Machines with Legs
1956 in a terraced house in Kensington and my mother decides she needs a proper-sized fridge for her growing family (three at that point, soon to be five). In post-war Britain fridges were small, furniture-like. They had legs and were pretty expensive. My dad spoke to a patient who was a chef at the Dorchester and from his inspiration a large shiny new Frigidaire turned up a couple of months later. It stood tall and modernly rectangular, though with rounded corners on top. It was creamy yellow. A pair of four-inch- thick doors – three foot high, with ridged chrome handles, lined with white enamel and fixed with chrome screws and rubber seals onto chunky steel hinges – closed with a soft clunk. Inside, the chambers had wire racks, a light came on when the doors opened and a well at the bottom caught any liquid spills. The locked-off space below housed a little motor and eventually quite a lot of dust and cobwebs. It let your ears know it had work to do on a regular basis. This fridge took up approximately 25% of the kitchen floor space. Visitors hardly noticed the small low-ceilinged basement kitchen, as all they saw was this monstrous futuristic metal box.
On occasions the vibrations of the motor made it walk into the middle of the room. My father was usually home late from work, so when this happened we had to struggle around the skewed object all day until he returned from his rounds. We would then unload the contents to prevent spills. He would push hard, cursing, half lifting it and trying to avoid scratching the red, hand painted concrete floor, finally bullying it back into position. All this was done with us watching, still not in bed and rather hopelessly trying to be helpful. There was one good thing though: the fridge did not flood, unlike…
A Thor washing machine was delivered, all the way from Chicago, to replace the Rolls Razor twin-tub. Our American friend, Dorothy next door, had endorsed this because of its single tub. And did it flood! Out would come the pots and mops. My mother laughed it off: at least the floor got a wash. Outdoing the fridge, our washing machine rocked and rolled in its corner and moved out into the room, swaying speckled black tub swinging around full of clothes. It was the high-end model, top-loading and chosen for the new technology of its built-in spinner; after eight rotations in one direction it would go into reverse. Other models followed over the decade, sometimes looking like TV sets. They also were full of marketing promises.
When my parents bought a farm cottage in the South Downs, my mother went to Harrods to choose a stove, the ‘incredible’ Creda Comet. In white enamel with well-spaced rings and chrome detailing, it was American, ie modern, in style and well appointed with chrome detailing. Raymond Loewry would have been proud of the design, its wings and chrome dials referencing aeroplanes and automobile tailfins. The hell of this stove was spectacular. A huge let down, its ‘advanced’ timer was so dysfunctional, miserable and out-of-control it was a dinner-wrecker with a child- baiting function as an extra feature. The oven turned itself off without warning, the grill and rings were a law unto themselves. No one understood or could work out how to override these advanced features. Strangely though the Incredible Comet never quite stopped working.
Some years later after my mother died we ran the Sussex cottage as a kind of commune. Sitting at the kitchen table I came across a tabloid newspaper story about a woman in Grimsby and her Creda Comet. She’d put it in a wheelbarrow and paraded it for several miles with the sign ‘My Incredible Comet’ before pushing it off a cliff. Channelling this spirit, we booted out and replaced our Comet. Its spell was never really broken though. Its fifties style had added eccentric glamour to our cottage kitchen with its patched and worn terracotta tile floor. We had spent so much time alongside the Comet, on Welsh chairs with hard seats, eating family meals full of laughter, well and badly cooked. We’d sat next to it reading Tintin and Asterix and swapping silly stories, the Comet almost one of us, or a witness to our growing up. We became in tune with it by default and the kitchen lost part of its meaning without it.
When I was about five I was obsessed with Hoovers. Known as the Hoover Man, I took myself down Earls Court Road to visit the vicar and his wife specially to have a go with their new machine. I walked along several streets, past slightly dodgy shops and bomb sites. A strange interest this now seems as I’m no petrolhead and my mechanical skills are not up to much, though others in the family have mechanical sympathy. But domestic appliances have always been my bag.
In 1962 I was in Petersfield, the town near our weekend cottage. Walking past a little electrical goods shop in the market square, my twelve-year-old eye was caught by an unusual-looking TV in the window, white enamel with a sunken panel but no screen. Realising that this was in fact a dishwasher and exactly what my mother with her mountains of washing up needed, I stopped and shouted to my dad who was several paces ahead to come and look. I managed to get him into the shop where the man behind the counter did a sales pitch that worked completely on me but not him, for reasons not unconnected with the £60 price tag. We left with the impression that he was not at all on board with this and I nagged him further at lunch with no result.
Next weekend he suggested we go into town; we often used to shop there together, he buying materials and tools at the timber merchants, me happily by his side. That day we picked up the dishwasher and installed it immediately! Actually, it needed no installing, just draining-board space. From first use it was a hit, such that we took it back to London after the weekend and very soon my mother would not travel without it. One of my jobs when we went off for the weekend was to haul this dishwasher up our narrow basement stairs, through the equally narrow hallway, past the surgery and along the garden path with uneven paving stones and moss trapped in the cracks and edges. Getting soaked by residual water trapped in the grey rubber hoses and tripping over the dangling electricity cable that slipped out of your hand, the plug catching a crack in the stone or on a baluster on the stairs, were hazards. I lugged it across the street and onto the back of the car. This was a 1937 Rolls Royce, our family wagon. In lieu of a boot it had a dropdown platform which formed part of the sweeping S-shape of its back end and when horizontal was easy to slide the washing machine onto. We would then arrange any suitcases, boxes and other travelling paraphernalia around it, finally roping it all up together. This was complicated if there was any rain, in which case a canvas sheet had to be worked around the arrangements with rope and straps. The car looked like a hearse taken over by gypsies but all we thought about was getting everything on board. Road safety and dropping loads weren’t in our minds as we worked, who could strap on the most a family competition among the elder boys. (In the next millennium when my brother Rupert took this same car on a journey around India he worked out the answer: a custom-built roof rack.)
Richard Lee’s illustration of my father’s 1937 Rolls Royce.
The travelling dishwasher, or Rolls-Colston as was its real name, was the brainchild of John Bloom and Sir Charles Colston. Entrepreneurial Bloom was an inventor and marketer of household machines. He was a new breed of celebrity businessman, a forerunner of Richard Branson, popular with 1950s ladies including my mother. He had a flat in Mayfair where he threw parties, entertained the Beatles and gave David Bowie his first break. Sadly he went bankrupt when he lost a price war with big manufacturers. In the Times Ralph Harris, Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, wrote, ‘Mr Bloom has already done more for economic growth in Britain than many of its verbal champions in the NEDC and elsewhere’: the kitchen as an engine of economic growth!
My mother and our household certainly benefited from his energy and while I am not sure the technology quite lived up to its promises he did help the modern kitchen was on its way.
Current appliances are dependable, if boring. I do miss the character of their predecessors. I like machines with personality, even if that comes with added stress or calls on our forbearance. Our eldest son is a mechanical engineer who loves old vehicles, not just because he can fix them himself. It’s their character he relates to. The Internet of Things, I discovered at the Smart Kitchen Summit, is bringing appliances more and more under our control at the touch of an app, responding to voice commands, anticipating our health and food desires. This new generation of appliances won’t have legs in the physical sense but could feel uncannily like extensions of our minds and therefore alive. Robots without legs.
Johnny and Becca Grey 22/02/2016