Well, yes, that’s because it is, but every time I feel like moaning, I spare a thought for those who are homeless and those, who for whatever reason, don’t have access to central heating. I also spare a thought for my grandparents now no longer with us, and of how ‘being cold’ was something they not only expected, they put up with it, without complaint.
My grandparents on my mother’s side lived at an address that for my purpose we’ll call S–Rd, NHG, London. S–Rd no longer exists. My grandparents were found alternative housing when plans to knock down the entire street went ahead in the 70s. I was very young at the time, but I do have vague memories of the house. The door opened on a long, narrow corridor, with a room to the right. At the end of the house you could go up the stairs on the left, or further down the corridor to the right. The stairs were dark and steep, and I remember them distinctly because I once fell down them. They led to a first floor where my grandparents had their living room/kitchen and their bedroom. Another flight of stairs took you to another level where there were two more bedrooms. There was no bathroom. The only room to have heating was the living room/kitchen where a fire burned in the stove for heat and for cooking.
The corridor at the bottom of the house led directly into the scullery. I recall that the house had some sort of furnace here that provided a hot water supply, but the house definitely had no central heating. Not many houses did. A large tin bath hung on a hook in the scullery and when people wanted a bath, this would be taken up to the living room, placed in front of the fire, and filled with hot water. Owing to the difficulties of having a bath, many people didn’t bother to have a full wash on a nightly basis. We knew some families where a bath was a weekly ritual, but I do recall my grandmother always makes sure I was as clean as could be (I can feel her scrubbing behind my ears to this day), and that she wouldn’t go to bed without using a bowl of water for herself.
The scullery also contained a sink, and it was here that my grandmother would do the family’s laundry. I can still picture her green glass scrubbing board and the old wooden mangle. People didn’t have washing machines and were lucky if there were a local Laundromat or could afford to use them regularly if one was available. Washing meant hard graft — soaping up clothes and scrubbing them against the ridges of the glass board, then setting all the washed clothes aside to rinse. Once rinsed they were passed through the mangle, then hung in the yard to dry. Once dry they were ironed, not with an electric iron, but a hot plate iron that was set on the fire. There was no temperature control, and one had to be careful not to burn the clothing.
The door from the scullery led out into the small yard — half concrete, half soil. The soil half was fenced off and used by my grandfather to grow vegetables. Not because he enjoyed gardening as a hobby, but because they needed to supplement their food supply. He would also grow tomatoes up on the roof, but that’s a whole other story.
My grandfather would play football with me in this yard, which was surrounded by brick walls. There was one other door out in the yard and this led to the outside toilet. I only remember visiting and cannot recall using it, but I do recall stories my grandfather would tell me of going out there late at night in the midst of winter and having to chip the ice off the seat before you dared to sit down on it, and even then he told me one sat there hoping their skin didn’t stick.
This is making me sound as if I’m 90, but this isn’t so long ago. We’re talking late 60s and even into the 70s. I never had central heating until I left home at age 21. My parents never had central heating until two years later.
Did we moan? Yes. Sometimes we did. Winters were more like those we’ve seen recently. I can recall going to school in snow up to my knees and we were still expected to try to get there. Very occasionally we were turned away at the gate and had to trudge back home again. There were times we complained about being cold. We washed one limb at a time, quickly covering it. We got dressed under the covers while still in bed in the morning, and we weren’t the only ones doing it. I can talk to my mother-in-law who had a completely different upbringing in a different area of the country, and yes, I admit she’s much older than I, still she can remember similar stories. She never had central heating until the late 1980s. She remembers coping because that’s just what people did. She tells me that people seldom got sick out in the country, although I can’t say the same for people I knew living in London, where some places were ill-looked after and sometimes damp. My parents didn’t even have a real fire — they had to make do with electric heaters, which were costly.
So whenever I’m snug indoors and think it feels a bit chilly, I’m reminded it could be much worse. I remember hard times that people didn’t even know were hard, but simply accepted as the way things were. I remember slipping and sliding trying to walk to school, and I remember it feeling as cold inside as it was out even while there was snow on the ground. Mostly, though, I recall with a nostalgic smile my grandfather drawing a jagged shape in the ice on his bedroom window, and telling me, “Look, Jack Frost is here.”