Yes, But Where Are You Really From? by Julian Edge

When you opened the front door, you stepped straight from the pavement into what we called “the parlour.” That was kept for best, when distant family or other visitors came. Through that was the other downstairs room, where all the living took place. Not that we ever called it a “living room.” I don’t think we called it anything. That was just home.

My clearest image is of the huge, black, cast-iron fireplace that took up most of one wall, in my memory, anyway. That was called a “range.” It had ovens on both sides of the grate and a big hook to hang a kettle or cauldron on and swing over the coal fire. My mother could remember her mother cooking like that, but in my day the ovens were only used for keeping food warm. Otherwise, the whole apparatus was just something else to keep clean. Ours shone. In one corner of the room was a door to a steep, narrow staircase that led to a tiny landing with my parents’ bedroom on one side and my brother’s and mine on the other.

Back downstairs, there was a tiny extension we called the “back-kitchen.” It had a gas cooker and a cold tap over a Belfast sink. That was the only running water in the house, just as the coal fire was the only source of heat. On Saturday evenings, my mother would boil kettles to fill a tin bath in front of the fire and we’d take turns.

A small brick outhouse in the backyard was our toilet. It had a wooden seat and a high water tank with a long chain. It banged when you pulled it and it flushed like Niagara Falls. There was a hook on the wall for hanging squares of ripped-up Evening Sentinel but, by my time, we had real toilet paper. For winter nights, we had a chamber pot under the bed.

The gate at the bottom of the yard opened into a dirt track we called “the backs,” fenced off from the railway line by a wall of perpendicular sleepers. You walked down the backs till you reached an alley that let you cut through between the houses. The whole terrace belonged to the neighbouring tile company, whose factory chimney loomed over us.  Looking up the street at night, the white or golden light shining out across the pavement showed who had electricity and who was still on gas.

When I was eight, our homes were declared “unfit for human habitation.” It was the only time I ever saw my mother angry. “We are poor,” I remember her saying into the face of the Council Inspector, “we are not dirty!” We were re-housed on a Council Estate. Three bedrooms, hot running water, a proper bathroom and two inside toilets. We loved it.

When people ask me, “Where are you from?” that’s what I want to tell them, though I admit it is a very long answer.



0 #4 Louise 2021-02-10 19:55
I love this. The white and yellow light especially. So much warmth in the whole piece. And it reminds you of the whole world of answer and feeling that can rise with that simple question.
0 #3 Mark Clarke 2021-02-10 18:43
Julian! Great story! More please! I would like a few that account for your penchant to bus your own table at the pub or other habits acquired in your youth, for example. I now understand your phrase, "those set above us," with more clarity than before. My folks (grandparents) had an outhouse which we used when haying or working outside, but by the time I arrived they had indoor plumbing. No flush in the outhouse, however. Montgomery Ward catalogues were still in use -- very handy to while away the time thinking about possible gifts and to assist with hygiene.
0 #2 Julian 2021-02-10 16:21
Dave, Can't tell you how much that meant. You put something out there and it touches somebody and they reach back. Wonderful moment. Thank you for the gift.
0 #1 Dave Morgan 2021-02-10 10:56
Julian Edge you have just relived my childhood. You're from Stoke on Trent like me. Unfortunately we were never rehoused until adter I'd left home and my ageing folks were bungalowed. We used to put kindling wood and pyjamas in the range oven which must have given us a piney smell at bedtime.Poor but not dirty. I can hear my mother saying the same. Lovely condensed piece of writing.