»  62 Friars Avenue — Plan of the Lower Floor

62 Friars Ave

 

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[North is at the right in this diagram.]

The lower floor of 62 Friars Avenue — "ground floor" in British English, "first floor" in American — measured about 20 feet east-west by 24 feet north-south. On the south side was a bay window and a recessed front door; on the east, a recessed side door. Both entrance doors had a step up. The front door step was a broad concrete apron going all the way to the bay window. There was a small rectangular soil plot near the western end; my mother had a rose bush in there.

When we first lived in the house, the living room and dining room could be sealed off from each other with a pair of sliding doors. My parents never much liked this arrangement, though. My mother fixed a curtain rail along the opening on the living-room side and hung drapes from it. At some point in (I think) the 1970s, the sliding doors were removed. Through my childhood, they mostly dwelt in their recesses in the walls.

Lighting was a single bulb fixture in the middle of each room's ceiling, with a switch on the wall near an entrance door. (But there were some variations upstairs.)

 

The living room.

(Usually called "the drawing room" by my parents. I never heard either say "parlour," though some neighbors and some of our Staffordshire relatives used the word.)

We spent most of our time in the living room. Facing south, with that big bay window, it was full of light in the summer. In the winter it was usually the only heated room in the house.

There were three ways to supply heat to our house:

  •  Light a coal fire in the downstairs fireplace, marked by "F" in the floor plan.

  •  Light a coal fire in the master-bedroom fireplace — see the upper floor plan.

  •  Light a coke fire in the kitchen's Beeston boiler, marked by "b" in the floor plan.

I can't remember my parents ever lighting a fire in the upstairs fireplace. The Beeston boiler* was lit only on Sunday mornings. It heated a tank of water located upstairs, so that everyone could take a bath.

Almost the only source of heat, therefore, was the downstairs fireplace. We burned coal here in the winter: evenings only on weekdays, all day at weekends. There was a small ceramic-tiled hearth in front of the fireplace. My mother had some fireplace accessories and knick-knacks made of brass, which she kept brightly polished. Dad used to put the butter dish in the hearth when a fire was going, to soften the butter. (This was, however, a thing all too easily overdone).

Fire lighting was a hated chore, mostly done by Dad. You had to shovel the previous fire's ashes out of the grate and transport them to the dustbin outside. Then you packed yesterday's newspaper into the grate, laid some pieces of firewood on top, and put suitable-sized nuggets of coal on top of the wood. When this arrangement was complete, you'd light the paper and hope. Either the coal would catch, or it wouldn't. If it wouldn't, you could try "drawing" the fire by holding a spare sheet of newspaper (kept aside for this purpose) over the fireplace aperture, leaving just a little space at the bottom for air to roar in through … you hoped.

(A coal fire could be started without firewood, but this was a whole degree more difficult. You rolled each sheet of newspaper up into a long strip, then tied the strip into a loose knot. When you had a dozen or so of these paper knots, you laid them carefully over a bed of ordinarily scrunched-up paper. Then, in the middle of each knot, you placed a piece of coal just the right size. The art of the thing was in getting the size right and optimally distributing the knots.)

Having the chimney cleaned was a great event. This happened once a year or so. It wasn't a thing you could opt out of: allowing your chimney (i.e. the soot caked up inside it) to catch fire was a criminal offense. The chimney sweep was a pedestrian in my earliest memories, all covered in soot of course, and carrying his bundle on his shoulder, or in a hand cart. After you'd covered your furniture with sheets, he'd stick his brush up your chimney; then cover your fireplace aperture with a special frame that just let the shaft of the brush through. That shaft would then be repetitively augmented with screw-on extension segments, till at last the streetful of watching kids outside would shout that the brush had emerged from the chimney pot. It then only remained to shovel the soot from the fireplace and carry it to the dustbin.

To this day I miss the coal fires of my childhood. I can't compute the number of hours I spent playing around the hearth, or just staring dreamily into the fire, Mum and Dad in their armchairs, reading or listening to the radio. In my very earliest years there were often electrical blackouts. Then we'd sit around the coal fire by candle-light, like our ancestors, eating nuts and telling stories. Somewhat later, in the 1970s I think, my parents installed a big gas fire in the hearth. It's the coal fire I always remember, though.

In the alcoves at left and right of the chimney-piece my parents put in bookshelves. We were all great readers, and always had plenty of books. In the early 1950s my parents belonged to a book club, which sent them a book every month. Current nonfiction was always a favorite: Kon-Tiki was read by everyone,**  and I remember the eager wait for John Hunt's Ascent of Everest. There was plenty of fiction, too, though, mostly low- and middle-brow novels: Agatha Christie, John Creasey, Daphne du Maurier, Nevil Shute, Marie Corelli, John Buchan, and so on. Of principal interest to me, kept on the bottom shelf in the left alcove, were several bound volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopædia, which I suppose had survived from Dad's own childhood.

One of the higher shelves on the right alcove held the family radio, a principal source of entertainment till we got TV around 1957 or 1958. Of news, too: My sister and I came home for lunch one bright day in 1952 to find Mum sitting there by the radio, weeping. The death of the King had just been announced.

The post-WW2 years were the great days of British radio. We listened to everything, but the sitcoms were our favorites: Life With the Lyons, Educating Archie, the Goons of course, Much Binding, Hancock's Half Hour, Take It From Here, Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, Al Read, … I am amazed at how many of these old shows and people I can still remember. There's nothing like early training. There were soaps like The Archers, lunchtime variety shows — Workers' Playtime, Midday Music-Hall—game shows (Take Your Pick was a great favorite of my Dad's, perhaps because the emcee was a New Zealander), dramas, "talks" (i.e light lectures), panel games, sci-fi, book readings, special kids' programs (graduating from Listen With Mother to Children's Hour was a major life milestone), … I tell you, this was a rich imaginative world. I look at today's TV schedules and weep quietly.

When we first got a TV we set it up next to that right-hand alcove, just from association with the radio, I suppose. The light from the big bay window of course killed the image in daytime, so the TV quickly moved to the southwest (top left) corner of the room, where it remained until the house was sold.

We acquired a budgerigar in the early 1950s. I named him Mickey, and he lived in a cage suspended at head height from a stand in the southeast (bottom left) corner of the living room. Mickey lived to a ripe old age — I was at university when he died — and formed some odd kind of bond with Dad, who was otherwise not much of a bonder. Before going upstairs to bed at night, Dad would always stop in the corner of the living room for a chat with Mickey, who I think appreciated these encounters. Dad would also talk to Mickey when cleaning out the cage or refilling the food and water containers. "You talk more to that damn bird than you do to me," grumbled Mum, which may very well have been true.

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"Equipment produced by the Beeston Boiler Company is still to be found all around the former British Empire." (Quote from here.)

** Publisher Nigel Nicholson dined out for years as "the man who rejected Kon-Tiki."

 

The dining room

The dining room was exactly that, dominated by the dining table, a large square thing with pull-out leaves, a bowl of fruit normally to be found at its center. The dining table really came into its own at midday on Sunday — Sunday dinner, the English working-class ritual described by Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy. (Note: "dinner" named the midday meal all through my childhood. The evening meal was "supper.")

Whatever the condition of the family finances — ours were often dire — there was always a fine big piece of meat for Sunday dinner: a leg of lamb, a joint of beef, a shoulder of pork. It was served with potatoes, both mashed and "roasted around the joint," vegetables — most often cabbage, sprouts, or carrots — and gravy. With a beef roast, there was generally Yorkshire pudding. Mustard also came with beef, but never with lamb; Mum's own mint sauce from the mint garden behind the sheds was served with lamb and mutton. I forget how we garnished our pork, though it certainly wasn't apple sauce. I can't forget the pork "crackling," though, or the disappointment at getting a piece that didn't crackle. For dessert we had any one from a wide selection of pies, flans, tarts, steamed puddings, and stewed fruit, always covered in custard. English food is of course something of a joke among foreigners, and the English have never shone as restaurateurs. I must say, though, that I ate wonderfully well as a child, from a wide variety of delicious and nourishing food.

In the northeast (i.e. bottom right) corner of the dining room was a metal radiator connected to the hot-water tank upstairs. This meant that the radiator gave heat only when the Beeston boiler was fired up, which is to say mainly on Sundays. To the right of the radiator was a serving hatch from the kitchen, marked "h" in the plan. Below the serving hatch was a drawer used for odds and ends, and below that a small cupboard used for shoes, known logically enough as "the shoe cupboard."

A window looked north out from the dining room into the back garden. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents replaced the window with a patio door.

 

The kitchen

The kitchen had a floor of large red square tiles. A window on the north wall looked down the back garden. If you stood looking through this window, you were standing at the sink, marked "s." There were wooden draining-boards at left and right of the sink. Turning to your right, you were addressing the gas range at "r." There were no closets under the sink-draining-board complex, only bare wall, with a gas tap at the left end.

In the northwest corner of the kitchen sat my mother's nemesis, the Beeston boiler. Mum hated that thing with a passion. It was a devil to light, much trickier than a coal fire. The drill was, you first filled it up with coke. Then you brought in (from the shed) a gas poker — a phallic object attached to a rubber hose, which fitted over the aforementioned gas tap. The phallus part had holes in it from which the gas could emerge. You fixed your hose to the gas tap, turned on the gas, and lit the phallus. Then you thrust the phallus in through a grille at the front of the boiler, into the mass of coke. The coke would eventually catch fire … or not. I do believe my mother once attacked the Beeston boiler with a hammer. Still, if the coke did burn, it burned mighty hot. You could have smelted tungsten in there. The flat top of the boiler also did service as a hot plate.

All this was in aid of heating up water for our weekly baths. Intermediate supplies of hot water were got by heating a kettle on the range. For her weekly clothes wash, Mum brought in a huge tub from the shed. The tub was fitted out with gas burners underneath, and another rubber hose for connection to the kitchen gas tap. Clothes were boiled in this contraption on wash day (which was of course Monday). They were rinsed by hand, wrung out through a mangle (erected — it had a base that folded flat — on the paved area outside the kitchen window), and dried on the garden clothes line. For bad-weather clothes drying, there was a drying rack that could be lowered from the kitchen ceiling. This was just some 6-foot slats of wood on frames, rigged north-south from two bolts on the kitchen ceiling, with a cleat for the lowering rope on the wall next to the side door.

From the east wall of the kitchen, the side door of the house led out onto a concrete step, then to the path running by the sheds. Opening the door, you were actually looking at the coal shed.

A door in the south wall, next to the pantry, led out into the hall. Another door in the west wall led to the dining room. The serving hatch at "h" that I've mentioned also opened to the dining room. On the kitchen side of this hatch was a wooden counter top. Above the counter top were cupboards where we kept crockery. Below it were some drawers: the first used for silverware, the second for kitchen cloths, serving mats, and the like, the third and fourth for various of Dad's things (including the cobbler's last now in my study here).

Left of the counter top was a floor-to-ceiling structure (marked "c"), the lower part a broom cupboard, the upper a small square cupboard where Dad kept some personal effects.

 

The pantry

At the southeast corner of the kitchen was a little room, marked "p" in the plan, with a part-sloping ceiling (because it was under the stairs). This was the pantry. We had no refrigerator until the late 1950s, and depended on the pantry staying cool, which it did its best at by being unlit and having only a tiny window. It also had a "cold shelf" — a concrete slab running north-south the width of the room.

 

The hall

The front door of the house brought you into a narrow hall, with stairs at right leading to the upper floor. Along the hall at left was a door into the living room. Ahead was a door leading to the kitchen. To your right was a little closet under the stairs, used for storing junk.

The front door was recessed a foot or so, forming an alcove at the right (marked "u" on the plan). Here there was a small utility cupboard containing the electrical fuses for the house. The cupboard was topped with a shelf, where eventually, around 1960, our first telephone stood. On the east wall, from the utility closet across to the little window at the foot of the stairs, were clothes hooks. Here we hung our coats.