Thursday, 1 March 2018

Then and Now

Yesterday, I speculated about why it is that things like a bit of bad Winter Weather are dramatised into The Beast From The East.  A few more thoughts occurred to me.

When I grew up, in the 1950's, and 60's, I lived in an old terraced house.  The only heating we had was from a coal fire, with another coal fire in the front room, or parlour, used only at Christmas, and in the coldest bedroom, we had an old 2 bar electric fire, for use during the Winter.  The beds were warmed, in Winter, with hot water bottles.  It's probably little wonder that I suffered badly with bronchial asthma, and two bouts of pneumonia.  The cause of workers ill health, as Brecht pointed out, is not hard to discern, if you actually look for it.

When we come to you

Our rags are torn off us
And you listen all over our naked body.
As to the cause of our illness
One glance at our rags would
Tell you more. It is the same cause that wears out
Our bodies and our clothes.

The pain in our shoulder comes

You say, from the damp; and this is also the reason
For the stain on the wall of our flat.
So tell us:
Where does the damp come from?

A Worker's Speech To A Doctor – Berthold Brecht

Until I was about 12-13, I had a bath, once a week, in an old zinc bath, placed in front of the coal fire, in the living room.  It was filled with buckets of hot water from an old zinc gas boiler, kept in the back kitchen, and which was also used, for a long time, as the source of hot water, by my mother, for doing the week's washing, which was done in an old zinc dolly tub, with the help of a dolly peg, and a scrubbing board.  It was only in the early 1960's that we acquired a gas washing machine, but which still required manual operation via a handle on the top, which was used to agitate the clothes inside.  On a Monday night, washing-day, the sheets, blankets and other large items hung menacingly from a rack in the living room, which everyone called the kitchen, hence the kitchen being called the back kitchen.

When I was about 12-13, my dad went to the nearby farm, which also acted as a demolition salvage yard.  Fortunately, unlike Drew Pritchard's "Salvage Hunters" of today, salvage was actually seen as salvage, and not as expensive crap that can be sold as antiques.  We picked up an old cast iron bath, of the type you would probably be expected to pay getting on for £1,000 for today, but which then everyone was getting shut of, as houses were demolished during the 1960's slum clearance programmes that Wilson's government, and Labour Councils were fortunately introducing.  We got it for a few bob, probably the equivalent, today, of less than 50p.  But, we didn't have any hot water to supply to it.  In fact, we never had running hot water, at home, all the time we lived there.  Only when I left home in the mid 1970's, after getting married, did I move into a flat with hot water, and only when my parents house was blown up in a gas explosion, shortly after, did they move into a council house with running hot water.

But, my dad was a skilled engineer, so he was able to make bits and pieces to plug the holes for the taps, and make a cast iron drain to take the waste water out to a grid in the backyard.  At about the same time, one of our window frames needed replacing, and he was able to make a replacement using salvaged wood from the aforementioned salvage yard, and using only a hack-saw, a screwdriver, and a hammer for carpentry tools.  The bath was still filled using buckets of hot water from the old gas boiler, but which now stood next to the bath in the back kitchen.

But, going back to the question of Winter weather, I can barely remember having a wash with hot water during all that time, other than having a bath, once a week.  It was usually too time consuming to fill a kettle, and boil it on the gas stove to have a wash, so most mornings, whatever time of year, I would just wash using cold water direct from the tap.  In fact, I often wash in the morning with cold water, even today, in the Winter, if the hot water doesn't come from the tap quick enough.

Until the mid 1960's, when I helped my dad fit plastic guttering to the house, the house along with coal house, and outside toilet had old leaky wooden guttering, and cast iron downspouts.  In the Winter, the leaks turned into foot long icicles, that hung from the gutters, like lead crystal stalactites.  With little heating in the bedrooms, the windows were usually opaque from thick crusted frost and ice, some on the outside, and sometimes some also on the inside.  Once in bed, you would normally try to avoid the need to go to the toilet, but we would have the option of using a plastic bucket, now as a step up from using a ceramic gerry.

But, for the rest of the day, during the Winter, you had to brave a trip down to the outside toilet, at the bottom of the yard.  That was an improvement over the conditions my father had had when he was a kid, when he lived in a terraced house, where several houses all shared the same outside toilet, or the conditions one of my sister's friends lived in, at Linehouses, where they did not have flushing toilets, and a muck cart came round, instead to remove the toilet contents.  In Winter, only if it snowed a bit more than usual, was it necessary to clear the backyard, so as to get to the toilet, but every Winter, the toilet cistern would freeze up, even though we used a candle to provide some heat for it, as well as to provide some light whilst using the toilet.

So, I suppose that everyone who has grown up never knowing such conditions that we took for granted, as just normal parts of everyday living, is bound to see anything that causes a bit of disruption, and inconvenience as a serious state of affairs.  Its perhaps also why in places that, every year, have much worse weather than in Britain, for example, in North America and Scandinavia, they manage to carry on their lives regardless.

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