David’s Bookshelf – Issue One – Cup of Tea Tales
- David’s Bookshelf – Issue One
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Lifetime of Global Successes, Disasters and Wonders! Space the Final Frontier.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Hetchell Woods (Bardsey) and Crags – A Special Piece of God’s Own Country or County! One of my Favourite Places to Visit.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Wonderful Yorkshire Dales. Trollers Gill, a Place with a Mysterious Legend and the Hell Hole where I Diced with Death.
- ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Labs and all Manner of Magic, Misery and Mayhem. What Must have been the Worst job for a New Teacher, Chemistry with Boys with only one Aim, to Make Your Life Hell!
As I said, I loved my grandma and her house, but I didn’t mention my grandfather, Harry. Harry had been a tailor, but he had also owned his own sweet and tobacconist’s shop after the war, run a snooker hall in Chapel Allerton, and his favourite pub was the Nag’s Head. My grandfather, like my grandmother, was short and had a bit of a potbelly and his kingdom was the front room. The house consisted of a kitchen and a lounge, two bedrooms and a cellar. There was no bathroom or toilet when they first lived there, and the bath was a galvanised metal tub that hung on a hook on the wall of the steps leading down into the cellar.
Here where I now live in Western Australia, the English have a reputation for being shy of soap and not bathing regularly. In Perth, a minimum of two showers a day and more in the very hot summer weather is the norm, but in the cold English climate, it takes courage to shed one’s clothes. Certainly, in the days before a bathroom was fitted, bath time was a once a week affair. There were only two sources of hot water in the house and initially only one. The kitchen was dominated by a large black iron range. For the uninitiated, a range was a fireplace cum oven, and it had hot plates on either side. Kettles and pans could be heated from the fire of coal that burned at its centre; meals could be cooked, and it was the equivalent of a working-class Aga.
On bath night, the bath would be brought out and placed centre of stage in the kitchen. Water was heated, and the bath filled. My grandfather would have been first, as men were dominant. He would soap himself with a bar of carbolic soap and then rinse himself with a jug of hot water. I believe grandma would have been next, using the same water, as it was too time-consuming and costly to heat fresh. In younger families, the children would have followed on in chronological order, all using the same water. Oh, the joys of being the youngest in a large family!
I never experienced the tin bath, as grandma had another delight up her sleeve for us and that was the sink. I can’t quite remember if it was a stone sink or just a heavy-duty porcelain one, but if we needed a bath, and grandma was the decider on that, we were stood in the sink, naked to the world, and I mean the world, as the sink was adjacent to a window, and we were scrubbed mercilessly. As the saying went, ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ and so we must have been very pure. We were rubbed until we were bright pink and the drying process was no better. The towel would be coarse and rough and this added to the lack of skin on the finished article. Grandma seemed to want to dry us ’round the houses’, which was her euphemism for the more delicate regions. Delicacy was not in my grandmother’s vocabulary, but the term ’round the houses’ has stuck, and I used it for one of my music album titles.
I am sure that a number of the passing residents, Mrs Orange or Miss Clarkson, would have looked in and given their seal of approval over the thoroughness of my grandmother’s technique. I suppose it was a bit like having a well-scrubbed doorstep. A well-scrubbed grandchild was another mark of social standing.
The front room or parlour was a dark, and a bit damp room, probably because the fire wasn’t always lit, whereas the one in the kitchen was. Originally, I remember the fittings for gas lights on the wall, and when I was very little, I seem to remember them working, as I knew about gas mantles and had seen them being lit. The house had electric lights installed by the government a few years later. There was a piano for a time, but I don’t know if anyone ever played it. It was an upright and had still got candle holders on each side of the front. The room had some things that captured my childish imagination. First, the fireplace housed an open fire and the lighting technique involved wood kindling, rolled-up newspaper and then large chunks of coal. This was not smokeless, and they were primitive chunks of shiny black fossilised wood. To enhance the lighting process, a large sheet of newspaper was placed across the front of the fireplace to cause an updraft of air through the bottom, causing the fire to roar with the additional oxygen. The flames illuminated the sheet of paper and, if not carefully managed, it would burst into flames. The fire was magic, it had a strong smell of wood, smoke and dustiness. I would sit entranced as the coal burned, little geysers of coal-gas would burst out of the coal and in my imagination it was hellfire, another planet. I remember watching it for hours. The greatest thrill was being able to break the coal and stir it using the metal poker. It was only when I was older that I was allowed, but I used to watch my older brother do it. Even the cleaning out of the fire, when it was cold, was magical. The ash was white and so fine. There was a little brass set of brush and pan, just for the job, and a matching poker. The tiled section in front of the fire had to be carefully swept and the dust and coke placed into the metal dustbin outside.
Sometimes, when I was in the house, the coalmen would arrive. The truck barely managed to reverse partway down the narrow lane and dirty men with leather aprons and jackets would carry sacks of very heavy coal and tip them down a chute that allowed the coal to slide into the cellar. My older brother and I had to go down into the cellar and move the coal heap into a separate section of whitewashed cellar where the coal was stored. It always seemed a mystery and still does, but why were cellars white-washed? Particularly large chunks of coal had to be broken up with a sledgehammer and then together we would carry up a metal bucket, struggling with the weight, back up into the kitchen.
The cellar was only small and during the war would double up as an air-raid shelter, I have been told. The air was cold, and it was always damp. At the top of the steps down was the tin bath, but facing you as you turned a corner was a meat safe. A meat safe was an equivalent of a fridge. It was a pink metal box with small holes for ventilation. The safe was where meat, milk, butter, and other perishables were kept for a short time. I believe it was made of metal to prevent rats or mice from gaining access.
Down in the cellar was also where the washing took place. I can still recall a corrugated galvanised tub like a large barrel and there was a wooden thing called a dolly. It was like a small three-legged stool with a pole from the centre of where the seat would have been, with a crossbar at the top. Originally, washing would be put in the filled tub, soap added and then the dolly would be placed into it and rotated from side to side. This acted as a washing machine agitator but was all physical exercise and woman-powered. Wet washing was pulled out, rinsed and then run through the mangle. The mangle was two rollers that turned with a heavy handle. The iron contraption was very effective. The clothes were fed in between the rollers and, as they turned, they squeezed the water out of the washing. The water ran back into a bucket and, in more modern versions, it was housed over the tub and the water just flowed back in. I loved to see sheets and shirts go in. The air could get trapped and the sleeve might blow up like a balloon before the air and water were forced out and the flat, stiff washing appeared out the other end. Over the years I visited my grandmother, technology came into the house. The dolly was replaced by an electric tub with an agitator that worked by electricity. Mangles became electric and finally the twin tub, with separate sections, one for washing and the other housing a spin dryer. My grandmother must have been delighted and blessed electricity when it was installed.
Another use for the range was for heating irons. Irons in those days were exactly that. Small, but heavy, they were a similar shape to the electric iron, but there were solid and had to be heated. As a result, they worked in tandem, one being heated on the range whilst the other was being used. It took great skill not to burn the clothes, but I suspect there were failures over the years. One major difference in the clothes my grandfather wore was the shirts. Shirts had detachable collars that buttoned on and off. This allowed a well-dressed man to wear a clean collar every day. The shirt remained the same all week, but a clean collar was essential. The other fashion difference for the working man was that a suit would be worn, but the trousers came up to almost the armpit and a belt or braces would hold them in place. Shoes were always well polished and no self-respecting man like my grandfather would be seen out with dirty shoes.
Whilst I am writing this, so many memories that I had forgotten have come flooding back and added to the joy of the times I had with them. They were a funny couple, but I adored them and they always spoilt me and my brothers. My grandma’s name was Mary, but I never called her that. Mary and Harry. Children would never have dreamt of calling adults by their first names in those days, and I never called my parents by their first names.
Harry would sit in the parlour when we were there, probably to be out of the way, and it allowed him to read the newspaper and smoke his pipe. Pipe smoking fascinated me. I loved the smell of his pipe tobacco, Old Holborn, and pipe smoking was a ritual that I watched with fascination. Pipes had to be dismantled and pipe cleaners used to remove the tar residue, and there was a tool that was used to bore out the bulb of the pipe and to keep it clean. The bowl, on one, also screwed off the stem and again there was a collection of tar in the metal bowl that needed to be cleaned. My grandfather had a rack with a wide assortment of pipes and there seemed to be an art in cleaning, packing, lighting and keeping the tobacco burning. I can still smell it and see him sitting in his chair, contentedly puffing on his pipe. Of course, these were the days when the dangers of smoking were not so well known.
Grandma was the one who looked after me and my two brothers. We were not always there en masse, but one of the highlights was her cooking. Now, looking back, I am not sure if it was because she doubted my mother’s culinary skills, or whether she just loved seeing us eat, but her cooking was close to being able to feed the five thousand. Let me run you through the usual menu. We would start off with a tin of Heinz tomato soup, followed by traditional Yorkshire pudding. This was cooked in a large tray maybe fourteen inches by ten. I think she may have cooked two trays if the three of us were there. The pudding would be cut in half, so it was a large portion. I had gravy on mine, but my older brother had Golden Syrup on his. These two courses were starters and then we had a roast beef and roast potato and vegetable dinner. Again, she was not mean with her portions and to follow all this, we had either the fabled blueberry and cream pie or, more often, Ambrosia tinned creamed rice pudding. My elder brother used to have a dollop of jam in the middle, but I never liked that. Afterwards, we used to just have to lie about pogged for a while. You would imagine after a regular feed like this, that we would have been quite large, but not one of us has ever had a real problem with weight. I can still taste and feel the effects as I write this now.
Now there was one occasion where my elder brother, my grandma, and I went to the local shops at Chapel Allerton and she bought a paper bag of Victoria plums. These were quite a thrill as they were quite expensive and only had a short season. We went back to the park and sat on a bench near the bowling green. It was the morning on a warm summer day and the bowling green was deserted. The grass was a lush dark green, and the crown was immaculately kept. My grandmother handed out the plums, and we tucked in. The plums were juicy, and I was well into mine when grandma suddenly stopped and with her expert eye examined the plum she had. She snatched my brother’s off him and checked that and then took mine. I looked before I handed it over and there were white maggoty things inside and, what was worse, I had clearly eaten some. She laughed, put the remains back in the bag and I believe we headed off to the ice-cream van as compensation. I suspect she never told my mother what had happened, but I was always careful to check in the future.
Grandma was fairly ingenious in occupying three small, active boys and she would often set us the task of cutting her grass. Now, as mentioned in a previous account, the lawn was tiny, probably about four square metres, nine square yards. She did have a small hand-powered lawn cutter, but only my elder brother was allowed to use that and often it was almost impossible to use. She had a hierarchy of cutting utensils. A pair of shears for the eldest, large scissors for me, and tiny scissors for my younger brother. After struggling to cut for a while, blisters would appear and the process became far from pleasant. The three of us toiled away until the job was done and then we would reap some reward. At least we gave her some peace and quiet for a while.
As a child, Christmas at my grandma’s house was always a magical time, when we came together for the Boxing Day party and my uncle, aunt, and cousin all came around, to my grandma’s. As I have mentioned before, the house was hardly spacious, but we all fitted in and it was a merry old time. Uncle Ernest, Dad and Harry would soon head off to the Nag’s Head, whilst the ladies would busy themselves making sandwiches, etc. What sticks in my mind the most were the games we would all play. Simple, but at the time, the only occasion we ever played them. One involved dropping ‘dolly pegs’, split wooden clothes pegs into glass pint milk bottles. Each competitor, which was everyone, would stand hold the peg at waist height and try to drop them into the bottle. We had about three or four turns each, and the one with the most at the end of the round was the winner. Of course, most bounced off the edge to rounds of laughter and the occasional one went in. The children had a distinct advantage, being nearer to the bottle, and often one of us would be the winner.
Another game was ‘The Ring that is Passing’. A ring, often one of the wedding rings, was threaded through a long piece of string and the string tied off. One person stood within the ring of string and all the others held the string with both hands and chanted, ‘The ring that is passing has just passed by,’ and all the hands were moved from left to right, disguising where the ring was and sometimes passing it from one to the other. The person in the middle had to touch the hand of the person who they thought had it. That person opened their hand and if the ring was there, they swapped over. If not, then the game continued. It was great fun for us and after a few drinks, great fun for the adults. Simple times, but they had a magic that may have been lost, or maybe I’ve just grown older.
Other games could be played, such as ‘Pass the Parcel’ and even the ubiquitous ‘The Parson’s Cat’. In the Parson’s cat you took turns to say, The Parson’s Cat was a …. and you inserted a word starting with ‘A’. You had to be quick, and you were out if you hesitated or couldn’t think of a word. Once it had been around the room with ‘A’, it then continued with ‘B’ and so on. If someone was out, the next person started again and this time with the next letter. Some letters were very easy, but some proved very challenging. Fun, silly and also good for extending children’s vocabulary.
As we got older, we were expected to perform. Our cousin Angela, the daughter of Joan and Ernest, would play a short piece on the guitar or violin. Andrew and I did, on occasions, and it was the least pleasurable part of the evenings. As we got older, Spanish guitars would make an appearance, and we even sang a carol or two.
One drawback was that the children had to pay a visit to the neighbours, Miss Clarkson and Mrs Orange. I am not sure why I wasn’t too keen, but it was a bit of a chore. Probably it was just that I wasn’t sure what to say. They were kindly ladies, ancient and so old-fashioned, even then. They would often give us a bar of chocolate and wish us Happy Christmas. Really, my grandma probably felt they needed some company at Christmas and the elderly like to see children. Anyway, the visits were only short and I hope the two ladies enjoyed them.
Prior to our arrival at my grandma’s on Boxing Day, we visited Aunty Maud and Aunty Ethel. I am not sure what relations they were. I think they were cousins of my mother and her sister. They lived on their own and they were kindly, welcoming and always gave us presents. The visit gave my parents time to catch up with them and they seemed posh. They lived in Chapel Allerton, next to the allotments and the park. The houses looked across Gledhow Valley and were large semi-detached houses with sizeable gardens. We arrived before we had any time to become dishevelled, hair watered and combed down, shirts tucked in, shoes cleaned and manners similarly polished. The houses had thick plush carpets of a very light colour and were definitely not child-proofed. We had to sit still, politely saying thank you and listening to adults talk about things we did not know or understand. One of their daughters, Dorothy, was sometimes there, and she spoke with a particularly posh voice and she had almost white makeup, red lipstick and red cheeks. I was intimidated and the end of the world would have been to spill something on her carpet. Aunty Maud was much older and a warm, friendly lady. Many years later, my father and I would go around to mow her lawns when it became too much for her. My father once caught her in her eighties on the landing on the stairs, with one knee on the window sill whilst she cleaned the window, with a drop that would have killed her beneath her. She was a very determined lady and my dad was very fond of her.
At the end of the party, tired boys would be herded into the back of the car, no seatbelts in those days, and we would often sleep all the way home.