Monday, September 07, 2009

Life before IKEA

Life before IKEA
BY Michael McMillan

BOTH MY parents came to England in the early 1960s from St Vincent and the Grenadines, and I was born in High Wycombe – the unofficial capital of the Vincentian diaspora in the UK.
I grew up learning that ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, and that no matter how poor we were, if the front room looked good we were respectable.
As children, we weren’t normally allowed into the front room unless there were guests, or it was a Sunday and it had been ritually hoovered and polished on the Saturday in readiness for some unknown visitor.
Air freshener and furniture polish would mask the smell of the paraffin heater coming from the passage, and ‘big people’ would be chatting over the mellow voice of Jim Reeves crackling from the radiogram.
My mother would invite me in to meet a relative who I had never met before, who would tell me how big I had got. They would continue chatting about people they know in England and back home: “You hear Miss Smart die?”
I would get Mum two rarely used gold-rimmed glasses, lying amongst many, from the glass cabinet. Then I would wheel over the drinks trolley, from which she took her favourite drink, a bottle of Stone’s Ginger Wine, and ice from the plastic pineapple ice bucket.
I’d sit down obediently on the plastic covered settee, which stuck to my skin. I would stare at a picture of a blue-eyed Jesus looking at me disapprovingly from ‘The Last Supper’ on the floral-papered wall that didn’t match with the floral-patterned carpet, and notice a fly fooled by the plastic flowers and colourful crochet on a fake marble coffee table.
As the sun shone through the pressed lace curtains and I’m about to fall asleep, I might overhear, “I don’t know why she marry him” and I am ordered out of the front room to check the on rice and peas cooking in the kitchen.
If any of this story resonates, you could like myself wax lyrical about the front room and how it embodies growing up in Britain at a particular moment.
It followed post World War Caribbean migration to England when West Indian men and women arrived dressed in their Sunday best with dignity and respectability packed deep in their suitcases, or ‘grips’.
They saw themselves as British citizens coming to the ‘mother country’, though dreams of better opportunities soon evaporated in the face of racism.
From one-room rented accommodation, many used the pardner hand to save for a deposit on a house in which the front room was ‘created’. Dressed by women and used by men, the West Indian front room in Britain was an aspirational space with the same furniture and ornaments as many English working-class families.
Professor Stuart Hall argues, “The front room is a conservative element of black domestic life, which is more complex and richer than the generality of the society ever realises”. And while Caribbean families in Britain were being demonised as social problems waiting to happen, the front room expressed their values, religious identities, domestic practices and familial connections.
With the arrival of the television and more politically orientated black urban music being played on the ‘Blue Spot’ radiogram, the front room became the site of intergenerational conflicts that saw the emergence of black British identities.
* The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home by Michael McMillan is published this month by Black Dog Publishing.
For more information about The Front Room visit: