National Geographic : 1947 Dec
Keeping House in London BY FRANCES JAMES THE household gods of London are a tea pot and cozy, a fireside, a fat and sleepy purrer of a cat, and perhaps a book or two on how, some day, it is all to be redesigned and rebuilt. London looks before and after and pines for what is not-backward to Dick Whittington, ahead to the Abercrombie plan.* Its viewpoint will always be framed, I think, in such human terms and measurements as cats and dogs, children and old people, fireplaces and tea kettles, and a warm, dry place to hang up the dish rubbers. Cosmopolitan London is essen tially villagelike, the "homiest" metropolis I know. Scores of American correspondents, such as my husband and I, congregate in London to garner news about shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages-or Brussels sprouts!-and kings. The wives of London, it grows upon me, have a story, too-one of bacon, milk, bread, eggs, and the queue. Modern Wives' Tales These modern wives' tales of keeping house in London sum up the day-to-day epic of seek ing normal amenities in a very abnormal world. Having worked in wartime Washington, D. C., I was familiar with rationing and short ages, with streetcars jammed to the doors, little meat, no butter, and that dreadful Satur day-night rush at the grocery store. Such annoyances were as nothing. The longer we live in London the more we want to pin a medal on the British heroine of war and postwar, the housewife who has faced up to austerity for seven long years and whose ability to "make do" must be tested for many months yet to come. One big difference to us between keeping house in Washington and in London is the difference between a roomy new flat and one crowded, ancient room. Normally, Londoners prefer houses to flats, and big American-style apartment blocks in London are landmark exceptions rather than the rule (page 792). A vast area of London, as in all English cities, is a two-storied vista of front stoops and chimney pots, each stoop and row of pots stubbornly proclaiming the Englishman's wish to possess the sanctuary of his own entranceway and fireside. The majority of London's houses were ad * Sir Patrick Abercrombie is the consultant for the County of London plan for Greater London. mittedly below modern standards of con venience even before the war. A half-dozen years of unavoidable wartime neglect and bomb damage have increased the rate and extent of obsolescence. Flat or "Prefab" Considered a Prize Today a modern flat or even a temporary "prefab" is a prize beyond compare. With domestic help and household fuel both scarce, big houses are conspicuously inconvenient, so much so that living in the mews, or one-time stables, behind them is more attractive than trying to maintain the big house (page 789). Many old homes in the West End are being turned into maisonettes or bed-sitting rooms. Or else they stand beaten and empty, a strange note in a city with an acute housing shortage. Today's home-seeking Londoner purchases coziness or convenience at the price of inde pendent space or elegant scale, both of which require servants or an inordinate amount of personal housework. We have crammed our collection of Ameri cana into one large room "two pair (flights) up" in a house not far from Hyde Park and Belgrave Square; it belonged in its 19th-cen tury "day" to one of the lesser gentry. I do our cooking on a one-burner electric grill. A cupboard holds our washstand. In terms of convenience, we "keep house" in much the same wistful make-do fashion as thousands of other Londoners, waiting the day. A blank hole in the row where once stood a house next to ours, a blighted vacant lot on the corner, and flapping canvas at the glassless windows of a scarred and peeling building across the street remind us each morning that a delayed-action bomb exploded in the neigh borhood during the blitz. It will take yet some doing to make such stains on London come completely clean. We are content to enjoy our one room. London, when it looks back, is thankful for victory. His Majesty's Loyal Housewives We arrived in London the first week of June, 1946, just in time to help several million perfectly polite people watch the Victory cele brations. We saw Londoners risk injuring the feelings of crack regiments in the V parade by giving their biggest applause to the uneven column of marching housewives. We sensed then that wartime call-ups and commandeering had struck first and hardest at the homemaker.