…So, the clocks have gone forward and, true to form, the boiler has seized the opportunity to cease to function. I am sitting, swaddled in woollen cardigan, whilst the ensuing privations plunge me back into an ocean of golden-hued rememberings of austere youth. You see, the gas boiler provides all of the hot water in our house and, until the man appears to fix it, all showers and baths (unless you fancy a cold one) are out of the question. It will soon be 24 hours since I showered and I am beginning to feel it. We have had no visitors today, not even the post lady, and I am beginning to wonder whether somebody has daubed ‘unclean’ on the front door. I find myself thrown back to the Saturday afternoon football matches of my youth. I can still remember the smell of the buses on the way home: a gentle collation of cigarette smoke, beer and, most of all, sweat. I remember the smell of sweat. Like an olfactory scent-track, it is the remembered aroma of sweat, somehow devoid of the acrid tang of body odour, that casts me back to childhood.
…Sunday night was bath night in our house. This meant that even in the summer, the fire was banked up and the ‘damper’ turned so that, by some process unfathomable to the six year old brain, hot water was produced. My brother and I shared a bath, a plastic bath rack across the middle to stop squabbling. A quick once over with Wright’s Coal-Tar Soap* and Vosene Shampoo before a towel-wrapped dash down the stairs to be dried in front of the coal fire. And no shower. The nearest we ever got to a shower was one of those rubber hose things; a sprinkler rose on one end and two connectors on the other that slipped over the taps. It took a good five minutes to adjust the taps, getting the water temperature just right before you turned the spray onto your hair, accidentally pulling the rubber connector from the cold tap – scalding your scalp whilst simultaneously flooding the bath with freezing water.
And the cold… I can feel the cold today. No central heating. In winter, save for the isolated pools of heat around the fire, most of the house was barely warmer than outside. Colder, sometimes, if linoleum* floors were involved. Who can forget the sensation of waking in a freezing bedroom; frost on the inside of the windows; crushed by the weight of the woollen blankets that separated you from the seeping hoar. And on top of it all, the Candlewick bedspread*. Always a candlewick bedspread: wherever you went, wherever you slept, always a candlewick bedspread. A bit like Rubik’s cube, one day everybody had one, the following day they were gone. Where did they all go? They died under the unremitting advance of the ‘Continental Quilt’. Perhaps they will return after Brexit…
Coldest of all was the trek to the toilet: through the quarry-tiled kitchen, out of the back door, along an unlit outside corridor, past the coalhouse and into the barely lit sanctuary of the privy. Why it wasn’t moved into the upstairs bathroom I do not know. This was the early 60’s. A toilet inside the house was still considered slightly outré and quite possibly not something that the powers-that-be considered desirable for council house tenants. I remember my parents being quite proud of the fact that it wasn’t quite outdoors. If it was raining, you didn’t actually get wet reaching it. It was to daddy-long-legs what the Serengeti was to wildebeest. It was patrolled by spiders of a size that would have troubled cats. It was also very cold and in the winter the water in the bowl did have a tendency to freeze, potentially leading to all manner of untoward morning incident.
Between the coal house and the toilet was a whitewashed windowless room that my mum referred to as the scullery. In it stood a tall propane container attached to a circular gas burner that sat beneath a copper barrel in which clothes were boiled. I remember the washing was taken out of the boiling tub and squeezed through the old wooden mangle before being hung out to dry; outside in the summer and in the scullery in the winter. I recall that the scullery always smelled of wet laundry and that my clothes always smelled of wet scullery. Most of all, I recollect the look of pride on my mum’s face when she left the ‘copper’ behind and invited the neighbours around to introduce them to the new Hoovermatic twin-tub washing machine that was housed in the kitchen. She demonstrated how clothes were washed in one side of the machine before being lifted out of the scalding water with a pair of wooden tongs and dropped into the spinner, where they were spun to within an inch of their life. Meanwhile the washing machine bucked and rhumba’d around the kitchen taking chunks out of the plaster, the furniture and the back of your head if you weren’t on your toes; slopping boiling water all over the floor because no-one had remembered to drain it by dropping the little hooked pipe over the side of the sink and pumping out the water prior to the spin.
Now, I realise that I am beginning to sound like one of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, but it just occurred to me how bereft I feel for the lack of something that my parents never for one second felt the lack of. Hot water at the turn of the tap, every time, with no prior groundwork; a winter home that inside is actually not colder than the outside; inside loos, automatic washing machines, dishwashers and a million other things I haven’t even thought of yet, none of which we need, all of which we feel keenly when we don’t have. And what really bothers me is that it only feels like yesterday that we didn’t have them, didn’t need them, didn’t necessarily even consider them desirable. It makes me realise that yesterday wasn’t necessarily better than today: that the here and now has much to commend it. Unless, of course, today you’re still waiting for the gas man…
*If you’re unsure, ask somebody, anybody, over the age of 60. They’ll explain.