Wednesday, 27 February 2013

La maison où j'ai grandi

Lately, I've been coming across a lot of clips on YouTube of songs I remember well from my youth in the 1960s, one such being Françoise Hardy's La maison où j'ai grandi (The house where I grew up).  It's a favourite of mine: I've always loved its haunting melody and poignant lyrics. I bought it when it first came out: I was learning French as a schoolboy, and I think I've still got a 7" vinyl single of it somewhere.

For me, the "House where I gew up" is always the detached house in Kenilworth my father bought when I was about 14.  I've never been entirely sure what lay behind his decision but I suspect that having been back 'home' four years or so after Hong Kong with no further posting or promotion materializing, he began to sense that his days in the Army were numbered and it was perhaps time to start making preparations for what we were going to do and where we were going to live when he came out.

The house itself, in Windy Arbour - then (and probably still now) regarded as the 'posh' part of Kenilworth - had been allowed to run to seed more than somewhat. My parents got busy wallpapering and painting, and I helped clear what was an absolutely enormous garden but one which was waist-high in nettles at the bottom: it took us a couple of seasons to get it into the state of actually being able to grow things in it.  Being the youngest in the family I got the short straw in the form of the smallest bedroom, which was right above the front door and hall, and consequently only big enough to accommodate a single bed and a chair on which I could keep a few clothes.  There wasn't room for any heating in there: the metal "crittall" window frame dated back to when the house was built in pre-war days, and on a cold night the ice would form on the inside of the window-pane.  By the time it reached its turn for decorating, I asked for a sky-blue ceiling in preference to the off-white or 'magnolia' that my mother insisted on putting practically everywhere else in the house.  She was distinctly reluctant but I suppose having concluded that she wasn't going to be the one who had to sit in there and look at it, she eventually agreed!

I couldn't use my bedroom for anything except sleeping in, so I did my homework and studying in the dining room.  After the first couple of years we got it fitted with a solid fuel back boiler which took care of all the hot water we needed, but which also resulted in it being the warmest room in the house.  This was in contrast to the lounge which had a open coal fire - one which was only lit for the evening and thus left you initially huddled round it if you wanted to try and watch TV: it only warmed up comfortably by bedtime.  The dining table had a green baize cloth on, so after we'd had our evening meal and washed up, I could spread out and fit in a couple of hours or more studying whilst listening to Radio Luxembourg without having my parents' choice of TV programmes inflicted on me.

What estate agents coyly refer to as "local amenities" were basically non-existent, the notable exception being a convenience store just round the corner in Birches Lane which also housed the local Post Office and which went by the name of Terry's.  Consequently, the shout of "Anyone want anything from Terry's??" was usually enough to generate a veritable shipping order.  An infrequent Midland Red 536 bus route ran along the street outside and enabled passengers to make a morning shopping trip into nearby Leamington, which my mother occasionally used to do.  But Kenilworth town centre itself was a 15-20 minute walk away, and until the arrival of a supermarket called Bishop's in (I think) the late 1960s had no large shops there anyway.

Although I loved the house - it was a nice place to live and I called it "home" - it was underneath it all my parents' house, so eventually and perhaps inevitably it became time for me to leave the nest with its sky-blue ceiling and fly off to make a home of my own.  After some nine years altogether it was the longest time I'd ever lived anywhere in my life.  My parents carried on living there and even had a small extension built on. But then after my mother died in 1988, my father soon found that living alone in a big detached house with a massive garden was far too much for him to manage, and decided he wanted to sell up and move to a sheltered housing complex.  I'd have liked nothing better than to have bought the house off him, but even had it been a knock-down price there's no way I could've afforded it.  Unlike the one in the song, as far as I know it's still standing, but I've never had the occasion to go past and look, and I somehow doubt now that I ever will.  Come what may, though, it's always going to live on in my memory as "la maison où j'ai grandi".