We finally moved from the awful flat to a house we all called ’76’. My brother could now come home to be educated. 76 was close enough to 88, my grand- mother’s house, for her to help out when Willie, my mother, had to work late. Unless one has never lived in a terrace house on the bend of a road, and a tight inside bend at that, one cannot possibly imagine the consequences. As far as the house is concerned, the bend starts at the kerb on the farside of the road, then there is the road, the footpath, the front garden- however meagre, only then does one arrive at the front face of the house, which, for road symmetry, must be the same width as the rest of the houses on the straight. The house is like a slice of sponge cake, wide at the front and narrow at the back and the degree of squeeze is determined by the depth of the house and the tightness of the curve. 76 had a front room, a second room on the ground floor before arriving at a side entrance to the garden, the kitchen and then the scullery, and throughout this parade of rooms and spaces, the width narrowed inexorably. It was as if the house had been squashed in a ‘V’ shaped vice. Don’t get me wrong, it was a palace to what we had been occupying previously, the freedom, the independence, the joy of a place all of one’s own was immeasurable. It was just a funny shaped house with an even funnier shaped garden. It was just our own personal slice of speculative mismanagement.
The hall leading from the front door to the living room had a kink where the staircase started. On the wall at the kink was fixed above head height the shilling-in-the-slot gas meter which had all sorts of interesting pipes, name plates, covers and seals, each with its own resonance when hit by a lead air-gun slug. So the Wyatt Erp Era of gun law was inaugurated, and also open season on gas meters. I had swapped something or other for an air-gun pistol and it was my pleasure, especially at holiday times when I had the house to myself, to sit at breakfast and practice the ‘quick draw’. The target was the gas meter, not as a whole, but the various units, and success was signalled by the sound each gave off when hit. As you can imagine, this palled after a while and I advanced to using a mirror and shooting backwards over my shoulder.
All the years I knew her, Willie was subjected to fearsome migraines and never more so than at 76. It had never been a severe problem for me before, when she was ill I fed myself, but when my brother joined us circumstances changed. We started having greater choices; this included roasts, Yorkshire puddings, boiled salt beef and carrots and so on. The problem was we had no refrigerator, only the wooden ‘safe’ in a cool place in the garden, with its wet cloth in the heat of summer, wet earthen crocks with dripping towels and other devices to prolong the life of meat, and milk in particular. Willie would buy a roast for the weekend but often the migraine would strike and I would have to provide the dinner. In this way I learned to cook anything, stews, roasts, even pastry when my interest had been awakened enough for a meat pie. I spent the morning running up and down stairs receiving orders for each stage as it arrived, given in a weak, pained, wavering voice, but in time it became routine.
By comparison, in about 1935, my Aunt Min, our school-teacher aunt, had a marvellous one-room flat in Russell Square which I envied. For its time it was well in advance of the norm. To start with it was approached by a lift and was so high one could see right across London to the East. Off a tiny hall was the bathroom, a wardrobe, a general storage cupboard and, what interested me most, was a small cupboard which contained the refuse bin which was emptied by the building staff from the corridor through a small door into the corridor. The room itself was not exceptional except for the cupboard in the lounge which opened to reveal itself as a tiny kitchen with stove, sink unit and storage. To me it was the life to aim for. At 76, aged about 14, for the first time ever, I was given a room in which I could do what I liked, and it was then I started designing multi-function furniture for the bed-sit, some of which I saw later in magazines. There were two pieces in particular, one impracticable, one later commonplace. The first was a rotating wardrobe with doors back and front so in one position it was a wardrobe, in the other it was a larder – totally daft, although years later, in a one-(tiny)room flat I was to use a wardrobe for both functions. The other was a bed with a bed-head for sitting up against when in bed, which folded down to form an occasional side-table when the bed was transformed into a divan as part of the seating arrangements. I believe it was ahead of its time.