When my father was demobbed after the end of the War my parents married. They bought a house and furnished it. Some of the furniture was from one side or other of the family and some my parents bought in antique shops or sales; but some was new. One of the new items was a dining table. It had been made in accordance with Utility standards. The top was (as I recall) veneered.
I was born a couple of years later. As a small child I did not like the dining table. I took the pessimistic view then – and I have rarely had occasion to change it since – that the main function of veneer is to come adrift – not, I believe, that on this article it did. Maybe it wasn’t veneered. But it was flimsy and a rather down-at-heel mahogany colour.
About 1965 – fifty years ago – my parents moved house. My father thought that it was time for a new dining table. When the first table had been bought there was nothing to be found from Europe, where in the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of Nazism furniture was not a priority, and the good stuff made in England was exclusively for export. There were no such limitations in the early 60s, but, as with food, if you wanted the best you had to look for it. My father discovered that in Denmark they were making stylish, simple but sturdy furniture and from the photographs he liked the look of it. He decided to buy a Danish table. There was no internet then, but there were public libraries and in his lunch hour he identified the table that he wanted and sent a letter placing an order, using an airmail stamp, because we were not then in the European Union.
He was notified that the table had arrived by ship. He drove to St Katherine’s Dock, which was then still a dock, paid the Customs duty, because we were not then in the European Union, and drove home with his purchase. I was away at school but my sister and my mother assisted in this adventure.
When I came home I didn’t like this table either. This was for completely different reasons. I was then in my teens and I despised my parents’ taste in absolutely everything. At this distance I’m not sure what I would have preferred. Ten years later it would have been something made of hairy stripped pine, but that was yet to come. I remember that we all then hated the architecture of my school, which now seems ravishingly mid-Victorian Gothic, so it wouldn’t have been the desire for decoration. Probably I was just being bloody-minded.
Actually my father went overboard with 60s design. My bedroom for example was orange and black. The living room, where the new table stood, had one wall papered. The design was bold and abstract. My father was delighted with the effect until about a month after finishing the papering. He said to me, ‘Do you see that big purple mass? I’ve just noticed that it’s a fat female opera singer. She’s singing. You can see her tonsils.’
He never really liked it again, and I wish that he hadn’t pointed out the opera singer to me, because nor did I. I might never have noticed. And, being wallpaper, the tonsils repeated every few feet.
Early in the 70s my father died. My mother moved house, and ten years or so ago moved again, taking the table with her. It sat in her home in Yorkshire, perpetually covered with a table cloth. On very special occasions, when the family was there in force, the extensions were pulled out. They were a more pristine colour than the main section of the table. By now it had become Mid-Century and rather fashionable, but in my mother’s house it was surrounded by furniture and other bits and pieces in a miscellany of styles and it didn’t look fashionable.
And the sad thing is that one has one’s taste influenced by articles on design and trendy shops in places like Clerkenwell and Stoke Newington, and I realised that I liked it after all, quite apart from the respect due to age, and I would give it an affectionate pat when staying there.
In March my mother died. After the obsequies there has been the melancholy business of disposing of the goods and chattels around the family: the immensely distinguished dinner set that no one would actually give house room to; the modern sofas, DFS’s finest, newish, destined for landfill. One thing that quite a lot of people competed for was a brass owl; it has mysterious and inexplicable innards but a certain presence and a history going back to our childhood. No one else wanted the table, to my surprise, so I have it. Fortuitously the table that we had recently bought had cracked, in the manner remarked upon by the Lady of Shallot, from side to side and has been returned to its manufacturers, so there is room for this one. Last night we assembled it. The better half applied hot soapy water to it, as is her way with things she encounters. It is the same as tom cats pissing on them, a way of taking ownership – but much more hygienic.
It looks very stylish in our living room. At each end there are my Eighteenth-Century Chinese yoke chairs: something my father never aspired to. Tables bear the traces of family histories. I know one (inherited by one fine painter from another and then bequeathed to a third) that has a large gash where one member of the second painter’s household went for another with a kitchen knife. Ours has had a more bourgeois life. There are traces of spilt wine, ghosts of tea cups, small gouges where scissors slipped when Christmas presents were being wrapped. I hope that they will not all disappear under the better half’s soapy water.