home/A spanner in the works

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Chapter V: A spanner in the works

Life proceeded in an orderly manner with the rules laid down by my father. This was not particular to our family but by convention. However, in this instance, my father, being ‘a man of the town’, and being close on twenty-years older than my mother, who was from a small west country village, it was a natural state of affairs. In this it suited both and there was never a cross word. The affairs of the household were run along military lines where meals were expected at a set time, the diet strictly roast beef and two veg, and bodily functions set by the clock summer and winter. There was little formality except when a visitor came to tea. The few visitors that did step over the threshold came to see my mother, for a cup of tea and a biscuit - when the tea leaves would be read – spinning the dregs three times in an anticlockwise direction before the tea cup was placed unside down on the saucer – to be upturned - to consult the pattern.

During the war there was hardly any new houses built, sold, or rented. Prior to the war the majority of the population rented their accommodation… Is was up to the owners to see that the property was maintained and held its value. Those householder who owned their own property did not maintain it themselves but employed a suitable craftsmen. This situation remained true until mortgages became more available through Building Societies and Banks. It was during the 1950s that house ownership blossomed with the rising standards promoted by women working - particularly married couples having two incomes. The advent of ‘Do-it-yourself’ [DIY] tools, easy to use paints, hardboard and other simple to use materials, gave householders the opportunity to maintain and improve their own properties. After the war men coming out of the forces provided cheap labour and many chose house maintenance as a way of providing income. The majority of new home owners used these new craftsmen to paint their houses, clean their windows and do simple building jobs. This gradually became accepted until they began to charge a rising amount to keep up with the cost of living. It was this that stimulated the use of DIY. Soon afterwards the new televisions programmes broadcast a series of home improvement shows which started a boom in ‘modernization’: boxing in the stairs, panelled doors, fire places, removing plate racks, picture rails and dado lines. It was not long before metal windows replace sash windows and picture windows became the ‘in-thing’. Now, of course, the planning authorities insist that this is all put back - to replace all the moulded woodwork to make the property regain its true form and style.

The housework was kept to a minimum. The vacuum cleaner did not work and there were no feather dusters. Damp tealeaves were scattered over the carpet - to be swept up using a dustpan and brush. The damp leaves attracted the dirt and the collection achieved without causing more dust. This old Victorian habit took the place of sawdust. If there was any hard and dirty work like cleaning the gas stove, heavy gardening, hedge clipping, beating the rugs, blacking the stove, fetching the coal, cutting the wood, cleaning the shoes, decorating and cleaning all the brass work, my father did it. My mother’s main tasks were making the beds, seeing to the washing, ironing, and most importantly, planning the meals - doing the shopping, cooking and serving. Having lace curtains cut out window cleaning which was a definitely an enormous plus! A spring clean was an annual event and taken as an opportunity to apply whitewash and distemper to the walls and ceilings. The numerous rugs, mats, wool scraps, runners and squares, taken outside to be hung over the line and beaten. The garden vibrated to war cries as the beater delivered a resounding whack – clouds of dust ballooned into the air…

Nothing was ever wasted; worn clothes altered, patched or darned. Faded clothes were dyed, frayed collars turned, worn sheet top and tailed, towels became flannels… flannels became dishcloths and dishcloths consigned to the shed. Orange boxes became bedside cupboards, bricks used to take up room in the fire - to save coal. Buttons saved, lace hoarded, wood stored, old jumpers unpicked, patches sewn on elbows, and bottles sold for a halfpenny. The inside of the garden shed took on the appearance of a junk shop.

Our basic kitchen furniture consisted of an old, dark polished, dressing table, which had a hinged flap screwed onto one side, two drawers held all the cutlery and cooking implements. This multi-purpose item was covered in an oilcloth, which only required wiping down. Under the table a box on roller bearings - pulled out for extra seating, at meal times. A wooden carver reserved for father provided the cat with a safe seat out of the maelstrom, and a folding, wooden-slatted chair suited mother, both provided with adequate cushions. The whole floor was covered in painted linoleum with a carpet square on top further reinforced by acting as a hearthrug. The fender, linking the upholstered box ends, held the dried kindling and a suitable perch for the children.

For some strange reason our taps would drip incessantly. Part of father’s regular duties was to change the washers. The tap’s washer, held in the spigot, was tightened into its base by the tap. The tap assembly was held into the body assembly by a nut, the size of which our toolbox could not provide a spanner. An adjustable spanner was the universal tool used in almost all cases where a spanner was required. Unfortunately, the adjustable screwing mechanism was without its stub screw so you had to hold the adjusting screw in with your first finger and thumb whilst turning the wrench.

A blocked kitchen sink was another frequent job passed to the head of the house. This, like all home repairs, involved minimum preparation, maximum speed, and buckets of nervous energy by the rest of the family. It was advisable to steer a clear course and to keep out of his way. I was fascinated by the more than excessive grunting and banging so enquired how he was getting on. He explained the intricacies he was experiencing - trying to make a repair using the much used tool kit on a more than stubborn nut. I do not know what came over me but I remarked how I thought he was being a bit of a twat. He exploded, leaping to his feet whilst bashing his head on the bottom of the sink. I retreated at speed, he meanwhile shouting out that I should know what I was saying – that I should look up the word in a dictionary. Later I did just that finding out that I had called him a female genital. I felt such a fool.

The tiles, which surrounded the kitchen sink, had been laid using cement over an inch thick. This encroached upon the space needed to turn the taps. Any repair to the taps was impeded by lack of space - they were only a millimetre away from the tiles. Having the flannels and dishcloth hanging under the overhead cupboard was very handy for providing grip but was even handier to mop up blood. Job preparation by father was always a little sketchy; he always approached any task with a decisive, positive approach, believing that just one tool would see the repair completed. This meant that he was always going backwards and forwards to the garden shed, gradually to work-through all the prehistoric tools. The kitchen drainer would represent an artisan’s workbench. Holes would appear in the surface and bits sawn off the sides - made it look as if termites had been at work. These incidences made up much of home life during the weekends but all came out right in the end forgotten when father started to play the piano.

The stairs, led upto a landing - with four doors leading off; above – a trapdoor in the ceiling - the entry into the loft. The water inlet pipe’s insulation and cold tank wrap was sketchy at the best of times. Every year saw the annual freeze-up occured - when the pipes and inlet valve to the storage tank had to be thawed out. Ice blocked the ball-cock valve, which prevented water flowing into the cold-water tank. The bathroom’s dripping tap caused water to freeze as it dripped into the hopper to the down pipe. Quite often, a small paraffin heater put into the loft at night to stop the pipes from freezing-up had an unequal task when the temperature dropped ever lower. The wooden ladder was hauled onto the landing, opened out, and the hatch lifted away to allow entry. It did not take long to discover the culprit – where the blockage had occurred. It was usually the inlet valve and short section of pipe, which lead from it. Hot water bottles passed up through the hatch, candles and paraffin lamps place close to the pipe – allowed a thaw… With any luck, there would be a hissing noise and the water would start to flow back into the cold-water tank.

The bathroom, at the head of the stairs contained the airing cupboard – the bottom half filled with the galvanised, hot water tank. The top-half held racked bed linen - and ironing. Bathing was so rare that I cannot remember it. Obviously, it occurred when there were small children but wartime restrictions were not then in place and a galvanised tub in the kitchen was sufficient. A strip washes being the order of the day for everyone else. Father shaved and washed in the kitchen very early in the morning before the rest of the house surfaced. Mother did her ablutions later - during the day – in peace and quiet.

Each of the main bedrooms had small cast iron fire grates and surrounds. These were lit on very special occasions - an illness or a birth. Before the hearth, a fender… gave boundary - to a small hearthrug. Both rooms had carpet squares with an outer border of linoleum. All the rooms in the house had their walls papered. This claim to middle class convention continued for many years. The wallpaper, purchased from the hardware shop, needed the lap removed to match-up the pattern... achieved with a pair of scissors. Eventually the manufacturer cut this off. Over the years, my father tired of papering decorated the walls by distempering over the paper… the simple solution. Children were shepherded off to bed promptly at nine, armed with a sock-wrapped hot water bottle, and tucked up in bed comforted with two goodnight prayers. Outside the cats cried, owls hooted, and the express whistled its warning…

Beyond the back door lay the concreted backyard - which ran: to the width of the house, side passage, and to about fourteen feet - out into the garden. Today the backyard might be elevated to the more modern term of ‘patio…!’ To the right hand side, facing the rear of the house, were two coal sheds, one for coke and the other coal, which also held the logs for the fire and kindling. My father, at regular intervals, had delivered from his rail yard a lot of used wood. Over time, this was cut-up and chopped for firewood. During the war and after it was difficult to order coal… it was wanted for vital war work and afterwards needed for power stations. It was possible to order inferior coal dust, slack, or coke, which required a lot of draft to keep red hot. All over Britain there was a shortage, anthracite and welsh nut were at a premium. Often a composite nut made out of cement and coal dust was tried in their place.

The garden shed, with laid brick floor, nestled next to the coal sheds – in the corner of the yard. Inside a workbench and a number of shelves lined the walls. The shed was a source of continual mystery and experiment - gave lots of enjoyment and excitement. It was packed with a variety of useless tools and half-used materials, piled on top of each other – each vying with each other for space. The roof beams held a myriad collection of nails, hooks, and screws, each supporting another collection of articles of fascination and awe. It was an Aladdin’s Cave for budding carpenters constructing soap-box carts..., it’s very deepest corners held untold secrets and very large spiders!

From the pole, nailed to the near corner of the shed, ran the radio aerial… strung between two porcelain separators. The wire passed through the kitchen window frame… along the shelf… into the ancient wireless set, there, held in its aerial socket by a matchstick. We were all very concerned when there was an electrical storm - that this arrangement would attract a lightning bolt, when we expected the house to go up in flames or at least the radio to give its final shriek…!

The main garden which led off the back yard, was entered by a series of brick steps cut into the bank… Privet hedges planted either side of the steps divided the two flower beds. They, in turn, stopped at a low brick wall summounted by clumps of London pride. The soil had been added to by the annually swept chimney and buckets of fire cinders, making the earth friable with very little goodness. Both beds were dotted with chrysanthinums, sweet William, roses, and iris – all favorites, and used for cut flowers. A random path lead to the bottom of the garden dividing the lawn arriving at an oval bed containing flowering cherries. It was in this bed that a trench was built, banked up by sand bags – to be used in case of attack. This was referred to as ‘oppin trench’ which overtime gradually filled with water and tadpoles. All along the bottom of the garden was built a chicken run that housed in its prime ten laying birds and their boxes.

Many games involved landscaping earth, mud, and stones to form: The American West – to provide lead-toy soldiers and Indians with an ‘out west’ backdrop, Indian Plains camp. Half the fun was buiding the forts with a drop of water to make mud fortifications and lines of trenches. Dig for Victory, Wartime Allotments, The Kitchen Front, The Kitchen Waste collection, and The Pig Club, were all government initiatives, at the outbreak of the war. All were instigated to provide incentives to spur people on - to help themselves, and others… to take the strain off local food producers. The object was for the nation to become independent and self-sufficient. It was declared unpatriotic by government officials, to feed birds or throw anything away which could be recycled. To abide by the government strictures the lawn was dug up and vegetable beds laid in its place. It was a good idea and initiated with the usual vim and vigour. Unfortunately, it needed perseverance and a great deal of work which was not forthcoming. Eventually these beds were grassed over, their outlines forever etched into the lawn. The much used lawn mower - an apology for a gardening aid - that never had its blades sharpened or set, had the job of converting the unevenness into a bowling green. The adjusting nuts, needed frequent attention simply because the locking nuts had never been replaced. Although it had a heavy steel roller, it still was not heavy enough to iron out the uneven turf left by the remains of the kitchen garden that forever remained a memory.