My Life in a Glasgow Housing Scheme - Drumchapel in the 1950s and 60s
In "My life in a Glasgow tenement in the 1950s" I described what it was like to be a child in a Scotstoun tenement. In 1957 we moved to a recently built part of Drumchapel, a large housing scheme on the edge of the city. It was so new that, when I first saw it, the sidewalks were not yet paved. We considered the new flat an improvement since it had an inside toilet and bath, but by modern standards it was still pretty primitive.
For example, the only source of heat was a coal fire in the living room. In addition to providing heat for the main room this also heated water in a tank that resided in a closet in the main bedroom. The lack of central heating meant that in winter, even a few feet away from the fire, you felt cold. The bedrooms were unheated. I remember my father setting up an electric space heater several hours before we went to bed to remove the chill from the air. Hot water bottles were used to warm the beds. I remember many mornings when frost created lovely but frigid patterns on the window and frozen moisture from our breathing clung to the inside of the windows.
The bathroom contained a toilet, a sink and a bathtub. Taking a bath in winter required a certain amount of fortitude. In my teenage years I insisted on obtaining a portable shower unit. This was an unsatisfactory solution. The curtain rail was attached to the wall with hooks and a chain and the rubber hose had two ends that fitted on to the hot and cold water taps. Keeping the water adjusted to the right temperature was a challenge and the hoses had a habit of falling off the taps, causing you to be frozen or scalded.
The flat overall, was small in today’s terms. A lobby extended from the front door to the living room. The main bedroom, which my parents occupied, was to the left, and just before the living room door was a short passage that led to the bathroom and the bedroom I shared with my brother and sister. A small kitchen was accessed from the living room. Near the front door was a coal bunker. This had an outer hatch that could be locked and an inner door that provided access to the coal from inside. The coal arrived in sacks carried on the back of a man who came around the housing scheme. You called out from the window and he brought it up.
Six similar flats on three landings made up one close. The ground floor entrance that provided access to the stair case also extended to another opening on the rear that led to small plots where residents could grow vegetables. My father planted potatoes and allowed me a small space to plant flowers such as nasturtiums.
We had few of the things that people take for granted today. A radio or wireless was a common find in many tenements but television was a rarity in the 1950s. In 1957 or ’58 my father obtained a used television. The picture was black and white (color television did not appear in Britain until late in the 1960s and we would have been unable to afford it anyway). Primitive as it was, though, that old television was a marvel to us. It broke down fairly often and I remember quite a few times when my father’s pal, who was handy with such things, would stop by and help him fix it. The TV was basically a box with a back that unscrewed, allowing the chassis to slide out. Usually the problem was a failed tube (or valve as we called them then). Each one had to be removed and tested. Care had to be taken with the TV tube, which could provide a dangerous shock even when turned off.
Another form of entertainment was an old wind up gramophone that my father had brought back from America in World War 2. He had numerous 78 rpm records, including big bands and short classical pieces. In the 1960s we eventually bought a new electric record player but that old gramophone instilled a love of music from the 1940s that remains with me today. Also, people are surprised when I tell them that early records by Elvis Presley were issued in 78 rpm format.
There were many other activities that occupied our time. Books were a huge part of my life then and remain so today. Thank goodness for the public library, which I visited often. There were also games, comic books, jigsaw puzzles, paintboxes and other simple pleasures. And often, when the weather allowed, we would go outside. Our block of tenements lay on the very edge of the city. Immediately behind us was a wood that we called the bluebell wood, because in summer it was carpeted with the flowers. At least it was in the beginning. That wood received heavy use from neighborhood kids, myself included. We roamed all over it, ignoring nervous mothers’ instructions to ‘stay where they could see us.’
At other times we would play football (soccer) or cricket. My father had hoped, I believe, for a kid who shared his sports ability. He bought me a nice leather football and football boots but unfortunately my bookish nature did not extend to similar skills. He was a good sport about it, though, and would often bring me home books and comics. I also owned a cricket bat, ball and stumps. This ensured that I would be included in the neighborhood games but did not prevent me being picked last when teams were selected.
Until 1968 we had neither refrigerator or telephone. The lack of the first meant that perishable items had to be purchased on a daily basis. The lack of the second meant that, if you needed to call the doctor, or get word to family members (if they had a telephone of their own), you went to the local telephone box or made a bus trip to inform them in person. I remember my uncle coming all the way out to Drumchapel to let us know that my grandmother had died.
One of the unfortunate aspects of coal as a source of heat was that we often experienced dense smogs so thick that they could literally slow traffic to walking pace. People in Glasgow even to this day describe this as fog. But fog is a natural phenomenon that does not shorten your life. These were opaque grey-green clouds of coal smoke, mostly from domestic hearths, mixed in with industrial pollution. Images from that time show how dark the city could get during one of these events. Smoke control laws enacted in the late 1960s eventually stopped these.
Such experiences have influenced my writing, particularly in my book The Taste of Dust, which includes passages describing the life of a young boy in Glasgow during the time period I describe here.
My life now is so completely different. I could not have imagined as a young boy what it would be like to move to a different country and use the types of technology that are now commonplace. My early experiences, however, have shaped my thinking in countless ways and helped me take little for granted.