One of my early memories is of being in a cool motel room with my parents and two older brothers, David and Dale, when I was very little – perhaps four or five years old in 1964 or ’65 – padding across the tiled floor in bare feet drinking an ice cold glass bottle of cola from a vending machine through a straw. We were in America’s Deep South, in Savannah, GA en-route to visit my grandparents, who lived on a semi-tropical island off the coast of Georgia.
Dad drove the near five hundred mile trip from our home in Virginia to Jekyll Island through the night to avoid the midday sultry, humid 100+ degrees Fahrenheit heat which made the back of my bare legs stick to the vinyl seats. The boys and I would ask to stop for a cold drink before we’d even left the end of our street – “are we there yet?” The seven or eight hour drive was still ahead. As night wore on, we’d settle to sleep on the back seat of the Oldsmobile in our cotton pyjamas, leaning against the side of the car doors on pillows; our heads wet with sweat as Mom and Dad talked quietly and listened to the radio. On and on through the night, through the high passes of the Smokey Mountains of North and South Carolina: Johnson City, Asheville before dropping down along the Eastern seaboard past Hilton Head to Savannah.
By nine o’clock the following morning as the searing heat was already beginning to climb, Mom and Dad would check us all into a motel room near Savannah, so Dad could sleep through the day. Mom took me and my brothers swimming in the motel pool before we too had a nap in the air-conditioned room. Later that afternoon after lunch – and probably an ice-cream – we’d pile back into the old Oldsmobile and continue the last hundred miles or so of the trip until we could see the famous and terrifying Sidney Lanier vertical lift bridge across the Brunswick River
We reached our grandparent’s beach-front house during the early evening. I can remember stepping from the intense humidity and sound of crickets into their air-conditioned home which felt like stepping into a fridge.
In the autumn of 1970, my parents upped-sticks from rural Virginia and moved our family to the UK, alighting a train at New Street Station in Birmingham, West Midlands on a cold, wet , grey September morning to follow their romantic dream of English life.
As an historian with a special interest in English history, Dad looked forward to walking in the footsteps of his boyhood hero’s: Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table or Elizabethan explorer, statesman and poet Sir Walter Raleigh.
Mom had notions of finding adventure like the heroines of the romantic novels of her youth: Daphne Du Maurier’s protagonist and narrator Mrs. De Winter in ‘Rebecca’, Emily Bronte’s gothic and ethereal Cathy Earnshaw in ‘Wuthering Heights’ or Jane Austen’s bright, intelligent Elizabeth Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’
The fact that they had three children in tow didn’t seem to cross their minds.
With no home to go to and twelve pieces of good luggage (Mom had insisted on “quality luggage for international travel”- and one suitcase was just for my dolls), our first port of call as aliens was an Edwardian house B & B in Birmingham city centre. The handsome Victorian pile was now faded – its halcyon days long gone. Mom was hoping for the charm of an English country hotel, but the reality was cold and sparse; more Jamaica Inn than Brown’s Hotel.
David and Dale shared a bedroom on the landing and I shared another with Mom and Dad further along the corridor. My parents imagined we would quickly find a house to rent, but being so alien to this new metropolis, they didn’t know how or where to start. So here we found ourselves, embarking on this madcap adventure with no home on the horizon.
Dad embraced our plight with good humour and his pipe as the B&B became our home for the next nine weeks; Mom was less enthusiastic. The boys and I started school and Dad began his new teaching post as Head of History in a grammar school, all in opposite ends of the city. I quote now from my diary, which I kept during that fateful year:
SEPTEMBER 24TH, 1970
“Seven months ago today Daddy rezined from the college in Bristol, VA. Now we are in a bread and breakfast waiting for a house.”
Let me explain about B&B’s in the 1970s. Unlike American motels which boasted air conditioning, a TV in every room, king sized beds, en-suite bathrooms, vending machines and a pool; they offered somewhat more spartan accommodation.
Typical of their ilk, this one only had one toilet on the landing with a wooden seat that scratched your arse. In fact my brother’s named it ‘Scratch’ (father to several ‘Sons of Scratch.’) The chain was so high I couldn’t reach it and believe me – having to shout for help down the landing at ten years old was so just too embarrassing! Whoever heard of a chain to flush the toilet? We had handles where I came from.
Our rooms had an old fashioned washstand and bowl in the corner where we carried out our daily toilette; despite there being an old, stained, communal cast iron bathtub in a small room off the landing. Mom was worried about us taking a bath in it, fearing for our health,
“You never know what you might catch in there!”
I thought that toilet seats had paper already on them because Mom would always get in there ahead of me and wrap carefully lain sheets of Izal over the seat – especially if we were caught short anywhere in public. The only exception to this was in the large department store Ladies Cloak Room on the Sixth Floor, where – according to Mom “attendants clean the sanitary ware after each flush.” (How do mothers know this kind of thing?)
The waxed Izal toilet paper was an anathema to us because a) it was so slippery it would slide straight off the toilet seat and b), it was so thin, you had to use a wadge of it. We were used to four-ply in the States.
The toilet door had a sign on it which said, W.C. What on earth was this? The Manager explained to Dad that it meant Water Closet.
“Water Closet? What the hell is a Goddamn Water Closet?” Dad laughed, “A closet where you keep water? Son-of-a-gun! Did ya ever hear of such a thing kids?” Dad laughed so hard he had to stoop and grab his knees. The Manager put his shoulders back and stiffened his upper lip.
We soon became aware that people here spoke in another, strange tongue called Brummie:
“Can Oi cum in? Can Oi cum in?” asked the chambermaid, as she tapped on my brothers’ door to make the beds. I’m sure she heard the strains of stifled mirth and peals of laughter from under the blankets on the other side of the door. And of course the staff couldn’t understand our Virginia accents either which led to some funny exchanges.
Our first encounter with 1970s English fast food had disastrous results. Remember – we had come from the home of the hamburger: coke with crushed ice, side-orders of coleslaw and great fries – and great service, “Have a nice day!”
Our hopes ran high when we discovered a burger joint in the city centre near our B&B but were soon dashed when we became acquainted with the lukewarm beef burgers, room temperature flat cola and slow service. It was just our luck that a well-known burger chain didn’t open its doors in the UK for another four years in 1974. Our position in the UK as aliens was assured.
Well, of course my brother got sick with a terrible bout of diarrhoea, blocking the toilet; which Mom blamed on the ‘germs’ in the meat. (To be fair, our family had a history of blocking toilets; Dad always said he was ‘a-roll-time-man’.)
Finding that it just wouldn’t shift, Dad resorted to his time-honoured solution: he rolled up his shirt sleeves, flexed his hand, crouched down on all fours to get a purchase on the bowl and, with a quick flourish of his fingers just plunged his arm in there! After pulling out wads of paper, Dad shouted down the public hallway:
“Someone get me a wire coat hanger, would ya?”
“Shh! Someone might hear you!” whispered Mom, as she looked nervously up and down the hallway.
“I don’t give a Goddamn who hears me – I’ve got this honey – just get me the hanger please.”
Mom trotted away furtively down the hall and returned; miraculously producing said hanger, at which Dad deftly unwound the hook and began scraping the bottom of the toilet bowl (he had done this before),
“Dadggumit! Son-of-a-bitch, cheap toilet paper! How much did ya use Son? Honey – can you get me a bucket? Whhaat? There isn’t one? Goddammit!” Sweat was trickling down his sideburns.
“Shhh!” Mom suppressed a giggle.
Dad then did something which has long remained a family secret. Looking around for a suitable receptacle, but finding none, he put all the waste material – handfuls of it – into a little wastepaper bin and put it out on a window ledge outside the boy’s bedroom window. Mom was now giggling hysterically.
“We can’t do that – somebody will find out!”
“Ah – nobody’ll see it honey.”
We checked out.
(Copyright: Andrea Burn 1st July, 2021)