A characteristic and perverse feature of working class houses, despite frequent overcrowding, was reserving a room to be used only on special occasions. The front room or best room was a feature of my and all my friend’s houses on the Reso.
In our house, regular visitors would be shepherded into the back room which served as dining room and general meeting place. There was method in this though. The house was heated by coal fire, and the back room had the boiler behind the fire so it made sense to only keep one room heated rather than going to the expense of lighting two fires.
This back room was full of comfortable, if old furniture in green patterned designs, which brought to mind the sort of material that the British Railways carriages were upholstered with at the time. The dark wood table had leaves which folded down after meals to give more space.
When not entertaining friends, the chairs would all be angled to face the television and we lived most evenings from the 6pm News through to its reappearance at 10pm held in thrall to its grey glowing tube. We laughed heartily at the comedies, concentrated open mouthed at the documentaries and wondered at the nature and travelogue programmes about places that we could never imagine visiting. We even spent time during intermissions staring at the test card or a soporific potter making a clay plot. If before 10pm the box went dark it was as much a crisis as the heart monitor flatlining in a hospital. I cannot remember a day in my youth when the television wasn’t on in the evening, unless it was requiring urgent repair. It brought us both great news and bad, the 1966 England World Cup victory, a Rhyl win in It’s a Knockout, the Death of President Kennedy, breaking news of the Aberfan disaster of 1966 and of course Blue Peter.
There was no television in our front room, but there was a large and ornate wooden radiogram which, taste of the future, combined both a radio and a gramophone in a single unit the size and weight of a Pharaoh’s sarcophagus.
The furniture in the front room was all Remploy, as my mum was keen to support those with disabilities and was purchased from John Brookes and Sons of Vale Road. Unlike some, who will remain nameless, all our furniture was bought cash on the nail. Not for my mum and dad the ‘never-never’ and the constant worry you might, by force of circumstance, find yourself falling behind on the payments, or worse, would have your furniture repossessed in sight of the neighbours. My parents never lived far from contemplating what we now call ‘the worst case scenario’ or what my parents called a ‘streak of bad luck’. I suppose first hand experience of the Great Depression and six years fighting the war against Fascism changes your outlook fundamentally. I was always surprised that there were others on the estate who, having lived through the same experiences took a ‘devil may care, live for today’ attitude, but that was never for us.
My parents were always trying to save. They did this in a green metallic cash box labelled with gas, electric, rent, insurance and food. Each heading had a slit in the lid of the box in which to save against that element. Once a month my dad , with his sharp pencil would consult the bills kept in the box in anticipation of the new bill coming in and do a calculation of how much the tin was up or down on the anticipated bill. If we were down on the anticipated bill there would be sacrifices made and things foregone.
In this way, and after many years delay, a luxurious three piece suite was purchased in a red and grey tapestry pattern wit well lacquered wooden arms. Complementing this was a Remploy cabinet which held the beer and wine glasses placed on a liner of old Christmas wrapping paper, as well as precious biscuit tins containing the insurance policies and family photos in the main cabinet and domestic detritus and my dad’s brown leather gloves in the top drawer designed for cutlery. The other two drawers to the right hand side of the main cabinet contained an assortment of scarves, souvenirs, old coins, badges and important white A4 envelopes containing precious documents which, taken together, could only be classified as miscellaneous.
The table and four chairs was of a light walnut design, mirroring the sideboard. These dining chairs, unlike the ones on the back room had padded seats and back rests in a green eiderdown type design and were more than adequately upholstered. If I had been asked to find an adequate adjective in Mr Jones’ class I think I would have described them as ‘sumptuous’ and he and I would have been content with the description.
The last item of furniture in the room was a delicate glass display cabinet with engraved glass and a chinois silk pattern in the back plate. The four glass shelves were full of China, small pictures, more souvenirs like wooden clogs from Belgium from my dad’s time on active service in North Western Europe. There was a set of China which was literally Chinese – a large teapot with a red and golden dragon head forming the spout and the tail forming the handle. This impressive pattern was repeated on all the plates, saucers and cups. This magnificent tea set has been acquired and transported home by my Uncle Eddie, or Wink as he was known, from his national service posting manning 40 mm Bofors guns in Hong Kong to ward off a massive Chinese incursion. I was never sure which was more impressive, the fact that Uncle Eddie managed to transport this and a second set for my Auntie Doris around the world with no breakages, or that he was sat in Hong Kong for two years with nothing more than a 40mm Bofors gun to defend against the hordes of Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
The Chinese tea set never left the cabinet. My mum explained that it was ‘mostly decorative’ but it turned out that it was wholly decorative. At no point in my or her life did it leave the cabinet to make and serve a brew.
The last piece of furniture in the room was an occasional table which my dad had made and varnished to a very high standard, as he did all his projects in wood. Whether it was a bedside table in formica and plywood, a dropped ceiling in 2be1 and hardboard or a shed for Snowy the rabbit in marine laminated wood the result was always painstakingly executed and beautifully finished. I asked my mum why it was called an occasional table and she replied that it was because we only used it occasionally, and usually on a family occasion… this seemed to cover all the bases.
My dad had gone to particular trouble to wallpaper the room following several visits to local paint and wallpaper emporiums in the town because my mother could not quite see something she liked. Samples were brought home and laid against the wall only for my mum to declare that she liked the pattern on one, but the colour on the other. The impasse was only broken when he stormed off to the Labour Club for a pint, insisting that by the time he got back she had made a final decision. After much deliberation she went with the red semi flock which was all the rage at the time.
After meticulously measuring up, my dad made his way to town to purchase eight rolls of the chosen paper, only to find that it was out of stock. He had set aside his two days off this week to complete the decorating, and was not prepared to wait for the next delivery to come in. So he settled on a green bamboo pattern paper instead. My mum was happy enough as she confessed she was having second thoughts about the red flock anyway.
I loved the decorating and was fully entrusted with a small wallpaper scraper, a bucket of warm soapy water and a demand that I clear up all the mess as I went along. It felt illicit peeling off strips of paper as I was usually told not to touch it. I often over-watered the old paper hoping that I could work the scraper all the way to the top, but this rarely happened. More often I was left stripping the wall one postage stamp size piece at a time.
When I thought I’d finished my dad had other ideas. He washed down the walls with sugar soap… one of the packages and jars he kept in the shed and which he warned me, under pain of death not to touch with stories of death and poison. He then went over my work, removing slivers of spent wallpaper which I’d considered too insignificant to remove. The exhortation at this time was always the same ‘The secret to hanging wall paper is all in the preparation!’
Once he was happy that the walls were adequately prepared, a papering table would be brought in and all the adjacent carpet and lino covered with old sheets. A plumb line was set up in the correct position in the room. Despite being told numerous times I could never remember if that was next to the door, on the wall opposite the door, or the wall opposite the window. I would have started in a corner, but my dad started in the middle of the wall with the fireplace in it and centred the first piece of wall paper so that it would have an even number of drops to each side heading to the corners. It was only now that I realised from the faint after smell that he had already painted the skirting board and door. He must have completed this overnight whilst I was asleep… such was his meticulousness.
He measured and cut half a dozen drops with a pair of scissors of a size and weight which were enormous. He pasted each drop thoroughly and evenly and using the old wooden step ladders offered them to the wall. and let the weight of the paper fall to the level of the skirting board with no more than a couple of inches to spare at top and bottom. The wallpaper grabbed the wall and stuck first time as he made minor adjustments before giving the new paper a good massage with the wallpaper brush. He’d step back and check his work and then he’d be pasting the next sheet. Up it would go the same process as with the first. He returned to the first sheet and eased out any bubbles that had formed before trimming the top and bottom neatly. He worked without pause, not quickly, but like a runner taking on a long distance – in a measured way.
Dad was immune to my pleas to paste or hang a piece of paper.
‘Your time will come son, your time will come, for now just watch and listen and keep quiet unless you have a sensible question! A cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss.’
He was as good as his word. After several such sessions, four years later he let me wallpaper a room. He helped me set up the first drop with the plumb line and then left the room saying he was looking forward to seeing the result. I was determined to show my worth and remembered all the tips he had given me. It worked out well for me, and even better for him. He never had to do more than a quarter of the decoration in the next decade as I was challenged to decorate each room in turn.
The front room, now fully decorated and complete, was the scene of the best and worth of our family history. It was the place when the whole family gathered at times of crisis, like when my Nain had a heart attack and was not expected to last the night. I always sensed trouble when adults talked in hushed tones.
It was also the scene of joyous occasions such as the New Year’s Eve Parties where you could hardly move in there for the sitting and jiving and talking and drinking and incessant laughter.
It literally was the place where the vicar was entertained to tea and cake, especially when the said vicar was none other than my Uncle Glyn, my mum’s youngest brother.
Amongst my favourite memories of the room was the Christmas of 1964 when, with Auntie Margaret staying over, we decanted into the room which was full of the Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and paper lanterns and bells and crepe paper trimmings, in two colours no less, all merging at the glass lamp shade in the centre of the room, expertly created by my dad.
At mid morning, with the smell of turkey and stuffing cooking in the kitchen, we all decanted to the front room to open the presents and having searched the upstairs cupboards previously I knew I was having several Airfix kits, as requested as well as a steam engine, some carriages and wagons and an oval of track. My happiest memory was lying on the patterned carpet with my railway and my Airfix soldiers set up, a sparkling Corona lemonade in the small frosted glass, that only came out at Christmas, and a warm glow from the family and the fire, as Christmas dinner reached perfection. I could have burst with contentment.
These are the only tangible remains of that glorious Christmas of 1964, the rest is all now dust… my dad’s Christmas and New Year’s beer mug and the last of the set of little sherry glasses … my favourite was the blue one, there were also red and green topped ones.