Tuesday, 3 July 2018
Of Cleaning & Cats
Despite the fact that we never had very much that absolutely needed to be kept clean a lot of cleaning of one kind or another seemed to go on at our house. The kind of cleaning that doesn’t happen much these days. I remember a dark red polish with a picture of a funny looking man on the screw top, who called himself Cardinal and not having much of a clue about the hierarchy of the Church at the time I believed him to be the person who made the polish. I thought it was rather avant-garde of him to have his picture on every tin.
On Tuesday mornings unless it was raining the front step was spruced up with the help of Cardinal, followed by the flagstones in front of the kitchen stove. I was never allowed to help with these jobs although I was keen to do so, finding the smell of the gloopy red stuff almost intoxicating. I envied Jennifer Berryman whose grandmother always allowed her to polish their front step though it took her half the morning and even I could see that she used rather too much Cardinal and even then didn’t achieve much of a shine. I was told that Jennifer was only given the job to save her grandmother’s back because at her age to bend gave her gyp. It was a fact that the regular application of Cardinal to front steps was a matter of principle as far as most of the local housewives were concerned and those who avoided the task were thought to be slovenly.
Another time consuming and regular job for the woman whose work was never done was the black leading of the kitchen stove. I’m not sure that this was carried out on a weekly basis because it was a mission for which my mother covered her hair and clothes with her oldest scarf and overall and at times even wore rubber gloves before carefully removing the lid from the Zebo Blacking. I most definitely was not allowed to take part, and probably neither was Jennifer no matter how bad her grandmother’s back happened to be, but I could certainly watch the proceedings from a safe distance and bring fresh newspaper when asked. When I was little, long before I got what my cousin Margaret called highfaluting ideas about my own importance, I thought our stove was one of the best things about our house. That was way back when I didn’t long for an indoor lavatory, preferably situated inside an indoor bathroom. Back then I loved coming home to the warmth and security of the freshly black-leaded stove in winter when my mother might make toast on a long toasting fork for tea or bake potatoes in their jackets in the oven. The more modern gas stove in the scullery did not ever have quite the same appeal whatever might be cooked upon it or in it. In winter the kitchen stove was without doubt the most cost effective way to cook despite the heat being at times variable. Slow cooked vegetable stews enriched with the odd bit of bacon could simmer on the hob for hours and fill the house with a smell that promised a tasty supper and there was no anxiety that the gas might suddenly Go Out and have to be replenished with pennies in the meter. In those days at our end of the street we still had gas light because electricity had not quite reached us before the war interrupted the process of modernising. The lights going out never caused much drama as far as I was concerned as long as a fire still burned in the grate and in any event we seemed to always be able to find a candle. Later on when we boasted an electricity meter alongside the gas meter in the coal cupboard under the stairs, not only did it have to be fed with shillings rather than pennies, but when it suddenly went out it caused an instant shock. My friend Pearl said years later when sitting in the Banfield’s front room courting with her boyfriend, that she lived in fear of the embarrassment of the lights going out. It simply did not happen, she maintained, at his house and she wondered how she could be expected to live down the humiliation of the family scrabbling around and calling for a shilling.
At some stage in the early 1950s we joined the neighbourhood trend and rid ourselves of the old fashioned cast iron stove that needed to be pampered with Zebo on a regular basis. It was replaced with what was described as a Modern Tiled Surround which turned out to be an open fireplace edged with anaemic looking pale pink tiles. My mother was very keen to make this transition once the Bennetts of Buckingham Road installed one and Grace Bennett had extolled its many virtues over several cups of tea a day or two later, maintaining that it had been worth every penny. Her daughter Joan whispered to me that she couldn’t say she agreed at all because the one thing it wasn’t was cosy and for her part she greatly appreciated the cosiness of its predecessor. She added that it was impossible to make proper toast with a tiled surround. Her mother said she didn’t need to make toast on a fork anymore because they now owned an electric toaster and Joan said it didn’t taste the same. Later my mother pointed out that Joan Bennett was still being Spoilt Rotten. You could tell by the way she wouldn’t stop whining on and on about toast not to mention the way she demanded to have her weekly bath in the kitchen rather than the scullery just so she could watch their new TV set at the same time. Privately I agreed with Joan but I didn’t say so because I could see there was no stopping a tiled surround invading our kitchen.
I was right and within a week the change had been organised with Porter, Putt & Fletcher in Gravesend and our cast iron stove was wrenched from the place where it had sat for more than a hundred years and deposited at the end of the garden awaiting the scrap metal merchant. In no time at all we were sporting a tiled surround and were never again to make proper toast or jacket potatoes or simmer soups for hours in winter time.
A word or two should be mentioned regarding the regular cleaning job that seemed, and undoubtedly was, quite a reckless undertaking in those years after the war. The cleaning of upper floor windows was not for the faint hearted but despite the risk involved every house proud woman was able to balance precariously on the narrow window sills whilst vigorously applying pink viscous Windolene to panes of glass with scrunched up sheets of newspaper. Strangely I was never fearful that my mother was going to fall into the street below, because no-one ever did and quite apart from that I saw her as potently powerful where cleaning was concerned. The cleanliness of windows was just as significant as applying Cardinal to a front step, almost a duty to the community. Only your nearest and dearest were likely to observe how often Zebo had been used on the kitchen stove simply because only relatives, and close friends were invited to step inside houses but every passer-by could see the state of windows and door steps. For that reason when new curtains were made, the patterned side was invariably hung to face the street so all and sundry could witness that the front room at your place had been freshly adorned and no expense had been spared. At least, that was the idea. Meanwhile those who sat inside the room experienced the back side of the drapes. This probably didn’t matter nearly as much as it might have done as we very rarely sat in our front room, using it only at Christmas or when very special visitors came calling.
Our lavatory was cleaned every week with Lavvo which I was told ensured it was spotless. It was attacked briskly with an ancient lavatory brush and my mother was not at all averse to pushing her hand around the S bend as far as it would go because what she could not abide was a filthy lavvy. Her older sister Mag diminished considerably in her estimation when she let that lovely new lavvy in that lovely new bathroom get into the kind of state that would have shocked the drawers off a duchess. It was a crying shame, I was told, and all for the want of a bit of bleach. Every time we went to visit I could tell she was itching to take to my oblivious aunt’s offending S bend. When the move had been made into the newly allocated council house in Iron Mill Lane, for a while my cousins had been told they should start calling their new lavvy the bathroom because after all it was in the bathroom. Our grandmother who lived conveniently across the road with several of the younger aunts observed that nobody was going to tell her what to call the khazi and added that when she was a girl in Bethnal Green it had been called the privy. Little Violet said that at school everybody called it the toilet and to use it you had to put your hand up and ask to be excused. Apparently it had taken quite a degree of school attendance before she realised that rule only applied when you were in the classroom and so had spent a lot of time during breaks trying to find a staff member who could excuse her.
The transition from Victorian terraced housing with inconveniently placed outside conveniences to ultra-modern council housing was challenging for some people and although Old Nan seemed, rather surprisingly, to take it in her stride, most of her daughters did not. At the houses of Aunts Mag, Maud and Martha, despite the bathroom now being adjacent to the bedrooms, for several years chamber pots remained under beds. Our chamber pot was known as a Po but my aunts usually referred to theirs as a Jerry and Uncle Harold called his a Gozunder. Old Nan, rather horrifyingly to me when I was small, referred to hers as a Piss Pot. Even when I was four years old that sounded rather vulgar to me because I was never allowed to use the word Piss.
It wasn’t just cleaning and toilet arrangements that made life more complicated back then. We seemed to live alongside a great many more pests than we do now. These days the sight of a marauding rodent causes a stir but then there was a tacit acceptance that vermin were just a part of life. I’m not suggesting that anyone thought they were amusing or added an entertaining dimension to life but on the other hand nobody complained too much. In summer time hundreds of flies invaded our kitchen and scullery and fly papers were hung from the ceiling and within days were spotted with black mini corpses. Spiders lurked in the corners of every room, especially so in the lavatory where they grew bigger and more menacing than elsewhere and earwigs that were supposed to stick to the backyard, often crept into the house where I was told they would crawl into my ears if I wasn’t careful and that was why they were called earwigs. I couldn’t really tell the difference between bees and wasps but I have a feeling that the airborne striped offender that stung me so painfully in the very centre of my right hand when I was three years old and busy purloining sugar from the kitchen cupboard, was in fact a wasp. I have been wary of wasps ever since and never made raids on the sugar again. Bees did not seem to come inside and only visited the gardens of those who grew flowers like Old Mrs Eves and Old Mrs Freeman and largely avoided those of us whose backyards were devoid of plant life.
We were plagued with mice at times and they could be heard scampering behind the walls late at night so my mother then laid traps baited with bits of dry bread. Old Nan said bugger feeding the bastards and placed mothballs in the kitchen corners instead because she said if there was one thing mice could not abide it was mothballs. In those days they were not considered dangerous items. The best deterrent as far as mice were concerned was most definitely acquiring a cat and so at various times we did so and then became free of mice almost overnight. When our irksome household mice were replaced by decidedly more irksome household rats one year, our cat Tom the Mouse Hunter became overnight a Rat Hunter Supreme and grew ever stronger and more intimidating on a diet of rodents. Tom was not a cat one could easily forge a loving relationship with being possessed of a decidedly unpleasant nature but he was infinitely preferable to Smudge next door who seemed terrified of the very pests he had been procured to purge.
In essence, like everyone else, we were not unduly alarmed by the wildlife around us and learned to cope with the various bugs, parasites and rodents intent upon sharing our cramped quarters. There were no enticing insect sprays on supermarket shelves to tempt us to wholesale slaughter because there were of course no supermarkets. None of us quite knew what to ask for at the hardware shop apart from mouse traps and fly papers and so the elimination progress was decidedly slow.
At our house we didn’t come across Flit Guns until crickets invaded the underside of the cast iron kitchen stove. Then the chirping was so intrusive that after three or four days my mother headed to Mrs Bodycombe’s Hardware Store in the High Street where she had been assured she would find the miracle of Flit. And it was indeed a miracle and thus the Crickets on our Hearth met a speedy death, as did almost anything else that could creep, crawl, or fly for the next week or so until the gun was exhausted. I often wonder what the long term consequences might have been. But of course back then we didn’t give a thought to consequences either to the environment or ourselves. You could say we were just not Green enough!