The changing faces of our streets
10:02 18 November 2011
MY friend good-naturedly calls me a word-smith, and I am flattered by the description. To be a journalist and columnist requires a love of words, so I am disappointed when I read of some that were commonplace in my younger days but have now been “retired”.
Recently Collins Dictionaries announced words it claimed had fallen from popular usage and were extinct, presumably disqualifying them from inclusion in future editions. Aerodrome and charabanc were in the list; I suppose they have been ousted by airfield/airport and motor-coach.
It was only last week that I used “aerodrome” in this column, recalling a 1936 call by Great Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce for the borough council to provide one, pointing out that as Southend and Scarborough (“two of Yarmouth’s greatest competitors”) had them, we were behind the times. Breydon was suggested for a seaplane port.
Here we are, threequarters of a century later; our heliport has gone, and Southend now boasts easyJet flights on London’s doorstep...
On this travel theme, I wonder if omnibus survives in Collins pages…for a newspaperman it recalls the era when the Daily and Sunday Express were Britain’s best-selling newspapers under editor Arthur Christiansen who urged his writers always to bear in mind “the man on the Clapham omnibus”, his equivalent of “the man in the street”, a purveyor of down-to-earth common-sense and forthright views.
It prompted me to think about other words and items once familiar to older readers but perhaps perplexing to their grandchildren.
Take home decorating, for example. We used whitewash, distemper and paste made from flour and water. Items were bought from privately-owned small shops, not out-of-town cavernous DIY stores inaccessible only to car owners.
Homes had a parlour and/or a front room, probably unused except at Christmas, the only time there was a fire in the grate. Zebo polish kept the surrounds and kitchen range shiny black.
Fire-irons stood in hearths, near a coal scuttle and a pot of wax tapers or coloured spills used for kindling the fire in the morning or lighting cigarettes and pipes. An extending toasting fork was used to make toast over an open fire, the result often being burnt or smoky bread – probably deemed carcinogenic today. Severe butter rationing means buttered toast was almost a luxury.
There was a daily chore of clearing yesterday’s ashes, putting them into the dust-bin, filling the coal chute and laying today’s fire with kindling wood, bought in twine-tied penny bundles, and old newspapers.
Wet washing – that might have been tackled in a tub and posher - was squeezed between the wooden rollers of an iron-framed mangle or the rubber ones of a more modern wringer. Sixties’ housewives benefited from a budget-price Rolls Rapide washing machine marketed by John Bloom who had bought up the maker of the strop-in-the-case razor.
It is almost unthinkable in 2011 that public houses all had a smoke room; also, most had a snug and a bottle-and-jug. And Guinness was advertised as proudly proclaiming that it was “good for you.”
Men-only smoking concerts were popular well into the 20th century. Honestly, a large gathering with smoking as its purpose! And a cinema visit included cigarette smoke swirling in the beam between projector and screen.
Let us not forget cigarette cards, collected avidly by little lads of my generation until the war brought their withdrawal. Oh yes: we youngsters “smoked” sweet cigarettes – a sugary white stick with a red tip.
Children’s outdoor games included Cowboys and Indians – Red Indians, now called Native Americans or whatever the politically correct term is. In wartime our sparse Christmas and birthday presents often included postal orders (half a crown – today’s 12½ pence – if you had a well-off aunt) or a compendium of games, a book with cut-out boards and push-out counters for games like Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and Halma and Bango: nobody I knew had any idea how to play Halma and Bango. Invariably Christmas and birthday teas featured jelly and blancmange, subject to availability due to food rationing.
In the house was a wireless and possibly a hand-wound gramophone (with tins of needles that had to be changed regularly), record player or radiogram; the records varied between 78, 33 and 45rpm. The national wireless often included Metropolitan Police requests for witnesses of London road accidents to contact them on Whitehall 1212.
Toilet paper was the strong variety like Izal and Bronco, sadly no longer available nowadays, not the namby-pamby coloured soft tissue of today; when toilet rolls were scarce in wartime, newspaper cut into squares sufficed.
I wonder, does the ghastly Friday night ritual of a spoonful of California Syrup of Figs (to keep you regular), or the daily treacle-like cod liver oil and malt to keep you healthy, persist for youngsters today? I doubt it. Are adult medicinal products like Bile Beans and Carters Little Liver Pills still on sale?
Fleecy siren suits were a must in wartime, championed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and cosy in the outdoor Anderson air-raid shelters, being one-piece, full-length and zip-up. Men bought suits from national chains like Montague Burton, Fifty-Shilling Tailors, Hepworth, John Collier and Willerby…or from our many local retailers.
Quiz questions in 2011 sometimes ask what is a florin, tanner, bob or half a-crown. Older generations shake their heads sadly when younger contestants are baffled.
Some schoolchildren had leather satchels, most bought from Southey’s off the Market Place. In 2011 the weatherproof haversack is almost universal, bursting with books and sports gear.
It is well-nigh impossible to list all the pubs that have closed in the past decade or two, most demolished and their sites redeveloped with homes but a few converted into residential accommodation. Similarly, it is getting harder to recall once-familiar retail names, many family-owned, that have disappeared from both sides of the river. To name but a selection: Skippings, Plattens, Bretts, Bonings, Jarrolds, Smith and Daniels, Boultons, Nortons, Hammonds, Stadens,Woolworth, Timothy White and Taylors, Purdy and Matthes, Boultons, Long and Cottons, Westbrooks, Carr and Carr, Wolsey and Wolsey, Nichols and Wooden (fish restaurant), Norfolk Radio, Visionhire, Busseys, Olivettes, International, Home and Colonial, Clowes, David Greig, Tom Green, Aldred, Engeldow and Gallant, Martins and some of the men’s outfitters mentioned earlier, tailor Stone, Electric House…
It is a melancholy exercise.