Sunday, 12 October 2008

Memories of Warwick Avenue

There are a number of songs which not only remind me of my past because when I hear them they fire off reminiscences of that time, but because they specifically refer to somewhere that I have had a connection with. Having lived in Woking a great deal it is not surprising that work by 'The Jam' and particularly by Paul Weller himself falls into this category. 'A Town Called Malice' (1982) is supposedly about Woking where 'The Jam' grew up. 'Stanley Road' (1995), Paul Weller's third album is named after a road in Woking which I walked down many times and a video for one of the singles from the album featured the railway station. Ironically Weller as a member of The Style Council also recorded 'Come to Milton Keynes' (1985) which I did in the 2000s. However, the most recent song which has covered a location I knew is 'Warwick Avenue' by Duffy released this year, from her highly successful album 'Rockferry'. As I have commented before Duffy's music owes a lot to 1960s female singers such as Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, even Petula Clark, though with a bit more blues, soul, US influence at times. Her songs are clearly rooted in UK culture and 'Warwick Avenue' refers to 'the Tube' which is the colloquial name for the underground railway in London.

The Warwick Avenue in the song is not the one in West London that I knew because it did not have an underground station and it was a residential road which led to shops and cafes but had nowhere in it that you could meet someone unless going into a private house. The one Duffy is referring to is between Marylebone, Kilburn and Notting Hill in western Central London, which does have an underground station. The Warwick Avenue my grandparents lived in is in Harrow, a large residential area of West London; it has its own postcodes rather than using standard London ones. It is still old fashioned in style, with remains of factories now retail parks, lots of semi-detached houses, small shopping districts, municipal parks, etc. It still sums up the post-war enthusiasm for a decent life with a community of people living in clean, reasonable sized houses and working in manufacturing or the service sector. You can almost feel that in the streets of the area even to this day when things are old and worn and manufacturing has gone. My grandparents seem to fit into that element perfectly. They lived in a semi-detached house in Warwick Avenue (all the streets in that area are named after British castles). It had three bedrooms. That fact in itself is fascinating as my grandfather was from skilled working class, working in car manufacture and my grandmother was a seamstress, yet they could afford to buy a three-bedroomed semi-detached house. My income is much higher than what someone in those jobs would be today. I earn £34,000 whereas an experienced car manufacturer worker earns £20,000. I am finding myself unable to pay for an almost identical house (his gardens were far larger) to my grandfather's even outside London. The purchasing power of ordinary people in terms of property has slipped a long way since the 1950s when he bought the house in Warwick Avenue.

That economic issue aside, this posting is about the memories of my Warwick Avenue, which are stimulated when I hear the song. I think I retain such affection for it because it was always a nice time when we went to visit my grandparents. Everyone would be happy and we would get treats. So, in contrast, to my parents' home it has only good memories. That is even though the last time I went there was following my grandfather's funeral (my grandmother had died a few years earlier) and yet it was a positive experience as he had died peacefully and as people say, you felt he had gone to a better place. In my mind his Heaven, was probably pretty similar to the house where we had the funeral tea.

To a great extent my memory of the house is as if it was an expansion of the rooms that you might see at the Geffrye Museum in Hackney, London (see which has reproductions of rooms through the ages from 1600 onwards with authentic furniture and fittings. My grandparents' house was like that, a collection of furniture and household items from say 1955-85 and each with their own charm, though many would seem rather 'naff' to many people seeing them, they sum up the culture of millions of ordinary British people in those years.

Moving round the house, I remember the metal gate with the rising sun logo so beloved of suburbia from the 1930s onwards, the steel dustbin with the house number painted on it, by the front door; the little indicator for the milkman that could be turned to show how many pints of milk you wanted in the porch by the door; the big shiny front door itself with the spyhole to see who was there as its glass with stained elements, was frosted. The bay window with the pure white net curtains looking out on to the small front lawn and its carefully tended flowers. Inside by the front door on a dark wooden stand was the telephone and the little box with the ditty on about putting in money to save to pay for the telephone bill.

Then there was the living room or sitting room. This was the first place I ever saw a colour television, with the red turned up so that everything was a bright pink colour. There was the glass-fronted cabinet of ornaments and books. I remember the collection of the popular 1970s series about Edward VII there and books about house plants; a shelf of glass and metal ornaments such as the see/hear/speak no evil monkeys. Above the fireplace with a 1970s gas fire was one of those clocks set on the large star metal backing, with long reaching out rays, below a painting of sailing ships by a hard. Below the gas fire a patterned rug, which for many years had tapestry of 'The Mayflower'. There was a sofa, a magazine rack, a small row of library books on the window sill. Then the large television. There was also the drawers, one of which held the toys for the visiting grandchildren, like a plastic Spitfire, the letter cubes, the plastic monkeys which hooked together, a fascinating 'things to do' magazine that I read again and again, with articles on follies and how to make a paper tiger and a puzzle about which of the children had to stand on which one's shoulders to reach the jam on the cupboard.

This was the main room of the family activities, lunch and tea at the folded out dining table. Plain food for my grandfather, and 1970s version of Chinese food produced by my aunt, lots of pork balls with bright red sauce. This was where we ate my grandmother's scones, both plain and cheese with tiny chives. This was where my grandfather would bring the ice cream, bought as a brick-sized vanilla block from the ice cream van as it stopped on the corner having played its tune. This was where we ate perfectly cut sandwiches, delightfully light sausage rolls and brightly-coloured trifle; meat with gravy and stuffing and brussel sprouts. We also had heavy fruit cake with heavy white icing of the kind deemed in the UK to be perfect for weddings and Christmas, and the yellow and pink chequer patterned Battenburg cake. This is all in jumbled order and straddling across seasons, but you get the ideas. Before the main mean were snacks and I was put off nuts-and-raisins for years because a stale packet was brought out my first time and I assumed that that was what they tasted like all the time.

It was in this room that the new technology was tested. I mention the first colour television, but it was also where I first saw a remote control television in use. Being a semi-detached house, there was concern that if it was pointed at the adjoining wall it would change next door's television channel. Here was kept the cassette recorder, that wonderful piece of 1970s technology, the size of a large brick, that allowed us all easy access to music or audio books and for children to record the sound of birds, little plays and quite often 'sound effects' of the toilet being flushed. It was here that I saw an instamatic camera used, with the piece of plastic you had to pull off to show the image. Here too, my aunt's soda stream that was supposed to be the cheap way to produce fizzy drinks by forcing bubbles into a cordial, but came out tasting of chemicals you would never experience in any other place. There was a door out from the living room to the rear garden, but we never went that way, it was always through the kitchen.

The kitchen was a busy place because food played such a big part. It too held gems of mid-20th century culture. The folding step stool, the various kitchen ornaments, especially the coveted Homepride flour plastic man in the black suit with the bowler hat. From the door frame into the kitchen hung coloured plastic strips making a curtain you could walk through, like many shops had in those days. The sinks had long rubber nipples on the taps to stop drips. There was a walk-in larder going under the stairs which was a treasure trove especially of baking ingredients, notably hundreds-and-thousands.

The back garden had the typical plain lawn running down to a high privet hedge which concealed the house behind. There was a small shed in the corner made of sheets of grey concrete. It contained the tools and odd items, but was never as magical as you hoped from sheds as a child and when older we tried to make it more so, designating it as the place to go for non-parent meetings. However, it lacked the smell of wood and gardens that other people's sheds had. This role was filled more by the large garage. This was jammed with old 'biscuits for cheese' and sweet biscuit selection tins full of nuts and bolts, screws, washers, nails and so on. Here my grandfather produced his bird boxes and wooden stalls. He would practice with his very darts to the sound of 'The Organist Entertains' on the radio. By the garage was the vegetable plot which ran beside the house. Not much of interest to children bar the polystyrene ladies wig head and the round mirrors of cord to scare off the birds. In the corner nearest the front was the coal scuttle where I found a German plate from 1941 with Nazi markings. The garden with its high wooden fences was an oasis in the grey urban setting of Harrow. It was functional too, but as children it could have its attractions.

As to the upstairs, well of course, in those days you were never allowed into your parents' bedroom let alone that of your grandparents'. From what I saw I simply remember dark green. I did go in the spare backroom occasionally, to listen to series on the radio that I was following that came on Sunday lunchtimes when I was at the house. I liked the view across the neighbouring gardens, for some reason it made me feel in connection with all the people around. I have always been fascinated by knowing at anyone moment even in a single street hundreds of different actvities are going on. As a child I always wanted to go home at least once with every child in the school just to see their daily routine. I loved the credit sequence of the BBC drama 'Sweet Revenge' (2001) which starts with an aerial shot running over various London streets for much the same reason. I suppose it is an element of nosiness, maybe an aspect of being a writer. I suppose I also like the cool stillness which was in contrast to the often overly warm living room.

The bathroom was another shrine to items of popular culture. The floor was yellow linoneum flecked with red and black. There was one of those long single bar electric heaters high on the wall that were switched on and off by a cord. There was Radox, in those days a box of crystals. We never had that at home, but I dreamed of the supposedly luxurious baths it was advertised as supplying, 'Relax in a Radox bath', I remember the slogan. These days the name sounds more like a radioactive chemical. Then there was the crocheted cover for the toilet roll with the little dolls head on top. This was the archetypal item of British culture of the third quarter of the 20th century. It fitted in with the leather covers for copies of 'Radio Times', wooden cabinets to hold the television and video cassette boxes that looked like leather-bound classic books.

So, whenever I hear a reference to Warwick Avenue, I am returned to this bubble of culture and of activity, good times stretched out over many years, but all bundled up together. Though the house's decor is so far removed from the places I live now, I guess that in my Heaven my house would probably look very similar or at least I could go and visit for a scone, a cup of tea and some Battenburg cake (which these days I like).


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Rooksmoor said...

thank you for such a nice comment. My blog is rather a mixed bag and it jumps around issues being sometimes polemical and sometimes sentimental and a general repository for fiction and articles I have written over the years. I am glad it is of interest and I look forward to more comments from you in the future.