Enough has happened over the last month for me to use that well-worn phrase « I don’t know where to begin. » .
I might as well go back to the very beginning of it all, and why not even further? To that time when mum and dad got together and conceived me in the downstairs front room at 34 Norman Avenue in Twickenham.
I presume that was where I was made, in the throes of some kind of fumbling, awkward, half pyjama-clad passion of sorts. Dad, according to mum in later years, when we were old enough to talk of such matters, was not the “sex type” – scared of the act – repressed, pre-War, provincial Home Counties English. Dad was a tank-top, tie on the weekend man. Church on Sunday and meat and two veg, square family meals with a square family round a square table. “No imagination,” says mum. “You can’t a have a sex life with a man like that.”
It of course leads me to wonder, do the conditions in which you were conceived actually shape your future relationship with those who decided to give life to the idea that you were ?
Some years ago, I went back to Norman Avenue in Twickenham and took photos of the old house, solid red brick Edwardian terrace– the place where I was brought home as a babe in arms and where I spent the first seven years of my life.
I walked past the conception scene several times, then eventually ,”plucked up » the courage. I squared up to the door, stomach alive with a flight of butterflies. I rang the bell. No one in. I decided to take photos instead. As I snapped away, a severe, long- nosed, speccy woman of social studies lecturer appearance, glared down at me from the first floor – the room that would have been Gran’s lounge – Gran had the upstairs, which she had shared with Grandpa until his death in 1968, and we (mum, dad and big bruv and me) had the downstairs.
The woman peered down her long nose, from that window where I used to stand and stare out at the world. I made a gesture to her to come and open the front door. She just wagged her finger, mouthing NO and disappeared behind her thick net curtains. I carried on snapping away. If someone was taking photos of my house, I’d like to know the reasons why.
I guess the world looks bigger when you are smaller. Norman Avenue always seemed so long. Going round the block on our bikes seemed to take all afternoon. Walking down to « Cyril’s Newsagents » on the corner was an adventure – now it was just a few minutes and … the Newsagent’s is still there, though Cyril has gone.
Mum and dad bought this house on their meagre salaries on the pretext that it was three minutes walk from St Margaret’s station, to which there was a reasonably fast service into Waterloo. More important for Dad though, the last trains from Waterloo to St Margaret’s ran reasonably late. Dad was a parliamentary correspondent for Reuters. He kept strange hours; leaving for work at lunch and returning in the well past our bedtimes. The House of Commons never sat ‘til three, and the votes never took place until ten – so I presume that dad would spend ages in the press gallery, noting the proceedings- and would hang around after the vote to talk to individual members, or write his copy.
The structure of dad’s working day meant that he could take my brother and I to school – Newland’s House prep in Waldegrave Road. Dad took us to school on the bus – number 202, because mum was on her teaching training and she took the car to drive over to her college at Strawberry Hill.
On the Friday, the House would rise early, meaning that dad would always be home for five or six. To mark his early evening return, and the celebrate the start of the weekend, he always used to bring us a “lucky Bag” (containing a plastic toy, a joke and some vile sweets). .The Lucky Bags were given to my brother and I in the front room sitting on dad’s bed
Now , I’m closer to the house, trying to stare through the window of the downstairs front room – what used to be mum and dad’s bedroom, where they slept in separate beds and worked at separate desks and lived separate lives.
I was always curious about mum and dad’s choice of bedroom. Most people would have had their bedroom out the back. I’m trying to see the layout. The front room and back room, (my old bedroom) have been knocked into one and it seems that the back parlour or « breakfast room » as we used to call, has also disappeared. Mum always called it a “breakfast room” possibly because it sounded « frightfully » posh. . “Parlour” also sounds posh, but it has very working class overtones and mum didn’t want working class pretentions to pollute her poshness. Mum was such a snob –I daresay that the fact of having a breakfast room implied that we also had a separate dining room for lunchtime and evening use
The breakfast room was the centre of all life. I can never remember it being especially comfortable – three threadbare armchairs, no sofa, our black and white TV in the corner, and the dining table folded up against one wall. Additional seating was provided by two deckchairs that were set out when we had visitors. I can never remember using the dining table, we always ate round a large card table, covered in orange plastic for the purpose, and folded away after every meal. The breakfast room was dominated by a large coal fired range which heated up the room to tropical temperatures. In the other rooms though there was no heating. Getting ready for bed in was a lengthy process, requiring the heating of pyjamas and sweaters by the fire, and the filling of numerous hot water bottles. When we made it to bed, we were wearing so many layers, that walking felt like a deep sea diver plodding his way across the sea floor.
Looking back, I have no memories of ever being cold.
My bedroom had a curious feature – a serving hatch that opened into the parlour (breakfast room). Presumably, the breakfast room might once have been the kitchen, and what we called the kitchen was probably the scullery, making my room the dining room and the parental bedroom, the front parlour. Our house was as back to front as my family.
This was the hatch that mum and dad blocked off with pillows, to stop me and my brother (when we shared a bedroom he was top bunk and I was on the bottom), from opening the hatch and taking a sneak peak at the TV. I finally managed to open the hatch fully the morning that my father died.
I was awoken by groaning/choking noises. I could just see dad sitting lifeless in an armchair. Then the ambulance came. Raised voices. The incomprehensible babbling of adults, then two rotund men in uniforms, carried dad down the hall on a stretcher and . . . that was it..
Mum moved about a year after dad’s death. The house had « too many memories » she said. Looking back now, it was probably also because mum couldn’t afford to keep the house on. It needed masses of renovation work.
Renovation and improvements to 34 Norman Avenue:
1) Install some heating worthy of that name.
2) Install a second loo. (Yes we have two loos, one upstairs in the bathroom, and the other, the old outside loo which is no longer outside because it is now in the veranda, in winter though it is so cold that you have to wear a hat and coat to go, and mum insists that we go to the loo every night before we go to bed; Going to the loo is a lengthy process because mum will not let us back in the breakfast room until she has seen the physical proof that we have done a “pongy” – family terminology for a poo, but mum won’t say “poo” because it is rude.)
3) Refurbish or demolish and rebuild a new veranda. The metal frame is rusty and the glass panes are cracked and falling out. Dad has repaired them all with thick brown tape and it looks like we are living in the War. In fact the whole house feels like living in the War.
4) General redecoration
5) Loft insulation
6) And PLEASE – A second bathroom, or even a shower room. I believe that showers existed in the early 70s. I’m just a babe in arms and mum is washing me in my plastic bath on the floor in the kitchen.
Selling Norman Avenue was done in true « offbeat » family fashion. The estate agent would ring us about half an hour before a visit, and then it was action stations. Mum on the Hoover, Gran on the polish, me and big bruv tidying away our toys … and then the final finishing touch. Mum gave everyone felt pens, and we would go round the house on hands and knees, colouring in the carpet where it had faded. I was always given the blue felt pen to « colour in » the threadbare hall carpet.
Mum got just over £15000 for the house, and duly bought a semi detached in Bromley. It was 1973. I was seven, going on eight, I was very happy in Norman Avenue. I wonder now what life might have been had we stayed and hadn’t “travelled”
I’m telling you all this, because I am looking for a beginning, a point in time from which I can begin to try and understand my dysfunctional family. On current experience though, everyone I know has a dysfunctional family. There are black sheep everywhere and skeletons in every cupboard
October 24th 2010