The Old Backyard
‘Please don’t pull our shithouse down
Mother has promised to pay
Father’s away in the RAF and
Kate’s in the family way
Uncle Jim’s got syphillis
Things are bleeding hard
Please don’t pull our shithouse down or we’ll
Have to shit in the yard.’
On a dark and misty mid afternoon later that year outside our new house in Battersea, a group of women were singing as they waited for the totters to come with their barrows. A barrow arrived and the women forgot their singing in a scrabble among the filthy clothes piled upon it.
Flapping on the wall of a windowless house nearby a notice said:
‘DEMOLITION ORDER: This house is hereby declared closed. Persons found occupying it will be liable upon conviction to a fine or imprisonment or both.’
Soon the houses of all of us would disappear in falling bricks and dust. The yard, the shithouse, and everything else it contained, would be gone. And yet the backyards so vigorously being destroyed at that moment were, it seemed to me, much loved by many of my neighbours. The backyard was one of those things that meant being ‘British’ to unhappy soldiers far from home in wartime. Now, in the time of vast tower blocks, huge imposing housing schemes intended to build ‘homes fit for heroes’, did the architects and planners ever stop to ponder how the backyard was such a very special place for millions?
Never. The backyard belonged to the manual (formerly called ‘working’) classes, and to that soon to be emergent class, the unemployed. To the professional or even occasional privileged class from which the new architects and planners came, it was not conceivable that their loss could be anything but beneficial.
‘”Please don’t pull our shithouse down”. Oh yes,’ an old army deserter from the first world war told me, ‘Yes, that was an old song, like, you know, when I was in the army I used to think of that song, the “Old Backyard” in the summer, be a lovely life and one of Al Jolson’s old records, that old one, it always reminded me of the yard in summer, the old backyard like, the old rabbits, the man’s fantails over next door, and sitting out there in the sun, you know, it used to be fabulous, and you could hear all the noises, you know, couldn’t you sitting there, used to bring it all back to me, being in the army like, you miss London and the backyards, well it’s not the same is it?’
Then he sang;
‘You’ll see castles in Spain
Through your windowpane
Out in your old backyard.
You’ll find your heaven of blue
Waiting for you
Out in your old backyard.’
‘Very much so, yes,’ said Philip Roger-Lee, ‘Yes, I would much rather lose a lot of other things than lose the backyard. ‘Cos I feel that once we take away the backyard we become strangers in the true sense of the word. The reason for this is, that neighbourliness begins over the back garden wall, it always has done, always will be. New neighbours meet over the back garden wall. The old age pensioner next door gets his dinner over the wall. Oh, many many things in the way of neighbourly feeling takes place over the back garden wall.’
Charles Morris said, ‘The point of the backyard is, it’s private. Backyards is the palace of the private man. By taking the backyard away and placing this type of man in flats you don’t create a palace, you create a prison. I haven’t got a backyard now I’ve moved into flats and I would like, I would like to have more than anything else the backyard for the more private jobs, odd jobs and such like, for instance if you’re sawing wood. I mean, in a flat you’ve got to do it in the bathroom, whereas if you’ve got a bit of a backyard you can do it there. It’s true that there’s plenty of land around these modern blocks of flats. You might ask me, why can’t we do our odd jobs there? Well, the point is that you’d be doing it in public. You’re doing it in front of everybody’s eyes. You’d get all those people in the tower block talking about you and, well, it’s not really nice, is it?’
Sunbathing was what attached Mr White, now rehoused in a flat, to his backyard; ‘I mean to say, you could always take your shirt off during the summer months out there when the sun was shining and sit out there to your heart’s content, whereas you can’t do that in one of these flats. Some of them’ve got balconies, it’s true. Nice balconies! Yes! But you sit out there and strip to your shorts, like, everybody’s going to look at you, aren’t they?’
‘To walk into the backyard of a Sunday, no matter where that backyard may be, it’s something, a ritual that we’ve always had,’ said Bob Moseley. ‘My back yard to me means a place where I can do little odd jobs. Chase the dog and cat into. Sometimes retreat after a few words with the wife of a Sunday. Something like that.’
‘If you break up an old chair in front of one of the blocks of flats,’ said Mr Dunne, ‘the point is, you’re doing it in front of everybody’s eyes, you’re making a sort of public show of it. That’s not very nice, is it? Whereas, in the backyard you were private. I think with a little imagination we could build into these flats portions of property which could be used by the residents where they could pop off and spend an hour or two by digging or doing a little odd job which they would have done if they had a backyard. I think we could have the best of both worlds with a little bit of imagination. ‘Another thing, the children are not allowed to play on the grass outside the flats. They’re compelled to play on the concrete. People feel that these gardens in the new blocks of flats just don’t belong to them, they’ve got caretakers and porters around, chasing the children and so on, and they feel that this is not part of their flat at all, it’s just like putting a bunch of red roses in front of an old tin can, just to show it off.’
‘Well, the first time I can recollect keeping pigeons was bringing a pigeon home from school one evening, he’d broken his wing or his leg, I can’t remember which, and I asked Mum if I could keep it in the garden,’ said Alfred Cody. ‘She said, provided you keep it somewhere where it’s warm. Anyway, we decided that we’d keep it in the backyard in an orange box and I guess that’s how we first started.
‘From then on of course we got more and more interested. My brother came in with me too and we decided to join a club. We joined the club and we were jogging along steadily when all of a sudden Dad got the bug as well! He decided he’d like to join in and race pigeons with us. So that really started us off. We got out in the backyard and we decided we’d build two good lofts. Well, we started off one Saturday morning and by Sunday we were all so keen that we was soaking but the lofts they was built.
‘Then it was building the stock up. We were advised by one of the old fanciers in the club to go to a good man that he recommended. So we set out on a Sunday morning to go and see one of the old Wimbledon Flyers, Mr Gilbert. We went over there on a Sunday morning and bought six pair, and we’ve never looked back so far.
‘There are two routes on this flying. There is the North Road Route and the South Road. To my estimation, and a lot of other flyers, the South Road Route is the hardest route in the world, because we have to come across the Channel, while the North Road pigeons stay inland all the time. The North Road they fly from Thurso and Lerwick which is five and six hundred miles. But on the South Road we fly down as far as Exmouth, which is 154, and then we shoot across the Channel up to our furthest point which is Barcelona, one thousand miles away. No matter how long the distances are they will do it, and a pigeon will break his heart to try to get home.
‘The pigeon faces many hazards in the course of its race. There are the mountains, there’s the fog, there’s rain, and there’s that fellow they call the farmer. Also from other birds especially, if you’re flying across the water, from hawks. We never seem to have any trouble from birds in London.
‘Pigeons fly better over the earth than they do over the sea. Well, the earth naturally because a pigeon flies low when it comes across the sea, and that’s what makes them go down, in my estimation. They see their shadows in the water and down they go, but they never come up again.
‘Pigeon racing to me is a thrill. The greatest thrill I’d say is of a Saturday afternoon when you’re all eyes searching everywhere to see the birds in which direction they’re arriving.
‘And then, coming in from the south you see sometimes a matter of hundreds of pigeons, all racing in your direction and you say, is one of them ours? And then as they swoop across so you see one folding right back, drop his wings and falling and hitting your shed and he’s standing outside there waiting to go in that trap.’
Another man was just about to lose his pigeons. ‘As a matter of fact I am now under the slum clearance,’ said Leonard Mayo, ‘and I am hoping very much to get a house, but if I can’t of course, if I get a flat it will mean I have to pack up my pigeons, which I regret will hit me very much since it’s the only interest I’ve had since I was a school kid; and I feel if the pigeons was to go that would be the end of my days of racing because I’d never have any interest again in this particular subject.
‘I wouldn’t actually know what to do, I’m not a big drinking man and I spend most of my time with my pigeons. In the summer time I’m nearly always with them and I mean if I didn’t have no pigeons ...’
‘Some rabbit fanciers have got quite a few and others have only one or two, but they’ve all got some,’ says Mr Smith, as we stood in a room filled with boxes in which were rabbits that members had brought to show off to each other.
‘That is one thing I feel very strongly about, this losing our backyards business, I mean, our rabbit club was 150 strong, you know, at one time. Owing to the backyards going down and the flats going up, you see the result tonight; we’ve only got 20 odd members. I feel very strongly on that score.’
‘But also, I mean, there’s people that have still got yards that don’t utilise them, I know from my own experience there’s yards to either side of me that aren’t used, and I know chaps that would give their right hands for a bit of ground.
‘We were 150 strong with children’s parties with 2 or 3 hundred kiddies, socials and dinner dances. We took part in the Borough Victory Carnival, we had Mrs Ghandi round here at one of our exhibitions, she purchased a pair of gloves from me to take to the Houses of Parliament.
‘Some people do prefer some small rabbit that they can pet and make a fuss of in a general way,’ said Mr Harding. ‘Others, of course, have the table qualities thinking of all the time, they do hope to get something big to help our their weekly food position. Then there’s the third sort that breeds for the wearing. Mrs Hall here, as you see, is wearing a rabbit-skin cape.’
‘My favourite rabbit, as a fur rabbit, is the chinchilla,’ said Mr During; ‘because it’s got such a nice texture and a lovely coat. Also it’s more defined with three different colours underneath the pelt, namely a base which is dark purple, then a nice purling which is a white or a pearl and, finally, a black edging. Each hair on the rabbit, in other words, has three colours. Also the coat itself outside is, you might say, a mackerel top, which, to my mind, is something very nice to the eye of the female, especially if she has a coat or suchlike made out of them. I honestly think that the British people have forgotten the poor old rabbit. And yet, in the 1939 and ‘45 war, I don’t know where we’d have been for our dinner sometimes if it wasn’t for the humble old bunny.’
‘We have a very small backyard,’ said Mr Gunning. ‘We have a piece of ground 8 feet by 2 feet which is quite useful and I’ve also got a greenhouse, 6 x 8.
‘There are 3 belladonna lilies out there. Last year I had a very fine show of fuschias which they call the ballet dancer and I was really proud of that and quite a number of neighbours remarked on the beauty of them. It really is a beautiful plant. There is also a fair number of cacti succulents.
‘Plants are like children, if you want a good plant, you’ve got to really look after it, you’ve got to put hours and hours in to cultivate that plant, give the proper food, and condition to grow in. Then you can expect a reasonably good plant.’
‘Backyards was used until recently for a great deal of stabling of horses,’ said Mr Froling. ‘Still are quite a lot. In the old days on Sunday mornings it was a pleasure to smell the hay and the straw and to hear the old chaps talking about the horses. These horses were used mainly for general dealing, mainly perhaps for flowers, or logs, or for collecting of old iron and scrap metal and so on, you know, that type of thing.
‘There is the general dealer and there is the totter,’ says Mr Penfold. ‘A general dealer will pay you a fair price but the totter is a chap who’s out to get something for nothing. General dealers should not be confused with totters, totters will find old perambulators, old bikes, old motor cars ... old anything.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’d call me a totter,’ says Mr Heath. ‘I’ve got a couple of old barrows, prams, I go out totting with the barrows, get a lot of gear. I’d never sacrifice my backyard. Never. I wouldn’t have nowhere to sort me stuff. I’ve got five kids. They enjoy the backyard. I’ve got a dog in it and all that, you know what I mean.
‘Now take May’s Caf up the road. She’s got an old car in her backyard. She must think a great deal of this old car, considering the number of totters that’s called there and offered to take it away. But no, she’ll never part with that, it’s part and parcel of something that she likes, it may be a mystery but it’s a mystery she likes, it’s a mystery of the old backyard, there’s many like it.’
‘Oh, I’d be very sorry to lose my backyard,’ says May; ‘Well, that’s all we’ve known round here is backyards. Years ago we used to hang our clothes out there, to get them a good colour. We used to go picking blackberries too. But now, in mine, there’s only that old car there. I’ve had that car a long long time. For sentimental reasons we don’t want to get rid of it. My ex husband said, ‘One day I’m going to move it, alright?’ But I’m afraid these days it’s falling to pieces. It’s not what it was. It wouldn’t be so easy to move it.
‘It has; No tyres!
‘It’s just sentimental. I said to my ex husband many a time, why not have a couple of quid for it? Now I don’t think I’d get 3d.’
‘Another thing the backyard used to be used for,’ said Mr Dryer, ‘was for snobs. Shoes. Yes. Snobbing is the repairing of shoes. No end of snobbing was done in the backyard.’
‘There doesn’t seem to be so much freedom here as there was in the older places,’ said Mr Stubbings, who had been rehoused into a high-rise flat. ‘The old way was much better for the children, they used to be able to go out to play in the garden or the streets.
‘They do have a playground here but they don’t use it a lot. Not as much as they should do. They feel as if they’re tied in more, more confined.’
‘We had a backyard,’ said Mr Partridge, also now living in a high rise flat. ‘Had a few flowers. Always had a dog. That’s what I miss most. Not allowed to have pets here. Worse luck. It was terrible when she went.
‘And the cat. She had to go too. It was heartbreak house that night. I can’t get used to the fact that I can’t have a dog, or a cat.’
So why were all these people losing their backyards? My friend Audrey Harvey, a Fabian and Citizens Advice Bureau worker, believed that it was important and necessary to rebuild these Battersea ‘slums’. ‘Of course there are lots of people who live in houses with backyards but who never have the use of a backyard. It’s only the more privileged who have access to the yards at the back of the houses. And I’ve seen a lot of dreadful backyards, that were nothing more than open air passages leading to open air lavatories. Often they were like open air sculleries as well, as the only tap for the whole house was situated there. They can be terrible. Dirt harbours. Terrible! Filthy! Three families sharing a cracked toilet in a terrible state!’
The unattractive face of the Old Backyard was also evoked for me by Mr Evans, an old-age pensioner, living in one damp room down steep steps in a basement, without cloth on his table or sheets on his bed.
In a bluff, almost crazy manner, he led me out through a reeking yard to his toilet, and explained; ‘The concrete is all breaking. It keeps getting blocked. I’ll be glad to leave this place. It’s disgusting.
‘The walls are falling. The wall’s falling down and the frame of the door has come absolutely straight away from the wall.
‘You get into the toilet, you just sit on the seat and you can put your finger up the side of the wall, you can just touch it, and out comes a large bit of wall! So, what else can you do? You’re sitting in dampness all the time.
‘When we’ve pulled the plug we have to wait another half-hour before the cistern’s filled up again. So that
you can’t go out there in turn, I mean one can’t follow the other.’
‘I like the backyards,’ Mrs Ashe told me, ‘but ours is no good. There’s the railway on top of us, so it’s no good for hanging out washing, and all the smoke from the trains comes down on top of us, and out there there’s just dustbins and bikes. Backyards are unhygienic, they’re too small, they’re too compact.
‘It isn’t healthy at all for children to play there because of the dustbins. No good for children at all, you couldn’t put a child out there. They have to play in the streets, bless their hearts. Only, I don’t let them.’
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