The joy of plumbing

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The Independent Culture
Albert Juttus and his wife lived in this house for 46 years.

They used a bucket as a lavatory and drank water from the ditch outside. But now they're leaving the 17th century behind, and Albert's worried they'll be spoiled

I'm driving along a road in Leicestershire, in the tidy heart of the English countryside, where slick green fields roll out on either side to the horizon. I drive through the village of Shenton, a quiet place without so much as a pub, past prosperous-looking farms and neat brick houses. And then I draw up outside a bungalow. Around the bungalow is a sea of mud. Between the road and the bungalow is a ditch, choked with weeds, with a little muddy stream trickling along it. I push open the door of the bungalow to find Albert Juttus, a gentle-looking 73-year- old, sitting in his front room before a tiny heater running off a cylinder of Calor gas. He's lived in this house for 46 years, and in all that time his only source of water has been that muddy ditch.

"I'm on the move," says Albert Juttus in his guttural, East European accent, once I am settled in his front room. In this room sits all the furniture that the house holds - one bed, one table, one wardrobe and two hard chairs. "I'm on the move from the 17th century. They're putting me right in the 21st century." He has lived his life in total obscurity until last week, when the local council suddenly awarded him its biggest- ever grant - of over pounds 40,000 - for transforming his tiny property. It will now be connected to running water, get a new roof, windows and doors, and a lavatory, a sink and a shower. Since the announcement of that grant, the council has been rather embarrassed by the interest that Albert Juttus's belated journey into the 20th century has gained: front-page coverage in the local newspaper and visits to Mr Juttus's humble dwelling by Sky television. "I'm the superstar," he says, looking at me quizzically.

Talking with Albert Juttus is an odd experience. Sometimes I feel afraid that I'm patronising him, he seems so aware and so alive. But sometimes I feel that he is a child who isn't quite sure what's going on. The builders have already moved in, so fresh plaster coats the walls and a brand-new toilet, as yet unplumbed, lies on its side in a back room. "They are making a palace out of it," he says wonderingly as he shows me round. "People will be stopping their cars to have a look." That's Albert Juttus in his childish mood; he really seems to believe that the possession of a flush toilet means palatial glamour.

But Albert Juttus's life isn't just an odd curiosity; it says something about communities and how they work - or don't work - in Britain today. He has lived here with his wife for over 40 years - she has just moved temporarily into a nursing home - and for the last few years, as they got increasingly frail and vulnerable, they were heavily reliant on the good feeling of one neighbour, who declines to be named. Her tales of their neglected life strike a chill into your heart. "Every time I came back from seeing them my son would say, `you've been down at Albert's'. The stink was so bad in their house it would get in my clothes - I had to take all my clothes off and throw them into the washing machine if I just visited them."

For two people in their seventies - and Albert's wife Grace is mentally disturbed as well as physically disabled - coping without running water and electricity had become too much many years ago. Tim Howes, director of Community Services at Hinckley Borough Council, says: "We acted as soon as we knew about the situation. We wish we had known about it sooner, but they'd obviously been slipping through the net for a long time." At last, Albert Juttus is to get some of the amenities we take for granted, but for both him and his wife the change has come almost too late.

But it would be wrong to see Albert Juttus as just someone to be pitied. In another way, he's a real survivor. He came to Britain in 1946, from Estonia. He grew up in a farming family. "We worked hard," he says. "Working on the land is hard there, especially in winter." During the war the Germans occupied Estonia. "They said I had to work for the German army. I hated the Nazis." Then at the end of the war the Russians moved in. "I hated the Communists as much as the Nazis. They are all terrorists." Juttus moved away from the advancing Russians, into a displaced persons' camp in Germany. "I didn't want to stay there. I said, I'm not helping build this place up. They started the war. I said, I'm going which country I like. So I said I wanted to immigrate to England." Why England, Albert? "I thought here I'd have some peace and quiet."

So Juttus came to Britain without knowing a word of English and worked for the government "cutting down trees", as he succinctly put it, and then moved on to other agricultural or manual work, on farms, in mills, in factories. He has never had any contact with his family in Estonia. "I guess my parents are dead now," he says. "I didn't write to them. I didn't know what to say."

But gradually Juttus made a life, of sorts, for himself. He met his wife while working on a farm in nearby Sutton Cheney. "She wanted us to be together. I was not so keen at first. But I thought, I got to start having a life some time." When the builders moved into the bungalow, the Juttuses' neighbour helped him clear things out, and almost everything had to be burnt, it was all so rotten and stinking. But a few things were salvaged, including a little photograph of the Juttuses' wedding day, a hand-tinted print in which the couple's matching dove-grey suits and the bride's burst of pink roses sing out with the vivid colour of old memories. They didn't go on honeymoon. "I've never been on holiday with Grace," he says. "We couldn't afford all that."

After working on the land for so many years, Juttus then found work in the nearby Dunlop factory. He had friends there. "Oh yes, there were friends. There was nattering and bullying." What did you think, Albert, when you knew that they all had running water and electricity and so on and you didn't? "I thought... they must have big bills. The water board, the electricity board. I didn't think I could deal with those big bills." And didn't they tell you to get your life together? Juttus looks a little shocked. "They wouldn't speak out of turn," he says quietly. So this man living on a labourer's wage with a wife who didn't work and no knowledge of the benefits system clearly believed he was just locked out of the lifestyle that everyone around him took for granted. "I didn't think about it," he says. "I was independent. I didn't ask for anything. I lived my own way, the cheapest way you can."

He worked in the factory during the week, and at weekends he grew his vegetables on his little plot of land, and heated muddy water on a paraffin stove, pan by pan, to wash clothes or fill a cast-iron bath to wash himself. He taught himself out of books to do some impressive DIY - the smooth wooden floors of the bungalow were made by him. At night the couple lit their oil lamp and listened to a battery-powered radio. Without any sewage facilities, they used a bucket and burnt their waste on fires.

So how did change ever come to this little house lost in time? Albert Juttus, in his bizarrely modest but oddly practical way, decided that it was indeed pretty hard getting water out of the ditch, but that it would be easier if he had a proper well. So two and a half years ago he asked a health worker whether they could get a well made in the garden, who referred the case to a charity called Care and Repair. They visited the house, were shocked beyond belief, and began to put pressure on the council to rectify the situation. "It's amazing that they went undiscovered for so long," says Mo Murray, manager of Care and Repair. Doesn't Mr Juttus wish he'd managed to change it all much earlier? "It's too late to wish now," he says, stubbing out a cigarette. "Times never return." And clearly something in him even feels ambivalent about the new life that looms ahead. "It's easy, isn't it, you just switch a button or turn a tap, it all just happens... Well, I'll get spoilt. They'll be coming for me with cotton wool and mothballs next."

It would have been a lot easier for the council if he had agreed to move into a spanking new home on a smart estate, but he wouldn't do that. At the back of his house the view sweeps on and on over green fields and to the soft surge of low hills, fringed with trees. "That's a good thing about the country," he says, looking out over the familiar prospect. "You see long distances. I can sit out before sunset, when the birds start singing. I wouldn't like to move. What for?"

Later Albert Juttus and I go to the Asda in Nuneaton so that he can buy some supplies. Through the brilliant aisles he shambles slowly, picking out pork chops and tins of the cheapest cat food. We go with his neighbour who tells him that he has just won pounds 10 on the Lottery ticket she bought him. "That's very good," he says, smiling. He likes to play the Lottery. What would you do if you won, Albert? "Oh, I don't know," he says, nonplussed. "I've never thought about it. I don't want a million pounds." I laugh, but a few moments later I feel closer to tears as he takes the sandwich I have picked up for myself out of my hands and tries to insist on paying for it.