Until the age of 12, my ‘hoose’ was distinguished by what it lacked: inside toilet, bath, central heating, electric lighting, telephone and hot water boiler. Lighting was gas with tiny fragile mantles – it gave a romantic glow, but made it pretty hard to read. The mantles crumbled at a touch and were forever disintegrating. Heating was a coal fire in the front room where my parents slept. A two-bar electric fire took the edge off the sub-zero temperatures in the back room, where my brother - Bobby - and I slept. The windows in winter were opaque with iced condensation; perfect for finger drawing.
Hot water came from an ‘immerser’ in the scullery – a tiny galley kitchen - off the front room. I remember, as a wee boy, sitting with my feet in the sink while my mother dug into my ears with a flannel. Meantime, the porridge bubbled on the hob. If we wanted a bath, we hauled a zinc tub up from the outside wash house and filled it - actually ‘filled’ is an exaggeration – with kettles of hot water.
We were forever being plunged into darkness as the money ran out in the electric meter. There were times when my mother counted on getting a ten bob rebate when the ‘electric man’ emptied the meter and totted up the sums. This was between 1949 and 1961, a year after my mother and father were married. They moved into a single room at the back of a red sandstone tenement flat in Kilmarnock. They spread into the second room when their landlord – who was living in the front room – died.
Washing took place in the outside wash house in a big metal washing tub – a ‘bine’ - heated by a coal fire underneath. My mother scrubbed the sheets clean with a bar of carbolic soap against the ridges of the washing board. I helped her turn the big handle of the mangle as we hauled the dripping sheets through the rollers. I used to be sent down to the outside coal cellar with a hammer and a bucket to smash up lumps small enough to go on the fire. Where were the Health and Safety men when you needed them?
If this all sounds like a Monty Python sketch of competitive deprivation, it was nothing of the kind. No-one was any better off. There was nothing to envy. We were a young family clawing our way out of rationing, and building lives for ourselves. The crowded Saturday night parties were memorable for bad singing and laughter. The door stood open at Hogmanay for First Footers. It was a happy home.
Excitement in the ‘close’ – which served four flats - was the delivery of coal. The horse and cart would pull up, the shout would go up - ‘Coooaal’ - and big, dusty men with leather jackets would parade through the entry with bulging sacks on their backs to dump into the outside coal cellar. Less dirty but much smellier was the fish cart bringing boxes of shining herring to be soused and grilled for tea. And once a year a man pitched up on a bicycle laden with strings of onions. Did he really wear a beret? Did he really cycle all the way from France? Or from just down the road in Troon?
Ours was one of the two upstairs flats, sharing an outside toilet on the landing. My earliest memory of reading material was torn-up copies of the Mirror hanging on a nail in the toilet. We took it in turns to clean the entry and stairs and had rows with the old woman downstairs over whose turn it was and how well the mopping had been done. The trail of black dust from the coal delivery only added spice to the neighbourly disputes.
When I was 12, we moved to a three-bedroomed, semi-detached council house. It was utopia: I got my own bedroom and we had our own bathroom – with a bath. But I don’t recall any central heating. It was every bit as cold as it used to be in the flat.
A good start to life . . . and some terrific material for my writing!