As I mentioned before my father was a man on a mission to bring whichever house we lived in into the modern world during the 1960s. He did this first in Lawrence Avenue, but as the family grew to three children, the two-bedroomed house would not suffice and they bought the house 19 Gipton Wood Crescent. This was a bigger three-bedroomed house, but the third bedroom was tiny and could just fit a single bed in and not much else and the kitchen was very small and my father referred to it, in his broad Scottish accent, as a kitchenette.
As an aside, I was totally unaware that my father had a Scottish accent at all, which is a little strange, as it is so different from a Leeds accent, but it was undetectable to me. It was when I started to have girlfriends phone and he would answer with his usual wit and say, “Is that Gillian, Susan, Felicity, Jane?” or some other name, despite knowing full well who it was. It was one of his usual jokes, and like his Christmas attempt at humour, “Would you like another Madeira, mydeara?” Such girlfriends would comment on his strong accent, which came as a surprise to me.
The house, when we arrived, was previously owned by an elderly person and had not been modernised in any shape or form since it was built, but this gave my father ample things to do. I have mentioned the removal of the leaded and stained-glass windows that he replaced with plate-glass modern ones, the filling in of the fireplaces and the installation of built-in electric heaters, and later the installation of gas central heating, but only for the downstairs, as the theory had it that the hot air would rise and heat the upstairs. The theory might have been sound, but doors of the main two downstairs rooms meant that the bedrooms were still very cold, but in place of the ice ferns on the window glass, we now had large pools of condensation which had to be soaked up every morning. We could collect well over a litre of water from the bedroom window sills each day during winter. This was not assisted by my dad’s drive to draught-exclude every crevice of ventilation with rolls of foam.
The houses were built when cars were rare and the road was cobbled when we first moved in, but they tarmacked it a few years later. There was no driveway and just a path up to the front and back doors. My dad set to removing the trees that edged Mrs Wynn’s, next door, and then a drive was laid. My Mum blamed the heavy work on my Dad’s first heart attack at the very young age of thirty-seven. Reality would say that bad genetics, Scottish heritage, smoking, and a high-fat diet compared to what is recommended nowadays, was probably more likely the cause. With this accomplished, the car could be parked up the driveway and a garage was built and is still there, but I don’t remember any of the cars ever going in it. The garage was full of garden tools, other tools, bikes, ladders and goodness knows what, but never a car.
The next job was replacing the gutters and downpipes. These were the original wooden ones and were beginning to fail. The new ones installed were the ultra-modern plastic ones. These were much lighter, black-coloured and the whole task was accomplished in a couple of days. The old wooden gutters were stacked on the drive and before they were removed a few days later, my older brother Andrew and I would use them for tracks to run our matchbox and Corgi cars down the sloping driveway. They did have some big nails in, but we managed to remove some and if my memory serves me right, at least one of the nails found its way into Dad’s car tyre a while later.
The house was looking a bit spiffier, in my Mum and Dad’s eyes, but there were still some ageing features remaining. One was that the walls had picture rails. These were wooden battens that pictures could be hung from on wire and a brass hook. My dad had to prise them off and then fill the plaster and the other issue was the ceilings. The original plaster had cracked, but rather than repair it, the modern DIY-selfer, a craze that started at this time, had a new option: polystyrene ceiling tiles. These came in about square foot pieces, about a quarter of an inch thick. They were sold as the remedy to any cracked or uneven ceiling and they had the added benefits of additional insulation and soundproofing. They had to have glue spread on the back and then they were pressed into place. They were easy to cut and they even had special cutters, using a heated wire and a large battery, but a Stanley knife was probably better. Textured surfaces could make them even more interesting and they could be painted. In truth, they did work, but they had an added danger that plaster didn’t have. They were highly flammable, being made from oil products and if they caught fire they would drip burning molten plastic down into the room and on anyone inside. I don’t think my dad was aware of this at the time and soon the whole house was fitted with them.
Another job to bring the home into the modern world was to change the internal doors. The original doors were wooden and had panels in them, but the trend was to have flush doors. This meant fitting a sheet of hardboard over the panels to create a flat door. The edges of the board were sanded to produce a rounded, smooth finish and the corners were rounded. The doors would then be painted white gloss to give them that clean look. Varnish was from the old days and paint was the thing. High gloss could look special and I can still smell the strong vapours as I write this. The ornate door handles and guard panels were removed and plain white plastic and chrome ones fitted.
The one drawback for my father was that whenever he decorated, the paint took a long time to dry. The central heating radiators and the doors were the main surfaces that three young boys couldn’t resist putting their hands upon. We would forget about the paint, and hands almost stuck to the surface and when removed would have painted palms. Mum would try and remove the paint from our hands with turps before Dad saw it, but she could only hope that he wouldn’t notice the hand marks in his fresh paint. Of course, he would immediately notice it and he would long complain, almost accusing us of deliberately spoiling his decorating. Many years later, I found myself repeating his words, but without the Scottish accent, as my four boys did the same to my decorating. I used to say that the boys followed me around as I decorated, ruining what I had done.
Somehow, my father never lost the urge to modernise and decorate, but eventually, a little like Ford cars and black, the whole house became brilliant white. It did make it easier and his attempts to vary it at first with flock wallpaper, bamboo patterns, geometrical orange designs and so on, gave way to anaglypta and woodchip, which allowed a quick spruce-up with a roller.
I have mentioned in another tale that he built fitted cupboards, fireplace and TV surround, with mock stone fibreglass panels. This was after the proper fireplaces were removed, the chimneys capped and a ventilation vent fitted at the bottom, but during the DIY craze, some failed to think of this, and blocked fireplaces could fill with water, severe damp and mould problems could arrive and even illness due to fungus. Dad then set about the fitted wardrobes in the bedrooms. He did a great job and in those days, as we didn’t have much in the way of spare clothing, school uniform and few items of casual attire being the limit, these wardrobes worked well. Dad even built a dressing table part with a mirror, but in the box-room that Andrew had, mould was an issue that we never really got to the bottom of.
The adjoining house was similarly modernised and there was a certain amount of competition, but some co-operation on big projects. There was one bone of contention when Mum and Dad were invited to visit next door and their latest piece of handiwork. Stereos were just replacing stereograms, which were large pieces of furniture, and next door had a new stereo and wanted to show it off. There had been a period of heavy banging from next door and the sound of bricks breaking and hammering and chisels, but we had no idea what was happening. Anyway, Mum returned from next door far from happy as the neighbours had decided to set the speakers into the recess wall that separated the two houses. There were two walls with a cavity between to keep noise from the houses separate as much as possible. The gentleman next door had cut into his wall two small rectangles to fit the speakers. He had finished them off nicely and replastered, but Mum’s concern was, and probably justified, that the sound of the music would come through the wall. I can’t say that I was aware and the reason for this was that we would play the television so loud, we boys were often shouting and noisy, and probably the neighbours played the music quietly anyway.
The installation of the central heating did create some difficulties with my father’s DIY and I do remember at least once when he fixed a squeaky, moving floorboard by putting a nail straight into the water pipe. It took a while, but over time the small leak must have got bigger and eventually we could hear running water and then the floorboards were lifted and the caused discovered and a plumber called.
Not all things were moves in the wrong direction. Lead paint was used prior to these times and my dad used a blow torch to remove the paint off the window frames before the plate glass was fitted. Lead was also used in petrol, but that too was phased out, but the water pipes were lead and they probably still are. I am not sure if the vapours from the burning lead paint wouldn’t have been worse for us as I can smell it so clearly now. It is strange how when you think about things the smells become so vivid. Even stranger is the fact that I don’t have much of a sense of smell.
Another improvement was the abundance of hot water. Prior to the central heating, an electric immersion heater provided hot water, but that was only put on for bath days once a week. With the central heating there was always hot water and baths became more frequent. The kitchen was modernised with Dad removing the pantry doors so that a small fridge could be fitted in and there was a twin-tub washing machine in the kitchen. We had clothes drying on a pulley, which made it very crowded, but with the central heating, Mum used to dry clothes on the radiators when Dad was at work. The result of this was dry clothes, but vast amounts of condensation in the upstairs windowsills. Mum would quickly gather the washing in before Dad arrived home and caught her.
I believe that there were government grants to rewire houses and the round pin plugs were replaced with the modern fused plugs used in the UK today. This increased safety and prevented many house fires. Dad didn’t venture into plumbing much and we had the bathroom refurbished with a modern fibreglass bath with a side panel, all part of making things smooth and flush. The introduction of coloured bathrooms brought some interesting tones, but we had a duck-egg blue one, which was the most common, before the move back to white.
The most interesting thing is that during a single generation there has been a total reversal. The modern look has given way to retro looks and the DIY trend has seen people removing the panels off flush doors, stripping off the paint to reveal varnish, lifting carpets and stripping back floorboards and varnishing and polishing them. The properly leaded windows would now be worth a fortune, as all that is old is new again. How funny we humans are! Each generation thinks the past so silly in its fashions and trends, but how quickly the new goes out of style. I have bought many pieces of furniture to house big televisions, video recorders, CDs, stereos etc that have ended on the scrap heap, as new flat TVs, the demise of records, cassettes, CDs and other items have made them obsolete. I wonder what we’ll have in the next ten years?