If you’re new to this blog, the story will make more sense if you go back and catch up on the first five episides (started 13 October 2018).
We’ve now reached the early nineteen sixties in our tale. The house has just been bought by William and Fay Darling, ending nearly 90 years of ownership by the Blackie family, which we explored in the last episode. I don’t really know anything about the Darlings, so I always imagine them to be like the couple in Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations. And, I don’t know why, but the Darlings only owned 8 Kersland Street for two or three years before they sold it to my Dad in 1963. Thus beginning our family’s 50 year tenure.
I’ve already written in earlier posts about our life at 8 Kersland Street (“Sisters, Sisters” and “More from the Family Album”, etc.). But of course that was from our perspective, not that of the house. As we know, the house was used to seeing families and individuals come and go, From single professional ladies to young and not-so-young families, to older people near the end of their days. How does the saying go? “All human life is here”.
“Here we go again,” it must have thought, when Mrs and Mrs MacFarlane, John and Nellie to you and me, and their brood (there were five of us by this time, and the full complement of six by the following year) arrived to take possession of their new dwelling. With all the familiar clattering and banging and general mayhem involved in hauling assorted furniture and possessions in through the long narrow hallway.
I don’t remember moving day, which I think was in the May of 1963, but my sister Mary has a memory of being amazed at how big our new home was. She must have been about 6 then, and she recalls standing at the stairs leading down to the basement and asking one of the removal men “Are we allowed to go down here too?” and him replying something like “Yes, it’s all yours”. I suppose that up till then, to Mary going upstairs or downstairs would have meant we’d have stepped out of our wee flat in Govan, our room and kitchen, into the tenement close outside. But now we had a new territory to inhabit and explore.
Something I do always recall, wherever I am at the end of the year, is standing at the front door at midnight on Hogmanay and listening to the sound of ships’ horns as vessels up and down the Clyde heralded in the New Year. That sound really is a blast from the past, an echo of the days when Glasgow was still a bustling port, with ocean-going ships making their way into the harbour and discharging and loading their cargo in the busy docks at the Broomielaw. Nowadays, vast container ships offload at the container terminal at Greenock and the cargo finishes its journey by road. Hence the Clyde is but a shadow of its former self.
Another enduring memory of Hogmanay is that of our Dad, tall, dark and handsome, acting as our ‘first foot’. He would step outside the house and ring the bell, to be admitted bearing a bottle of whisky, some bread or cake and a piece of coal to ensure good luck in the forthcoming year. I’m quite sure that the previous inhabitants of the house would have performed similar rituals and shouted out ‘Happy New Year’ to other neighbours who had also opened their doors to let in the new year. Not to mention the occasional passing reveler, more or less steady on their feet.
Prior to this I’d never even thought about the people who must have lived in the house before us. As far as I can remember they left nothing of themselves behind, no intriguing clues to their existence, no forgotten treasures in the attic. Not that we had an attic of course, though more of that anon. I suppose you don’t think like that as a child, but just accept what’s in front of you as the way things are and always have been. Perhaps, now I come to think of it, there were a couple of old cupboards, maybe a chair or two. My parents, coming from their room and kitchen, must have had the expense of suddenly having to furnish a whole house on two floors, and I rather think that auction sales would have played a large part in that task. Or it could be that more furniture had been left behind than I can remember.
One item that was bought new was a large brown leatherette settee. Grace remembers as a little girl being very taken with this item and would hop on and off it declaring, “oh, I think I’ll just have a wee sit down”. I remember this settee being in the kitchen downstairs, where we spent most of our time as a family as it was the warmest room in the house. No central heating in those days, just – if you were lucky – a one or two bar electric fire in your bedroom which really only heated the area in its immediate vicinity – toasty knees, cold shoulders! There were fireplaces in most of the rooms, but I don’t remember us ever lighting a fire in any of them, or maybe just the lounge, though I could be imagining that. Perhaps what I’m remembering was a rather grand electric fire we had with three bars and a coal effect arrangement which seemed to flicker like a real fire.
In fact now I come to think of it, it’s likely that by that time most fireplaces had been boarded up and chimneys capped due to the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956. In London many thousands of people had died in the Great Smog of 1952, which served to highlight the real danger posed by air pollution, and the need to introduce ‘smoke control areas’ in cities where only smokeless fuel could be burned. In Glasgow there were still bad fogs in the 60’s though. Many’s the time we’d set off to school on a chilly morning surrounded by a cold damp fog which would wrap its clammy fingers round you and make you want to cover your nose with your scarf so that you wouldn’t breath in the nasty sulphurous air. You couldn’t avoid it of course and you’d end up with a tight chest, coughing up black specks by the end of the day.
It’s funny how that smell of fog can come back to me, sharp as anything, just by thinking about it. And the way you’d shut the front door quickly to try and keep the toxic air out, then make your way downstairs to the warm kitchen to find out what was for tea and thaw out beside the old black range. That old range – I suppose it could have been the original one that had been there for close on 100 years – was eventually replaced by a modern 4-ring gas cooker, though don’t ask me when, I just don’t remember. I assume that meant that at some point we stopped storing (smokeless) coal in the cellar just outside the back door and started using it to store stuff instead.
There was always a certain degree of chaos in the kitchen and you’d invariably be given a task to do – hold the baby, feed the toddler, stir this pot, take that out of the oven, help your sister… If you were looking for a bit of peace and quiet to do your homework you’d sneak off to your bedroom for a while until the welcome sound of “Tea’s ready” being shouted up the stairs would take you back down to the cosy hurly-burly of the basement. On Sundays we’d have a tussle over the Sunday papers, trying to be the first to get hold of the Sunday Post and read the cartoons – Oor Wullie and the Broons.
Other smells from that time – Johnson’s baby powder liberally sprinkled on a freshly changed bottom; Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie, known to us as ‘skidney’; the smell of a new leather schoolbag. Sounds – crying and laughter in what seems like equal measure; the front door slamming; Dad playing the piano; the big grandfather clock in the hall chiming the hour; the Doctor Who theme, heralding an event not to be missed every Saturday teatime. When the Daleks got too scary, the little ones would retreat to behind the settee and watch from there.
I have an impression of rather dark and dingy decor which, room by room, Dad would set to and re-decorate. I once chose wallpaper in a sort of leafy pattern for my room, a choice which I came to regret later as I started to see little faces in the leaves and would lie in bed for hours on end imagining them all watching me. Dad used to say that decorating the house was like painting the Forth Road Bridge – no sooner had you got to the end than it was time to start again at the beginning. I don’t recall that we were able to help much, in fact I have an idea that I once watched him surreptitiously re-paint a door that one of us had ‘helped’ with. He liked things to be done properly, did my Dad.
He even provided the house with some much needed extra storage space in the shape of a small floor installed above the stair well. We of course christened this space the attic and would sometimes climb up there to hide, though there was precious little room as it was jam packed full of the sort of ‘treasures’ that people put in attics! This picture was taken after it had been cleared out.
I think the crowning glory of Dad’s home improvement activities was the beautiful work he did on the ceiling and cornicing in the front lounge, where he picked out the flowers in pink, and the leaves in green. And I don’t think I’m imagining the final touch of little gold highlights to finish it all off. It must have taken him weeks to complete the job, standing on the top of his shoogly ladder patiently dabbing away above his head with little brushes. I’m certain no-one had ever bestowed such care and devotion on the house before. I suppose it was because this was the first time it was being lived in by the person who also owned it. I’ve searched and searched through all my old photos but can’t find a single one which includes that lovely ceiling. All that work was eventually – and regretfully – painted over following other reparation work which was done after he died.
I wish I’d payed more attention now when layers of old wallpaper were being stripped off walls, or linoleum taken up to reveal a lining of old newspapers underneath. It would have given us at least a little glimpse of the people that had gone before. But, as I said, as a child you just take things like that for granted. Original Victorian details just go over your head – the beautiful cornices, the iron railings, the etched glass panel in the front door, the wash-house at the back that you’d pass on your way to play in the back green. If only I’d stopped to wonder, as I do now, how many fingers would have pressed the old electric front door bell, how many feet clumped up and down the stairs to the kitchen below, how many sleepy eyes woke to the sight of ice crystals on the inside of the window on a frosty morning…
I find myself in a reflective mood as I remember all these little details. How strange it is that we can spend years and decades in a place, inhabit it fully, and yet move on and live somewhere else with equal intensity, not even considering what we might have left behind. I think we do leave bits of ourselves behind you know. Each new locale presents new challenges and demands different qualities from us that we sometimes don’t even know we possess.
That’s why it can sometimes be hard to go back and revisit the past. Perhaps we are confronted with painful memories or regrets for the way things used to be, and can never be again. Perhaps it highlights the fact that life hasn’t turned out quite the way we hoped. Or feel frustrated that old feelings and resentments that we thought had been firmly put in the past can suddenly re-emerge and affect us just the same as if it were yesterday.
I don’t mind feeling a little sad as I remember my childhood in our big old house. I figure that it’s only because there are so many fond memories that one feels a touch of melancholy as you realise how very long ago those days are, and how rather old I am now (I’ll be 65 this month). I’d like to think it was also a happy home, or at least a safe haven for all those many tenants that came before us.
But enough of this, there’ll be time enough for reflection later once we get to the end of this story. Next time we’ll trace the house’s history as it approached the end of the 20th century and the years started to take their toll.