A look back at my childhood in the tenements. This is my first attempt at moving away from just poetry, but I couldn't resist fitting in a few verses along the way.
The window with the red dot in the picture above, is the flat I lived when I was born in 1954 until 1964.
Room and Kitchen
Tenement living was seen as answer to the overcrowded housing, and tenements sprung up from the mid 1800s to early 1900s to house the influx of workers in what was becoming a thriving shipbuilding and industrial town. The window with the red dot in the picture above is the flat I lived in. Nothing much had changed by my time in the mid 50s. The flat we lived in was called a room, and kitchen, this meant it consisted of one small bedroom, and a larger room which was your living room, dining room, and kitchen all in one.Today they call it open plan living.The main room had a set in bed, which was like an alcove with a bed in it about two feet off the ground, and a curtain you could pull to hide it. This was to be mine and my brothers bed for the first ten years of my life.
As there was no bathroom it meant that your mum would stand you in the kitchen sink to wash you. This is okay when you are young, but a bit embarrassing at eighteen.
With so many families in such a cramped area the women had rotas for everything, you had an allocated day for cleaning, and washing the close stairs, and for hanging your washing in the backcourt. If it was raining, the washing was put on a pulley,hanging from the ceiling in the already overcrowded main room.
As luck (or bad luck) would have it my mother and father were housed in one of the early models, this meant that you shared a toilet in the close with other families. The scariest thing for one so young about having the “cludgie” (a slang name for toilet) on the landing was, as every child knew the cludgie monster lived in the toilet system, just waiting to catch some unsuspecting person sitting there and pull them in .No wonder so many kids suffered from constipation.
You have an early model the one without a loo.
You share the one that’s out there on the stairs.
No cushionelle, or andrex puppy paper there for you.
Just yesterday’s newspaper cut up into square.
This reminds of when I had just started school. We had a very religious teacher, and one day she was trying to find out if we said our prayers at bedtime. She asked Johnny "what is the last thing you do at night?"."dae ma homework miss" Johnny answered ."No the very last thing? " asked the teacher." brush ma teeth miss" replied Johnny. No "the very very last thing?"asked the teacher.Johnny replied "pee in the sink miss".
The backcourt of the tenement block I lived in was like an adventure playground to a young boy, with the coal cellars and wash houses. My earliest memory is marching round it in my lone ranger outfit playing, (the type of toy someone how doesn’t like you gives your son), my tin drum.Did you know? A true intellectual is someone who can listen to the William Tell overture and not think of the lone ranger.
You didn’t have the toys you have today, so as kids we had to make our own entertainment and many wonderful street games were invented. Some fun, and some mischievous. The girls would play with skipping ropes and the boys football. Sometimes we would all play together at games like, hopscotch, leap frog, hide and seek, and many more.
You go up to the top of the close.
And maybe for a dare.
You knock on everybody’s door.
As you run back down the stair.
The tenements in the next street to mine had dunnies under them. This meant they had cellars under the street, but to us kids they were dungeons or dunnies. The pavements on this street also had gratings. Sometimes people dropped thinks down into the dunnies and we could go treasure hunting. There was a secondary school at the end of the road, and as we were getting older we realised that not only can we search for money doon the dunnies, we could see up the skirts of the girls going home from school. I tell you some kids have been traumatised for life by the things they have seen.
There is nothing more exciting
Than searching doon the dunny.
And if you were lucky
You would find a little money.
Most kids only owned three pairs of footwear.Your good shoes for school, church, and special occasions, your sandshoes and maybe plastic sandals (the early model of today's crocs),and your wellies.The good shoes had to last until your feet got too big for them, so if the sole wore out your mother would cut a cardboard insole and put it inside to keep your feet dry.Your sandshoes or plastic sandals for the summer, and wellies for winter and rainy days. I had an older brother, which meant I got hand me down clothes. Thank god it wasn't an older sister.
Billy Connelly sang a song about wearing wellies. This is favourite verse.
Theres fishermen and firemen theres farmers an all
Men out diggin' ditches and workin' in the snow
This country it wid grind to a halt and no a thing wid grow
If it wisnae fur the workers in their wellys.
From the late fifties they started to demolish the worst of the tenements and build new houses.Quite a strong sense of community builds up in tenement living, and a lot of people were moved onblock to new housing schemes.They still had the same neighbours, but not living on top of one another.
My own family moved to a maisonette just half a mile away from our old tenement.My mum thought she had died and went to heaven.The house had every thing she wanted.She had hot and cold running water,electric heating, which meant no more coal and dirty grates to clean, and of course a bathroom of her own.My older brother and I thought we had an indoor playground. We used to take the doormat inside and use the stairs as a slide,we had a bed each,and best of all a bathroom so no more cludgie monster.Street life was still the same as most of my friends had moved to houses within the same area.
In the sixties the worst decision made on housing was to start building those monsters called skyscrapers. A bit of tenement history is the story of the jeely piece. When you were out playing and wanted something to eat you would shout up to your window "maw throw is oot a piece." Some of the main delicacies where a slice of bread with tomato sauce, or a slice of bread with butter and sugar. You won’t get this on a subway sandwich. Now these new monsters made this feat impossible.
Matt Mcginn, a Scottish folk singer wrote a song about this called Jeely Piece. This is part of the chorus.
Oh ye canna fling pieces oot a twenty story flat
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify to that
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the bread is plain or pan
The odds against it reaching us is ninety-nine to one
I hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane.
The feelings from nostalgia that I get
Seem to grow with every year that passes.
As I think back and memories reset.
Adding colour to those rose-tinted glasses.