An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 160

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 20, 2021 - Issue 160
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The first Christmas I spent in the U.K. was in 1971 and was unlike any I'd experienced. The food and drink was non-stop beginning December 1st and ending some time in January--definitely not the first of January--there were continued celebrations of the New Year well into the new year. By then, of course, everybody had a cold and we were all set for a miserable winter. And miserable it was as the coal miners went on strike and the British government led by Edward Heath, chose to ration electricity. Every third day there was rationing which included no electricity every three hours for the period of a day. Hence, twice a week, there were two days of half rations of electricity. I lived in a place that had night storage heaters as the primary source of heat, heaters filled with asbestos bricks with electric coils running through them set on timers so that they activated when electricity was cheapest, and ergo all the timers got thrown out of whack. As you can imagine, you had to be at the top of your game to keep the timers in line with the cheap hours for electricity...., was it one AM to 3 three AM or two to four--no one seemed to know. I have to say that the Brits do like making something simple more complex--it gives you a reason for going to school, I guess.

Hence, I chose to become intimate with the local publican, not in an amatory or even a friendly fashion, but as a gambling adversary. You would think we learned a lot about each other over games of backgammon, but Stewart was ex-army, with a crisp little mustache and a colonel's stentorian bark, although I believe he was a staff sergeant, and no ability to listen. And I cleaned his clock at backgammon--not that I was so good, but that he was just awful. (The power in backgammon is the doubling cube--that's where you win or lose money.) I would take payment in the form of meals as his wife who ran the kitchen--talk about long suffering--was an excellent cook. Stewart's term for me was, "jammy bastard", meaning that luck was my constant companion--not really but you get the idea. That I won the pub pool for the Grand National Horse Race (a grueling race of four miles with thirty jumps) in a field of about thirty horses, only reinforced Stewart's belief in my jamminess or perhaps my alleged bastardhood.

The traditions of the UK all felt very new to me, as you might expect, but I slotted into them without too much of a murmur. The English, I have only lived in London and West Sussex, are accommodating, never over friendly, but always respectful and back in the early 1970's, very curious about America. And because England was rather depressed for the years I was in the country, there was a large exodus of English for the United States at that time. When I tell my British friends that I lived in London from 1971-76, most of my English friends who emigrated to the U.S. will ask, "whatever for"? But it was an amazing time--I met people floating around London buying and selling things hand over fist--once I knew about furniture, I did it myself. Margaret Thatcher surely understood that she could make the same kind of thing happen on a massive scale by freeing up government owned assets. Which leads me to one last tale. I was made President of the Student Union at the London College of Furniture my first year and was one of the leaders of a student march with a large group of London based colleges, polytechnics and universities to protest the small amount of grant money the government gave to students (yes, they paid you to go to school!). We were chanting outside the Minister of Education's building and I suggested that the other leaders and I go around the back and get into the building to go meet the Minister. (I hate chanting slogans.) I thought I was leading a group of people, but by the time I got to the rear of the building, it was only me so I went in and rode the lift to an upper floor. It turned out to be the Minister's floor and I started to wander around to find her office thinking I might just have a quick chat and plead our case. But I also knew that I might be making my stay in Britain a short one if I actually found the Minister so I figured discretion, of a sort, was called for and so I rode the lift down to the lobby and walked out of the building saying, "excuse me", as I walked back through the line of bobbies standing in front of the building. I often wonder what might have happened if I had actually found the Minister who, as it happens, was Margaret Thatcher.