I cycle past the house often. It stands at the end of the street, next to what was once, long ago, the village green — still a pleasant area in busy suburbia. It’s a solid Victorian house, one of several in a row. They look out across the road to the grounds of a large, modern technical college (known locally as "the Tech").
But last week the house had a sign outside: "For Sale." I knew I had to go in. We are, theoretically, house-hunting, but I knew perfectly well that this large four-storied house was far out of our price-range, and beyond our modest needs. That wasn’t the point.
Long ago, in a different Britain, my grandparents lived in the top two floors of that house. In the Second World War, they had been bombed out of their London home and moved to the suburbs. Later, with their children grown up and married, they needed something smaller and so moved into the modest accommodation offered by the top rooms in the old Victorian house.
Going in through that front door, I didn’t want to be fraudulent. We had sheaves of paper in our hands showing various local properties. "We are looking at houses on this road," I said truthfully, but then blurted out ‘My granny and grandpa lived here long ago — in the 1950s and early 1960s. They had a flat on the top two floors."
And the owners of the house grinned and understood and were pleasant. We chatted comfortably as they showed us the house. It was luxurious. The large downstairs rooms — which I never saw in my childhood, as they were owned by Granny and Grandpa’s landlord — were beautifully furnished and welcoming, a lovely family home. The large kitchen had been extended and looked out on to the sunny garden. Here I gasped with memories. The old wall was still there, the lawn where we played, and the sense of pleasure from being in an enclosed space filled with trees and flowerbeds. It had always been a place of enchantment.
But it was the rooms upstairs where the memories gushed back. By some extraordinary gift of providence, they were empty — we had arrived just as the family was beginning to sort and tidy things. So the rooms were silent, the sloping ceilings just as I remembered. Here I had slept on visits, waking in the morning to accompany Grandpa to early-morning Mass, Granny tying my scarf across my mouth and nose against the fog.
On the floor below, Granny had had a tiny kitchen adjoining the living room, where a picture of St. Thomas More hung over the fireplace, and books, books, and more books lined the walls. In the winter, Grandpa always had a terrible cough — a legacy of being gassed and wounded "in the Trenches" — and used to inhale from a big bowl of steamy water with Friar’s Balsam in it.
There was a television, but watching it was regarded as something of a ceremony, with much discussion, checking of program timings in the newspaper, rearranging of chairs, and drawing of curtains to block out the light "to make the picture better." Then no talking because the television was on, and it was the news and very important. Afterward we watched as Grandpa turned off the set and the picture shriveled to a dot. Then we could talk, and there would be tea around the large table.
The house was big and dark, with somber brown paint and an unlit hall. There were big old suitcases on the tops of dark cupboards, filled with old things. The halls and stairways were cold — but all halls and stairways and passages were cold in the Britain of my childhood, as were all bedrooms. The small gas fire in the main room made roaring noises. I don’t think there was a refrigerator — certainly no electric mixer or any other gadgets. There was no washing machine. The grownups still talked about the War, which seemed to us to have taken place years and years ago but was only just over a decade earlier.
Who owned the house? That was my first introduction to geo-politics and the Cold War. The house belonged to Gus, whom my parents loved and who loved them in return. He called my grandmother "Mama." He was friendly and kind, but his eyes were sad. He spoke with a thick foreign accent and came from Latvia. He couldn’t go back to Latvia because the Russians had invaded and imposed Communism there. Thousands and thousands of people had been taken away to prison camps, but Gus had escaped and come to England. He didn’t know what had happened to his family. Gus was kind and let us play in the large garden, which was actually his but open to these small grandchildren-from-upstairs whenever we came to visit. He was big and tall, and Granny talked to him and gave him little treats — nice things that she cooked — because he was sad and a refugee and missed his family.
From the window, up in Granny and Grandpa’s flat, I could watch the milkman delivering milk — he still had a horse-drawn cart right into the middle 1960s — and double-decker buses went by, which was most satisfactory. Our own house — not far away — was in a quiet road where little traffic was seen.
Staying with Granny and Grandpa was a treat, and we went there for tea every Wednesday, my mother having spent the afternoon there and my father joining us after work. Life was ordered. Meals were eaten together around a table, with a certain formality. Something Edwardian still pervaded the household; something eccentric and romantic, too. Granny and Grandpa had eloped and married when very young, against family disapproval. His being badly wounded in World War I, and then later his conversion to Roman Catholicism, all added zest to the story — as did the death of their oldest son ("your Uncle John, you never knew him . . ."), serving with the Royal Air Force in World War II, shot down somewhere over the North Sea.
I knew that I was very fortunate to be English. We were among the most fortunate children in the world, we were told, because Britain hadn’t been invaded since 1066 and no one was marching around putting people into prison camps. The history of our country was a glorious one — although perhaps bad things had been done, there were people like St. Thomas More who stood up for things that were right. In England it rained a lot, which made it very beautiful. There were no droughts or earthquakes or deadly spiders. Everything was practically perfect.
We were an island, and every summer brought sunshine and trips to the sea and apples in the garden, and every autumn brought bonfires and fireworks for November 5th. In winter there was Christmas and in the springtime Easter, with blossom on the trees and chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday. The Queen was in charge, sort of, and lived at Buckingham Palace; long ago there had been Queen Victoria and everything had been splendid but then came two dreadful World Wars so things could never be quite all right, but we were still fortunate to be English. That was the worldview as I understood it.
After Grandpa died, Granny came to live with us. It wasn’t easy. By now we were all denim jeans and pop music, and Granny’s Edwardian worldview — she and Grandpa had been Fabians, and she a keen suffragette in her day — didn’t figure on our map at all.
Gus came to Granny’s funeral, carrying a sprig of rosemary, still sad and dear and kind. But then, over the next years, we lost touch. I hope he had some contact with Latvia before he died. I don’t think he would have lived long enough to see its freedom.
Buildings hold memories and help to shape your world, your ideas, and opinions. Fast-forward to now: I left the house in North Street with gushing thank-you’s and a pretense that we’d consider it as a home purchase after looking at other properties. The owners weren’t fooled but they weren’t cross, either. I think they enjoyed the visit, possibly with the pleasure that comes from a sense of financial superiority, and the knowledge that life had treated them well and in old age they’d do better than two stories on the top of an old house with dark paint and a solitary gas fire.
The Britain of my childhood has vanished, along with horse-drawn milk carts, fog, and men who cough because of the Western Front. I still think I am fortunate to be English, although all the old certainties have gone and all sorts of things have changed, some for better, some not. Things that really matter are still there and seem more important than ever — the Mass, books, family meals, St. Thomas More and his message. Whatever we now pass on to the next generation won’t be via two wars or decades of hardship, but via the perhaps more lethal culture-crushers of television, the sex industry, the collapse of academic standards, and the destruction of common values. I hope we pass something on faithfully.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London.