Behind the Privet Hedge

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In 1936 my father designed the house in which I grew up in the Fifties. I would like to say that it was a textbook example of Thirties Modernism, like a small-scale model of an ocean liner in dry dock, with sinuous white curving walls punctuated by Crittall metal windows, and a flat roof – that signifier of all that was modern (or ‘moderne’ in house-speak). The inside white à la Syrie Maugham, with minimalist pale plywood furniture, maybe a Marion Dorn cubist-design rug on the herringbone parquet floor, smudgy John Piper textiles hung at the windows. A regular ‘machine for living’, form elegantly following function. Only it wasn’t.

The house my father built was the sort of house small children draw: a pitched tiled roof, a sturdy chimney at each corner, four symmetrical wood-framed windows, even a castellated brick wall with iron chains and a sunburst gate in the front, standard rose bushes erect alongside the crazy paving path. In short, it was the ubiquitous suburban vernacular of the Thirties – much more representative of that decade that anything the so-called ‘flat roofers’ built. Indeed, it was just like the house Thomas and Edith Baldwin buy in R. C. Sherriff ’s 1936 novel Greengates – and yes, our gates were green too, somewhere along the spectrum between emerald and British racing green.

Our house wasn’t quite as grand as the Baldwins’: we didn’t have a maid’s room – not that we needed one because we didn’t have a maid, just someone who ‘did’ for my mother. And inside it owed little to the influence of the interior of the Queen Mary, embarking on her maiden voyage the year the house was built, and featured in all the ‘picture papers’. The furniture consisted of the usual hand-medowns, a few ‘good pieces’, the odd new purchase from Maples or Drage’s (rather than Heals or Dunns of Bromley, I suspect), my room furnished in whitewood furniture painted apple green gloss, wit

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About the contributor

Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties: An Intimate History has just been published. She can’t wait to start writing another book about that paradoxical, contradictory decade.

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