The instructions were clear. “Hi Mum. Plumber arriving at 10am to plumb in new toilet. Please let him in and show him where the bathroom is and don’t worry about payment as I’ve got it all sorted.” Simple enough? Yes, I thought so too. Fast forward to 6pm, excited by having my own private toilet at last I ran upstairs to have a look. I’ve never seen a 4 foot waste disposal pipe at the back of a loo before and I’ve never, ever seen a toilet in the middle of the room. The scribbled red-pencil note taped to the toilet seat said “Your mother insisted – I tried to put the loo where you wanted. I will have to charge you extra for the waste disposal pipe.” My poor mum did get an earful that day. She meant well because the recess into which I wanted to put the loo was narrow, but not THAT narrow. And yes, it was backing on to a window, but that’s what curtains are for and we were on the 4th floor with nobody overlooking us! Mum never got angry when people reacted to her actions, she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders in a well-it’s-up-to-you motion, leaving a seething, exasperated, confused person unable to fathom the logic. There was logic, but it was Mum logic and it made sense to her as she always applied it with love. Given carte blanche to design her own home, it would have made the history books as one of Britain’s most eccentric houses. To explain the situation: Mum inherited a tumble-down, neglected house in London that hadn’t been maintained for decades. The windows rattled, there was no central heating, none of the doors closed properly, various animals lived in the loft and I took over the top floor aged 18 just before I started work with the BBC. It was an adventure and slowly I converted the rooms into a sort of self-contained flat even though it was just the top floor of the house, so anyone could walk upstairs whenever they fancied, and 9 times out of 10 that was Mum.
She often refers to “Number 6” when she is confused by where she’s lived. It was a spectacular house and would have been a wonderful home, but the work that needed doing was beyond her on a cleaner’s salary and mine as a rookie BBC trainee. Clingfilm over windows was a great tip from a money-saving expert. Not only did it stop the wind whistling in, it helped discourage the ice on the inside of the window. Mum nestled herself into 2 rooms on the ground floor and painted the mahogany panel walls bright pink (gloss) and covered all the floors with all the thread-bare carpets she’d found in other parts of the house. It must have reduced the room height by at least a foot and I can always remember the trip hazard when you stepped up into the room onto the layers of carpet. Life was always colourful at Number 6, sadly now knocked down and replaced by a block of modern flats with one flat (the one that occupies the same space that my old kitchen covered), always up for sale. That’s a big story for another time, so for now let’s say that the place had its own personality and made itself known.
Tony & I are thinking of clever ways to get a bit more space in the kitchen area. In contrast to Number 6, our house is squeezed for space and my dream has always been to have a downstairs loo so that if Mum does manage to come to stay, she’ll be able to have her own little bathroom (with a normal, short waste disposal pipe). Every time I think of renovation of any kind, my mind always goes back to Number 6 and how basic life used to be there. We have central heating now and I’ve never taken it, or hot water, for granted as it wasn’t something we had whilst growing up. My Dad hated central heating, so it was never installed and washing up was always done with various kettle-loads of boiling water. “Who needs modernity?” were Dad’s words whenever we complained that all our friends had hot running water and warm houses. Back at Number 6 I’d had a party where Dad and my step-mum had come and the three of them got along quite well for a change. Dad mentioned that the electricity supply was a bit old fashioned and suggested to Mum that maybe it needed updating for safety’s sake. So she took his advice and brought in an electrician to give us a quote. Bearing in mind that my old lounge had one old round three-pin socket from which I’d erected a stack of two-pin round adapters to run all my appliances from. It was when the blue sparks flew out from the stack whenever anything was un-plugged that alerted my Dad to the safety aspect. The electrician said that it would be cheaper for us to have gas and electric done at the same time as there were two rooms where the gas was escaping through old pipe work. How we didn’t all suffocate or go up in flames is a miracle. The electrics were all done – no problem – but for some reason Mum got involved in the routing design for the gas pipes. Now, you’d think that the route for running a gas pipe down from the loft and into the room below would be into the corner and along the floor don’t you think? No, Mum thought that each pipe should come down the wall half-way across the door frame, then snake round the door frame, 1 foot from the frame itself, then do a 3/4 square wiggle to get to the floor. And where did this first experimental gas pipe design appear? In my lounge. Not only were the ugly pipes visible and sprawling everywhere, she’d painted them bright red. I’d got used to the electric sockets being placed half way up the wall, but the red gas pipes had to go. Give the man his due, he finished the job, often seen leaving the house shaking his head and scratching his brow with another strange piping request.
All this was Mum’s way of keeping me safe of course. She’d been told that the pipes and wiring were dangerous, so her responsibility was to replace them and make them safe. Aesthetics didn’t come into it – well, I suppose they did, but they were Mum’s vision of interior design. Many, many years later I worked for BBC Pebble Mill with the brilliant Nick Thorogood (the man who has always encouraged me to write all this down) and we developed a show called “The Million Pound House Experiment” where Justin and Colin renovated and sold a chain of homes from a cheap Birmingham flat to a million-pound Mayfair home over 2 years with clever renovations, using psychology in the display and selling of the houses and the sheer brilliance of their design ideas. Maybe Mum should have sneaked in and had a word with one of the craftsmen somewhere … can you imagine?