We had been in our flat for well over a year when my parents decided it was time to cover the endless magnolia emulsion with something a little more colourful. The decorating process began with a trip to a shop we had never visited before, just past the station in Cheadle Hulme village. Later versions of shops like this would be much bigger and would be called DIY stores selling everything for home improvement and repair. This was a much smaller affair and only sold items for home decorating. Rolls of wallpaper weren’t immediately available in the shop so we staggered home with huge books of wallpaper samples and pored over them to select the patterns we wanted to order. My parents chose a pale blue paper covered with randomly clustered angular shapes and spiny drawing of chianti bottles to be used in the hall and parts of the lounge. They also ordered one of the new vinyl-coated wallpapers dotted with brightly coloured angel fish for our tiny bathroom.
The walls were measured, the sample books were returned, we placed our order and carried home the paste, paints and brushes we needed.
Though the background colour and the motifs were different this was very much the style of our hall and lounge wallpaper. Everything on the paper was very angular and the small motifs were surrounded by thin, dark lines. There were shapes that looked like Christmas starbursts which I think were supposed to represent exploding atoms - all very modern and scientific!
They began with painting. The paint adverts in magazines featured beautifully groomed, smiling couples in immaculate clothes without a spot of paint or mess in sight. Decorating seemed to make the people in the adverts really happy. The reality in our flat was very different. Smells of gloss and emulsion paint filled every corner of our home. They were so strong that I seemed to be eating them at every meal – even leaving windows wide open didn’t help much. The gloss paint released the strongest smell and created the worst problems because it was very runny and prone to dripping. Almost immediately decorating began I got gloss paint on my hands and had to have something called white spirit rubbed on to them. It made my hands sting and even after lots of soap and water the white spirit smell wouldn’t go away. Wherever I went I seemed unable to move without disturbing the newspapers laid on the floor to protect the brown linoleum tiles. I was constantly greeted with a chorus of: ‘Don’t touch that!’ ‘Don’t move! Wait until I’ve got the paint off your shoe or you’ll tread it everywhere!’ ‘Just watch what you’re doing!’. The whole process seemed to make my parents really irritable with one another as well.
Some days after the pungent paint phase, we collected our rolls of wallpaper. It was time to mix up the paste in a bucket, stirring quickly so there weren’t any lumps. It didn’t smell a great deal better than the gloss paint. Wallpapering seemed to take a long time and to cause a great deal of argument. There was so much fiddly preparation. The pattern on each roll was bounded by a narrow blank strip, so before the lengths of paper could be measured, matched, cut and pasted this edging had to be removed - trimmed by hand. At one point my father decided that he could trim a roll at a time by sharply tapping the end against the wall. He said the blank strip was slightly perforated and would just fall off in one piece. The experiment did not end well leaving that particular roll badly dented and even more difficult to cut. Once pasted, the paper seemed to become fragile and would occasionally tear in the process of being manoeuvred to the wall. Blame and irritation showered around the room like shrapnel followed by silence. Good cutting tools were needed for dealing with wallpaper. We hadn’t bought any wallpaper shears and we didn’t possess a Stanley knife so my parents used the best thing they had. Unfortunately, my mother’s dressmaking scissors never recovered from their use as wallpaper trimming tools. The glue clung stubbornly to their blades and they had to be replaced by an enormous pair of sharp, gold dressmaking shears which I was never supposed to touch.
We had no proper pasting table so our dining room table had been co-opted. So whilst papering was in process we all ate picnic style which was fun, but it did take hours of scrubbing before normal dining could resume. My mother covered the damaged surface with fablon but from that time we always needed a tablecloth to hide the result.
When it was finished the paper in the hall and lounge did look good, but my parents’ joint masterpiece was the gaudy angelfish on the walls of the bathroom. The paper looked rather like the picture above - only a lot less elegant. I don’t think they had bought quite enough paper because, as the fish swam towards the corner, their faces changed colour or disappeared completely. The bathroom was tiny and working in such a confined space had caused even more heated arguments. By the time it was completed my parents were barely on speaking terms. It was their last joint attempt at decorating until we moved into our house some years later. They never attempted a joint wallpapering project again.
When we moved into our house they wisely restricted their plans for a new décor to painting. But even so, the arrival of industrial-sized pots of emulsion in our soon to be occupied home threatened something of a family rift. The Labs in Heald Green where my dad was previously based had recently undergone a facelift and there was a surplus of paint in random colours going cheap. The inventory of paints provided names but unfortunately, there was no shade card. Some colours, such as Jonquil, could be easily identified but then there was one called Pompadour. Now my mother was convinced that she recognised this as a pale, powder blue which would be perfect for our dining room. We had a dining room now because underneath the dust covers we also found two dressers a magnificent dining table and matching chairs. When the tins of Pompadour were opened, their dark, mulberry coloured contents were revealed. There was a stunned silence followed by some choice observations followed by an icy silence but there was no going back. This paint had been paid for and the budget did not allow for any more expense. Amazingly, once the dressers, the long table and the chairs had all been French polished, Pompadour provided a truly elegant setting for their gleaming new exteriors. The angry exchanges were all forgotten and, as my parents would have said, the whole incident made for much better telling.