The gales and the damage that have occurred this week caused me to reflect on the past. It made me also realise that we have come a long way since I had to trim oil lamps and put shillings in the gas meter. The changes have not only been extreme but clearly detrimental in many cases. I think one could say that probably we were generally unaware right up until the 90s, that things would definitely have to change. In Britain, and the other more prosperous countries, we had arrived at a point where convenience was the essence of our progress. Work, entertainment, pleasure had all been honed to a fine finish, where, providing one had the cash, there were no limits to a life of luxury, pleasure, and relatively little work in the home. The days of the washboard, the coal-fired clothes boiler, the outsider loo, and forced public transport are so far in the past that they have almost been totally forgotten.
It would seem, with all the new legislation, taxes, and constant warnings, that we are past the pinnacle of the 90s and the future does not appear as rosy as many of us had hoped and expected. A long time ago I wrote the piece that follows and now included here, to stress the incredible change that some of those on the bottom rungs of the ladder have achieved.
The Very Poor And The Not So Poor – Beef Dripping. Not far from my Grandmother’s house was a Victorian slum building known locally as ‘The Buildings’. It was not unlike a poor version of the tower-blocks of the 60’s, though without balconies, bathrooms and air. A central, spiral,wrought-iron and concrete stair led from the street to four or fivelandings, and the roof seemed to be flat when viewed from street level. It was like a dirty cube of concrete, dumped amid single storey shops and lock-ups.
Inside this hell-hole lived our flotsam and jetsam, shadowy figures we never saw and some who were on display day and daily with their pitch and begging bowl. We hear stories of beggars who have fortunes in their mattresses and whether true or apocryphal, it was said that one of the tenants of the buildings died, leaving a mattress full of money. He was a poor creature inevery sense. Whether he was unhygienic or not, he looked it, his pores seemed ingrained with dirt. He had lost his left arm and his left leg in some war or other, probably The Great War-to-end-all-wars. I was too young to distinguish war medals which he carried in full view on his chest. Hecarried something never seen today, a hurdy-gurdy, a rectangular organ suspended on a strap from the shoulder, which could also be set on foldinglegs. It was a development of the music box and one played a number of tunes by grinding a handle at one side. This man would stump, literally, on a peg leg, with his single arm grinding away and an enamel collecting cup attached to the front of the box. What was left of his left arm was held in a fold of his sleeve by his side.
To digress for a moment, there was the case of the man and wife team whobegged outside Woolworth’s. My mate at school was the son of a Water Board Inspector who was required to carry out enquiries at a house in a street near Woolworth’s. It turned out that the whole terrace of some five or six houses belonged to someone who was an absentee landlord and he, the inspector, would have to make an appointment to see the owner or owners, which he did. They were absent all right, they were at their work. You’ve guessed it! Imagine his surprise when he found that the little lady, respectably dressed, selling iron-holders, little squares of thick woollen material, bound together by an edging tape for holding the old fashioned cast-iron flat-iron, (I should know I made many of them as a child for presents for relatives) and her equally respectably dressed husband who sang in a quavering voice outside Woolworth’s for money. They owned the whole block.
To return to the matter of the roast beef dripping, On the second or third floor of the buildings lived a woman and her several children in conditions of squalor, and from time to time it was my duty to take to these people a huge bowl of roast beef dripping and a few other items. I hated those expeditions. My grandmother insisted, in spite of all protestations, and she was not unaware of the depths of my emotions. I hated the smell, the dirty, dark, dank hall, the awful stairs, and the embarrassment of handing over the bowl, not for myself, but for the woman. It all seemed so demeaning, which I’m sure it was, but nonetheless she was grateful. I believe it was an exercise designed to force me to see the other side of life, to rub shoulders with real poverty. Once I made Gran let me taste bread and dripping and, with a lot of salt, one could acquire a taste for it.