The walls were so ravaged by damp that, in certain places, if you pressed your finger against them, the plaster would crumble to dust.
Nevertheless, I always thought it a most fabulous house, part of a street in a pleasant collection of streets that had been built mainly for railway workers and their families in the 1870s and – in this particular case – standing directly across the road from the rather magnificent All Saints’ Church. This was the house in which I grew up.
This was the house where I watched Fireball XL5 and then, as the years rolled by, Stingray and then Thunderbirds and then Captain Scarlet and then Joe 90 and then UFO. It was the house in which we watched Bonanza and The Man From UNCLE and Crossroads and Opportunity Knocks and Star Trek and the Cilla Black show and Danger Man and Bob Monkhouse in The Golden Shot and The Monkees and Dallas and Robinson Crusoe and Whacky Races and Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones and Top Cat and Follyfoot. Where we watched Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies.
It’s where we chewed sweet cigarettes from Mr Howard’s shop at the top of the street. It’s where we ate potatoes from Mr Brown’s shop at the bottom of the street. It’s where I read my favourite comic: TV21. And it’s where my lifelong love of The Beatles began.
It was cold. Even in the summer it was cold. And the rooms seemed so big. Compared to those found in modern houses, the rooms were big.
The hall – a long, tall-ceilinged and rather pointless corridor – ran for miles from the heavy Dickensian front door to the door into the living room. It was in this hall where my little brother Tony and I would play balloon basketball, a game which had virtually no rules and which could last for hours. It involved, as you may have guessed, hitting a balloon back and forth, back and forth, until either it was time for Top of the Pops or we were just too tired to do it any more.
There were two other doors leading off the hall: one into the front room, the other taking you down into the coal cellar. There was no electric light in the cellar so when you went down there to collect coal you had to take Dad’s bicycle lamp with you to see what you were doing. Its beam was pathetically weak and so you never knew quite what was lurking in the hundred-year-old corners of that dark, damp place. In my little boy’s mind it was not so much the ghosts and demons that worried me – although doubtless these resided there too. But I was more troubled somehow by the thought of terrifying creepy-crawlies and plump, sharp-toothed vermin scuttling out of the blackness: spiders the size of lobsters, rats the size of armadillos.
It was always such a relief to get back up the steps unscathed, back into the light, back to civilisation. And then you could build a fire in the grate – scrunched-up newspapers, firelighters, sticks, coal. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a real coal fire.
One evening, whilst we were all standing outside the front door, waving off relatives after a visit, my little brother suddenly vanished, not having noticed that the manhole cover was missing from the coal hole that led down to the cellar. He was about five years of age at the time. He had stepped backwards and tumbled straight down in an instant. Whoomph! I remember it now as if it had been a slapstick comedy sketch with my brother re-emerging utterly bewildered, his face covered in coaldust – it was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film. Our dad would have provided the punchline: “Enjoy your trip, son?”
Things you should know about our dad:
He was born at a very young age – and he was a lovely little girl.
During the war he was involved in two invasions within six months – the D-Day landings in June 1944 and the Invasion of Rangoon in May 1945.
After the war he worked as a hospital porter, a grave digger, a driver for a brewery, a driver for a garage, a cleaner at the market hall, and in a whole range of other jobs.
At one time – so he told us – he had also worked in the treacle mines at Picklescott.
He had been born a very long time ago – in Eighteen-fast-asleep.
For a short while in the 1960s he was commissionaire at the Empire cinema. I wish we had taken a photograph of him in his uniform. He looked like a Russian general in his smart peaked cap and a wonderful tunic with fancy epaulettes. He was able to sneak us into the pictures free of charge.
Dad thought the house was a step up the ladder from the council house we had moved from.
This was 73 North Street, Castlefields. Victorian. Solid – even taking account of the crumbling plaster. Fashioned with the working classes in mind, but surprisingly spacious. Bags of character.
Some pompous, middle-class woman said to me in 1976:
“Don’t you just hate it when you’re lying in the bath, sipping your Martini, and the phone rings?”
I wanted to tell her that we didn’t have a telephone at home. If we wanted to make a call, we had to use the kiosk at the top of the street. As for Martini, this was something I thought was enjoyed only by characters in a James Bond film. Oh yeah – and a bath? We lived in a house with no bathroom. We had a tin tub which occasionally we would take down off the wall in the yard, bring into the kitchen, and fill with hot water from saucepans and the kettle. The whole process seemed to take hours.
When I first began going out with girls, I would almost die of embarrassment when, on a first visit to our house, a young lady would ask to use the bathroom. I would point her in the direction of our outside toilet and – because that had no light either – present her with Dad’s trusty bicycle lamp.
“What’s this?” she would ask.
“Believe me, you’ll need it,” I would say, trying to hide my shame.
Mum, from a rather more middle class background than Dad, would sometimes show her own embarrassment at our lack of amenities.
Things you should know about Mum:
Served in the ATS during the war.
The daughter of a Great Western Railway locomotive driver and his fine, upstanding wife.
Easily embarrassed: “Oh, Jim. You do embarrass me!”
She loved Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink and Terry Wogan.
Always happy to help me with my homework.
Even though we had no money, she made sure our Christmases were magical.
An airforce uniform on the back of the door. Cheap souvenirs of Newfoundland. Postcards of Cyprus displayed on the sideboard.
Our big brother – eight years my senior – did not fully inhabit the house like the rest of us. He was in the RAF for five years, seeing the world, so we saw him only when he came home on leave. When I think of Paul at that time, I think: pubs and girlfriends, rough and ready, down-to-earth, Terry out of The Likely Lads.
Our big sister Jan – ten years my senior – was always more cultured somehow, always with her head in some historical novel. She ate oranges and was interested in the wider world. She managed to give her areas of the house a slightly more refined feel. In her tiny bedroom at the back of the house were dainty little ornaments. But if she wanted a bath she would not bother with the tin tub; she would go to Nan’s place.
Jan introduced Tony and I to the concept of borrowing books from the library. In my case this meant mainly the quaint schoolboy adventures of Jennings and Derbishire. She helped us to appreciate history and architecture. She took us on long walks on Sundays. And she took us to the cinema a lot – The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmations, The Lady and The Tramp, all those John Wayne westerns, The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all the Carry On romps, Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, and Elvis surrounded by bikini-clad beauties. It was an education.
And all the time, in the cage in the corner of our living room, the budgerigar sat on its perch looking bored out of its tiny mind.
The enclosed staircase in our house was so dark when you shut the doors at both the bottom and the top that it made a perfect cinema. We called it The Panorama. We would set up the slide projector. The stairs became the seats. We would sell tickets to Mum and Dad. It was so cosy.
The front room was where – if the weather was bad and sometimes even if the weather was good – Tony and I played at weekends and during the holidays. We played with Matchbox cars or plastic soldiers. Underneath the sideboard in the front room were Grenadier Guards, the Household Cavalry, Mexican bandits, cowboys and indians, the US Cavalry, soldiers of the Confederacy, German stormtroopers, British Tommies, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There were also elephants and performing seals, dogs jumping through hoops, clowns and a circus ringmaster. We had dozens and dozens of Matchbox cars and we had imaginations — Tony and I — big enough for entire cities.
Brother Tony: Collector of matchbox labels, fascinated by marionettes (for a while he had dreams of running his own puppet theatre). Inexplicably (and for only about three weeks in 1968) a Manchester City fan. Self-taught-guitarist and singer-songwriter. Devotee of Cat Stevens and Donovan. Talent contest competitor. Busker.
In the kitchen – which really was not a place to prepare food at all, but consisted simply of a sink and a draining board, a gas cooker and a few cupboards – was the ancient gramophone on which we played records, not that we had too many records at that stage. It was from this gramophone that Tony and I would broadcast our imaginary radio show on a Saturday morning. We could say whatever we wanted. No-one was listening.
The soundtrack which accompanied our lives at Number 73 – a soundtrack provided by the radio – would surely have impregnated the very walls. Run a stylus down the wallpaper and you’ll hear echoes of Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dusty Springfield, The Searchers, The Hollies and The Kinks. And on into the seventies: T. Rex, Slade, The Sweet, Lindisfarne, Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens. To this day, I love all this music with a passion.
When I was little I would come home from school on a cold winter’s afternoon and sit on my mum’s lap in front of a roaring fire and watch Blue Peter on the telly. Or I would quietly eat my way through a packet of cream crackers while watching Leslie Crowther and Peter Glaze in Crackerjack.
Crawford’s Cream Crackers and Crackerjack. It doesn’t get much better than that.
73 North Street was my home in a way that no other house can ever be.