It was one of those hazy golden October afternoons, the weakening sun reflected off glossy stucco-work as shadows lengthened across London squares. Leon and I parked in Bayswater and, although it was late in the day, we were about to take the first step in our new enterprise. With one hundred pounds in the bank, a second-hand Austin A30, recently purchased for less than half that sum, and a pair of stepladders secured to the roof rack, we felt equipped for business. We left the car and, scattering crisp autumn leaves that littered the pavement, started to make our way around Kensington Gardens Square, knocking on doors and asking for decorating work. To our surprise, we received a positive response after only a few minutes. A woman who must have been in her late thirties, who had both legs in plaster, hobbled to the door. ‘As it happens,’ she said, ‘I do want my bathroom painted.’

Doris

Doris Lessing

These words are quoted from my book, ‘An English Baby Boomer: My Life and Times’, and thus was launched a business that, in one form or another, supported me for nearly twenty years. At the time, the idea of my writing a book would have been as distant as far away mountains, however writers surrounded me and it would only be a matter of weeks before we received a boost. Just before Christmas, the novelist Doris Lessing asked us to redecorate the sitting room and staircase in her eighteenth-century terraced house in Ossulston Street, behind St Pancras Station. This was the same first-floor room where I had been introduced to her during August, when a group of friends had gathered to plan a big party. On that stiflingly hot Sunday, there were not enough seats for everyone so I had stretched out on the coarse coconut matting that covered the floor. The urban jungle, beyond tall dormer windows, basked in sultry, breezeless late afternoon sunshine. In contrast, we arrived for work on a freezing December morning and found most of the house in shambles, occupied by more cats than humans, but by beavering away until late every evening, supported by endless cups of tea by the kindly Doris, we completed our assignment in time for seasonal parties.

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett

As further described in my book; on one occasion we had to pull a man off another job when the playwright, Alan Bennett, wanted someone for a day to help him dissolve layers of distemper that had gunged up the fine lace-like plaster cornice work in his new house in Camden Town.

As we arrived at the open front door, the Yorkshireman called down from his perch on the top of a pair of tall steps where he was pressing the spout of a steaming kettle into the ceiling moulding with one hand and scraping away with the other.

‘Kum right in, lads, an’ give us un ‘and,’ he yelled.

It was a scene to relish for years to come, and when Talking Heads or one of his plays appeared on television I would be reminded of him, his unique style and exquisite powers of observation. Occasionally, he could be seen on his bicycle, pedalling earnestly through north London, a woollen scarf invariably trailing from around his neck.

Other authors followed including Kenneth Tynan and B.S.Johnson and, of course, there were the ghosts! As we scurried around London for all those years we were reminded of great English writers who had toiled away in the capital; Defoe, Bunyan and Milton who were citizens of the parish of Cripplegate, Matthew Arnold in Belgravia, Dickens in Gray’s Inn, Keats in Hampstead, Thomas Carlyle in Chelsea, William Morris in Hammersmith, and W S Gilbert in Kensington, to name just a few.

William Morris

William Morris

Prince-Albert-Memorial_DSC_2827

Prince Albert Memorial, London

Parking near Albert Mansions, where we often had work, the massive statue of Prince Albert in Kensington Gardens would catch my eye, surrounded by a bas relief gallery of statuettes depicting famous artists, musicians and writers including Shakespeare and Chaucer.

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