Excerpt of Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
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I was born in 1907 in Hove, the second child of a family of
seven. My earliest recollection is that other children seemed
to be better off than we were. But our parents cared so much
for us. One particular thing that I always remember was that
every Sunday morning my father used to bring us a comic
and a bag of sweets. You used to be able to get a comic for a
halfpenny plain and a penny coloured. Sometimes now when
I look back at it, I wonder how he managed to do it when he
was out of work and there was no money at all coming in.
My father was a painter and decorator. Sort of general oddjob
man. He could do almost anything: repair roofs, or do a
bit of plastering; but painting and paper-hanging were his
main work. Yet in the neighbourhood where we lived, there
was hardly any work in the winter. People didn't want their
houses done up then; they couldn't be painted outside and
they didn't want the bother of having it all done up inside.
So the winters were the hardest times.
My mother used to go out charring from about eight in the
morning till six in the evening for two shillings a day. Sometimes
she used to bring home little treasures: a basin of dripping,
half a loaf of bread, a little bit of butter or a bowl of soup. She
used to hate accepting anything. She hated charity. But we
were so glad of them that, when she came home and we saw
that she was carrying something, we used to make a dive to
see what she'd got.
It seems funny today, I suppose, that there was this hatred
of charity, but when my parents brought us up there was no
unemployment money. Anything you got was a charity.
I remember my mother, when we only had one pair of shoes
each and they all needed mending, she went down to the council
to try to get more for us. She had to answer every question
under the sun and she was made to feel that there was something
distasteful about her because she hadn't got enough
money to live on.
It was very different getting somewhere to live in those
days. You just walked through the streets, and there were
notices up, 'Rooms to let'. When we were extra hard up,
we only had one room or two rooms in somebody else's house.
But when Dad was working, we would go around looking for
half a house. We never had a house to ourselves. Not many
people could afford a house in those days, not to themselves.
As for buying a house, why, such things were never even
I know I used to wonder why, when things were so hard,
Mum kept having babies, and I remember how angry she
used to get when a couple of elderly spinsters at a house
where she worked kept telling her not to have any more children,
that she couldn't afford to keep them. I remember saying
to my mother, 'Why do you have so many children? Is it
hard to have children?' And she said, 'Oh, no. It's as easy as
falling off a log.'
You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford.
It cost nothing - at least at the time when you were actually
making the children. The fact that it would cost you something
later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead
in those days. They didn't dare. It was enough to live for the
People didn't think about regulating families. The whole
idea was to have big families, a relic of Victorian times perhaps.
The more children you had, in some ways, the more
you were looked upon as fulfilling your duties as a Christian
citizen. Not that the Church played much part in my mother's
and father's lives. I don't think they had much time for it or,
perhaps it's truer to say, they had time but no inclination.
Some of us weren't even christened. I wasn't, and never have
been. But we all had to go to Sunday School, not because my
parents were religious, but because it kept us out of the way:
Sunday afternoons were devoted to lovemaking because there
was not much privacy in working-class families. When you
lived in two or three rooms, you had to have some of the children
in the same room with you. If you had any sense of
decency, and my parents did because I never, during the
whole time of my childhood, knew that they ever made love,
you waited till they were fast asleep or out of the way. The
fact is I never even saw them kissing each other because my
father was a rather austere man outwardly, and I was amazed
when only lately my mother told me what a passionate man
he really was. So, you see, it was only when the children
were out of the way that they could really let themselves go.
So, Sunday afternoon, after a mighty big dinner (and everybody
tried to have a big dinner on Sunday), was the time
spent lying on the bed, making love and having a good old
doze. Because, as my Mum said later, if you make love, you
might as well do it in comfort. So that's why Sunday School
was so popular then.
Excerpted from Below Stairs
by Margaret Powell. Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Powell.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.