I lived in Kensal Road from when I was born in 1953 until 1966, for two years at number 87 and eleven years at number 89, so it might seem like a world class act of procrastination that I didn’t get round to going back until December last year. Actually, it wasn’t procrastination. As we were moving to Croydon in 1966, I made a conscious decision that it was going to be impossible to maintain my old friendships and, a few years later, I heard that everything I knew between the canal and the railway had been bulldozed so there seemed no point in going back although I got as close as Harrow and Portobello Roads on several occasions.
First impressions were that Westbourne Park station had hardly changed apart from the loss of its kiosk, ticket collector’s box and old style ticket machines and the walk along the Great Western Road towards the canal bridge hasn’t changed ignoring the new bus station on the other side of the road and the Westway. However, after that junction, Kensal Road bore right down the hill following the line of the canal and, today, the new, well new to me, Elkstone Road bears to the left joining Golborne Road at the old junction with Southam Street. Second impressions were that distances seemed to have shrunk in the last fifty years.
Number 89 was on the left about fifty yards before the old junction with Golborne Road exactly where Trellick Tower now stands. A four storey terraced house like most of the houses in the area, we lived on the ground floor, which was slightly higher than road level. Both number 87 and 89 were owned by a nervous looking Polish man, Mr Sohacki, who was apparently an officer in one of the Polish divisions in the Eighth Army. More of that later. His nervousness always seemed to change to profound gratitude followed by a slight bow before replacing his hat when my mum handed the rent money over in a weekly ritual. Maybe he was nervous because some of his other tenants weren’t quite so ready to pay up.
I can describe the interior fairly accurately as I seemed to have the run of the house with the blessing of all the other tenants. Below, in the basement flat, were the Cullen family, father, mother and son Cornelius, which was shortened to Con. They had a separate entrance to their flat down a few steps from the road and an internal entrance under the first flight of internal stairs, which I used on a regular basis.
Their basement flat was almost identical to ours with a large living room at the front, a single large bedroom at the rear, a corridor running front to back with the living and bedroom doors on the left and toilet on the right and, in a rear extension narrower than the house, a kitchen and bathroom. They had sole access to the coal cellar. I remember the rumble of coal being tipped into the cellar by the coal man who delivered sacks from the back of his horse drawn cart through the manhole at the bottom of the external flight of steps. The Cullens also had a garden at the rear of the house, which was really a scrubby rectangle of grass where they hung their washing and Con and I let off our fireworks on bonfire night. Our respective mums usually then took us to see the big bonfire and the older children letting off their fireworks on the bomb site in Golborne Road, where Hazlewood Tower now stands.
My dad, who had immigrated to the UK in 1947 after serving in the Eighth Army, worked in the accounts department for Limmer and Trinidad Asphalt Company in Carnwath Road, Fulham and, on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, as a baker although I’m a bit hazy about where that was. It meant he was a bit of a shadowy figure at times and, while its no exaggeration to say he probably hated doing a second job, it meant we were a bit more comfortable than most families in the area and he was usually keen to make up for lost time by taking us out on Sunday, sometimes to see a film or see the sights in central London.
As we had a shared front door and all of the other tenants walked in and out past our living room door, that had a lock on it and the room was locked at night but left open during the day. The living room was originally full of heavy, brown Victorian furniture and had an open fireplace, which I remember was a major performance to light. Although I’m getting slightly ahead of myself, Barry Bucknell had a major influence on my parents and, looking back, I don’t suppose any of the furniture would have achieved antique status as, piece by piece over time and with the blessing of Mr Sohacki, my dad chopped up the old furniture and replaced it gradually with sleek 60s style, a coffee table with spindly legs, pine dining table, chairs and sideboard, three piece suite and two rattan easy chairs. The fireplace was boarded up and replaced by an electric fire.
Until our first television arrived in 1962, the radio was our main contact with the outside world. Heavy and wooden like the old furniture, it lit up when switched on. Choices included the Light Programme and the Home Service and more exotically, Hilversum and Luxembourg. It was a big deal for me to be invited next door by Mr or Mrs Little to watch their television where the sitting room was often packed with local children.
Mum and dad’s friends would seem to just pop in from time to time without any prior arrangement. As we didn’t have a phone and we didn’t know many people who did, social life just happened that way. The arrival of two single male friends of my dad’s, both Polish, would always mean a late night. I don’t remember their names except that one was young and the other old with a grey walrus moustache and, in fact, we only ever referred to him as ‘the Old Man’ although not to his face. The routine was always the same. The young man would knock on the door first and give my mum a huge bunch of flowers, which was the softening up process. This would be followed by the Old Man struggling under the weight of bags of food and drink, which would be distributed on the dining table. Thereafter, I was occupied with the gift of a large quantity of sweets and the occasional pat on the head while the adults ate, drank and talked their adult talk while the room filled up gradually with cigarette smoke. At some point in the evening, a music programme would be found on the radio and the Old Man would get up and dance, a bit, well quite a lot really, like Zorba the Greek, stamping on the floor, a point in the evening my parents dreaded as they tried to calm him down and avoid giving the Cullens below a headache, although they were always very good natured about it the next day.
The Old Man was generous to a fault and took me out on a few occasions for a treat. He was a hospital porter and I know he was single and maybe a widower or divorced and often seemed to act like he had more money than he needed.
Whatever his circumstances, he treated me as a kind of part time son, on one occasion buying me a very smart suit with long trousers, which my parents thought was ridiculous as all boys always wore short trousers then.
In fact, our television arrived just before the 1962 cup final and it played a major part in home life after that. Robin Hood, William Tell, Dr Who and slightly later, the Avengers and the Prisoner kept me captivated and the swinging 60s with Ready Steady Go and Juke Box Jury heralded things to come for me. Although Sunday Night at the London Palladium was a perennial favourite for mum and dad, I was strangely attracted to Emma Peel and her Lotus Elan in equal measure without understanding why.
All the big news events of the time were magically shown right in our front room, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the first men in space and Winston Churchill’s funeral although my ten year old self could never understand what Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies were supposed to have done or why John Profumo had to resign no matter how many times they talked about it on television. I mentioned that our living room door was unlocked during the day and one of the other children in the house, probably attracted by the sound of the television, opened the door one day to have a look and I’m sorry to say I punched him in the face and got into trouble.
Family meals were always eaten in the kitchen as the dining table in the front room was for entertaining guests. Sunday lunch was always a ritual, on the table at the same time every week and always much more than I could ever eat. A portable transistor radio later provided the soundtrack to Sunday lunch with the Clitheroe Kid or Round the Horne followed by Two and later Three Way Family Favourites. Barry Bucknell’s evil influence stuck again when my mum decided to paint the old kitchen table pink. Unfortunately, it seemed to be the kind of paint that never really dried and it went the way of the rest of the old brown furniture shortly afterwards to be replaced by a table with spindly tapered legs. Our bathroom was beyond the kitchen and was just about big enough for the bath and a huge menacing looking geyser suspended from the wall. I’m sure I had a vivid imagination as I was always worried about the geyser coming off the wall and drowning me in gallons of scalding hot water.
Upstairs from our flat was an intermediate floor with a bathroom and toilet, which was shared by all of the other tenants. One further flight of stairs up to the first floor was a two roomed flat occupied by a family, living room in front and bedroom to the rear with a kitchenette on the landing and, a further two flights up to the second floor were two bedsits, one in the front and one in the back. One bedsit had a kitchenette on the landing and the other had a kitchenette in an extension that looked like a garden shed, up a narrow set of wooden temporary looking stairs. They were all very friendly, no doubt attracted by my sweet and cheeky nature although I’m now very hazy about who they were. I remember a single mother and newly born baby who had moved from Helston, who left her husband and older children behind. I’m sure there was a story there. And before her in the same bedsit was a woman in her early twenties, Anna, who had beautiful blond hair usually set in a long plait trailing down her back. Probably another sign of the approaching swinging 60s, she was saving to travel to the Greek islands with Mykonos as one of her intended stops. Before she left, she gave me a book on Greece, which I’m afraid is long gone. My mum much later told me that Anna was a prostitute although she was always seemed to be like a younger version of mum to me.
My Dad would rather half kill himself doing two jobs, which he did rather than expect my mum to be anything else but a full time housewife. Of course, there was no washing machine, vacuum cleaner, fridge or even a dishwasher, so housework was definitely more labour intensive then and my mum probably had it easier than most as there was only me to look after until my brother was born in 1959.
Mum went shopping every day and the first stop was almost always Vic Martin’s shop. That photo at the top of Gwen’s blog could almost have been printed from my memory. I know that he was a serious stamp collector as he very generously gave me a large quantity of old British and Colonial stamps in a folder, which more than supplemented my meagre schoolboy level collection. He also gave me a few old Stanley Gibbons catalogues, which I pored over, cross referencing the stamps he had given me. My stamp collecting days gave way to other boyish pursuits and the catalogues are long gone but I still have those stamps. It was such a generous act that I often thought about why he would have done that and, although I will never know for sure, it’s possible that, as my father lived in Silesia before the war, where Vic Martin was interned as a POW, there was some kind of connection between them.
Holmes the baker was usually the next stop followed by Price’s the greengrocer further down Golborne Road on the right hand side and then Hamperl the butcher on the same side of the road. The Hamperls were German, which meant that, as well as the usual choices of meat, they sold smoked sausages and delicious liver sausage. Chicken was a relatively expensive meat then and turkey almost unknown so chicken was always considered as a Christmas treat. One year on Christmas eve, my Dad returned from shopping, as I guess there was some heavy lifting required, and said he was sure that we had the winning raffle ticket displayed in Hamperl’s window. Mum and Dad hunted high and low for the raffle ticket and finally found it at the bottom of the kitchen bin, slightly crumpled and dad struggled home later with our prize 20lb turkey, which they had to cut the legs off to fit in the oven. I think we had turkey for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a few days running that year.
There was an RSPCA surgery in a small parade of shops between our house and the junction with Golborne Road and a red phone box, which usually had a queue of people waiting their turn to press button A or B. I think everyone respected that people were waiting and each call never seemed to be long and, anyway, we could only ever call someone with a private phone so calls were limited to my mum’s parents and sister. A betting shop was opened later along the same parade and I’m sure they did good business next door to the Britannia, a pub with tiled walls that stood on the corner. It always seemed to be packed as I remember, if one of the doors was opened whenever I walked past, there was always a blast of noise mixed with the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. I bet it was good in there.
Opposite number 89 stood a small chapel where I sometimes went to Sunday school, although I preferred Saturday morning pictures at the Essoldo in Great Western Road.. Next to the chapel heading west was the large Knitmaster factory and further along from that a Greek Cypriot barber where I had my haircut. Beyond the junction with Golborne Road, on the left, there were a number of small businesses operating, one of which pressed records. There were usually boxes of rejects outside, sometimes only rejected because they had the same label on both sides or the labels stuck on slightly off-centre. It was always a bit of a game to see how many records we could pick up and run off with before someone came out and tried to catch us. Actually, the best they could ever do was shout at us as we were always halfway down the road by then. I guess they needed them for recycling but the records were usually rubbish.
Further along Kensal Road, on the corner of the path leading to the Ha’penny Steps, was the old swimming baths, which was always freezing and smelt so strongly of chlorine, my eyes were almost watering before I got in. It wasn’t all bricks and tarmac as, at the junction of Kensal Road and West Row was, and still is, beautifully landscaped Emslie Horniman Pleasance, which was a favourite walk.
To be continued……..
Roger Rogowski 2015