John Edmonds’ memoir, ‘The Lean Years’, is firmly rooted in the home. Whilst he is careful not to fall to nostalgia, it is clear that John looks back fondly upon his childhood years. His autobiography seeks to immortalise the laughs had and the memories made at 118 Eugenia Road. This childhood home becomes a vibrant character in John’s autobiography. When he revisits this hallowed ground in 1948, he finds it ‘changed beyond recognition by bulldozer and builder’ (1). He resolves to write about the good times in hope that they would live on through his writing, even with the building itself long gone. Upon John’s return to the home, he saw the decrepit condition and lifelessness of the streets. It sparked genuine upset within him. Merely looking at the setting of the most cherished period of his life evoked ‘a feeling of sadness’ (1). The ‘walls were cracked and scarred, the paint had peeled from large areas of the front door’ (2). The disrepair of this building represented the decay of a fun-filled childhood. John’s love for his first home is obvious. His 1948 visit is ‘akin to that of viewing an old friend’s corpse prior to its funeral’ (3). The personification of the home amongst this imagery of death is an agonisingly brutal display of yearning for the fading youthfulness that that house represented.
For John, 118 Eugenia Road took on a symbolic meaning. He muses that it ‘could almost be termed an ancestral home’ (19). His Grandfather was its first occupant and remained there until his death, upon which his parents assumed tenancy. This ties the home to the family, and as a man with a strong grounding in traditional family values, it becomes clear why John is so sentimental about the home. The pride John felt in his home is evident. He describes it as one of many ‘“workmans’ dwellings”’ (19) in the area. This places John’s home as a humble, yet well-connected, locus of fun, community, love, and fairness in the midst of hard times. The connection to the working class embodies John’s own sense of belonging to a category of people lacking in material wealth, but bursting with the joy of life. His home life was lively and he looks back on it with fondness. Often, ‘teenaged high spirits exploded into general rough and tumbles which despite the depression of this period were more frequent than otherwise’ (22). The family had little money. His father found it hard to come by or keep employment and his mother frequented pawnshops just to make sure there was food on the table. Yet, the “make do and mend” ethos of the family home kept John going, and this attitude would inspire him into later life.
His father was a stern character. His hatred of animals clashed with his mother’s love for them, and so they ‘frequently quarrelled’ (31). His mother’s selflessness contrasted his father’s firmness. Upon coming across a youth abusing a horse, John’s mother ‘beat him till he turned tail and continued to lash him with her tongue’ (36). This anecdote stays true to John’s insistence that his mother would not tolerate injustice ‘without active protest’ (35). In opposition, John paints a strict picture of his father. One act of cruelty, which John likens to ‘depriving a legless man of his artificial limbs’ (72), was taking away John’s new glasses. He had only just received them, and commented that they allowed him ‘to see things clearly’ (73) for the first time. His father had taken him to get them on a rare occasion that his doting mother was unable to. Upon leaving the optician’s appointment, ‘father suddenly commanded “Take those bloody things off and give them to me”’ (72).
There remains a sense of resentment towards his father over this, claiming years later in his memoir that his ‘motive remains inexplicable’ (73). Yet, John states that his father was ‘misunderstood’ (32) by many. He adds that whilst he was inexplicably strict, he taught his children discipline, and was capable of having fun at times. ‘Sometimes when he felt at peace with the world and had a little money, he would entertain himself and we children with a session on the mouth organ’ (30). It is interesting to see how this is dependent upon his mood and economic viability, but family time did take place. Sending John’s mother or one of his siblings to the shop for beer, he would play ‘jigs, reels, and waltz tunes until bed time’ (31).
This traditional jovial atmosphere is something that Islington-born working-class autobiographer Henry Price (1824-1908) feels is exclusive to the working class. He claims that ‘The Merry Homes of England […] [h]ave no room to be merry in’ (Price, 1904, 67). Price explains that there is no time for middle-class fathers to relax with a drink, and that children do not get to enjoy the company of their family. He adds that the father only comes home from work when the children in bed, and he must then go to bed himself in preparation for the next day of earning – something which Price insists the middle class are utterly consumed by. According to Price, those with more money do not leave time to enjoy it, like John’s did on occasion, even with his father’s flaws. John’s family might have had little money, and valuable time together might have been subject to various conditions. However, it is obvious that these instances of family bonding form the backbone of a childhood that John reflects on with such happiness.
2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9517
Price, Henry. ‘Diary.’ MS, Islington Public Library, 1904.
Edmonds, John. ‘Scaled plan of ground floor of “Workman’s Dwellings”.’ ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library – http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9517
Eugenia Road, London – https://www.google.co.uk/maps