When I was young

Black and White Minstrel Show

World War Two ended with VJ day on August 15 1945. I was born 7 years later in August 1952. In Britain those 7 years had been wasted with a time of extreme austerity. War time rationing had been made even stricter as the state made a huge mess of trying to control supply and demand. It was only when the Conservative, Winston Churchill, government came to power in 1951 that rationing was lifted and the world started to return to normal. So when I was young there were no fat people, in fact most people were very skinny, 6 years of wartime rationing followed by more than 6 years of even stricter socialist rationing meant that people were not used to having much food.

Nobody had very many clothes. They were very expensive and there was not much availability. They were all made of wool and cotton, with no synthetics and they wore out. Part of every women’s skill was constantly repairing and altering clothes to make them last as long as possible. It was very normal to wear hand me downs.

Women mostly only had jobs till they got married. Then they made babies and looked after the home. There were babies everywhere as we had a huge post war baby boom. It was these babies who built the modern Britain. Housework was fairly onerous as there were no labour saving devices. For instance it was normal to get on hands and knees and scrub floors with a stiff brush and very few people had a washing machine for their clothes.

During my lifetime there were immense advances in television. When I was very young only a few people had televisions, they were so expensive that it was common to rent them. They had very small flickering grey screens and there was one channel, the BBC, which broadcast live content for just a few hours every evening. Commercial television arrived under the Conservatives in 1955. Colour arrived with BBC2 in 1964. Radio was a valve set plugged into the mains that took a while to warm up. There were three radio stations, all BBC, the Light, Home and Third Programme. BBC on both TV and Radio was very paternalistic and condescending. Much of its output was “public service” which means social conditioning, or what can easily be construed as propaganda. The Archers, for instance, was intended to “educate” the agricultural community.

Telephones were very rare, with one model of handset provided by one supplier, the GPO, when you reached the end of a long waiting list. Only a few homes had them and they were always in the entrance hall. Calls were made via an operator until the STD system was rolled out between 1958 and 1979. Using the phone was so expensive that it was normal to ask permission from parents before using it. Long distance “trunk” calls to another town were very rare.

Everybody was white. You never saw anyone else. On television there was the Black and White Minstrel Show, jam came with paper golliwogs which I collected and sent off in exchange for enamel badges, we drank Black Boy tea and one of the colours in my watercolour set was Nigger Black. Nobody died.

All food was prepared from base ingredients. There was no fast food, no convenience food, no ready meals. Except for fish and chips. A lot of the diet was potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Protein was expensive and came in small portions, eating offal such as liver, kidney, heart, tripe, brains etc was usual. Chicken was a big luxury. Every housewife made pies and cakes to provide their family with affordable calories. Ingredients were mostly bought from small local shops which were just a walk away, or came from the garden. Most people grew some food. There were no supermarkets. Very many foods we take for granted today just did not exist. The family all ate together at the same meal time, miss it and you went hungry.

There was virtually nowhere to eat out, except for occasional cafes. Proper restaurant dining was very rare indeed. Even by the time I reached grammar school very few people I knew had ever been to a restaurant.

There was no litter and no graffiti. We were taught at school to pick up any litter that we saw. But we never saw any.

Holidays were one week a year and consisted of going to the sea side. Our coastal resorts were massive and boomed like crazy as they handled the huge annual influxes of humanity. Different towns had different “wakes weeks” so as to stagger the arrival of their populations at the coast.

On Sunday virtually everything closed. Nobody worked on the holy day. Most people went to church, wearing their best clothes, and there was prejudice against Catholics.

Very few people in our street owned a car. The cars that were available were very small and very unreliable. People got around by walking, cycling and using the plentiful public transport. Going into town was a big adventure and the only people who had been abroad did it with the military. At school there were huge cycle sheds to take the vast number of bikes. Nobody needed a bicycle lock. Only a very few motor vehicles passed our house in a day. People played football on main roads. There was no traffic to interrupt play.

Seeing people in military uniform was fairly common. Servicemen wore their uniforms in public and there were a lot of servicemen. Compulsory conscription was only phased out between 1957 and 1963. We had huge armed forces. Every single “grown up” had done something in the war. Older people had been in World War One as well. Our teachers were all war veterans and they had contempt for socialism, they had seen the disaster of the Attlee government first hand and knew that it was failed dogma.

Because everything was still very labour intensive there was a shortage of people to do the work. Lots of people worked in agriculture, manufacturing and in the merchant navy. Right through school I never knew anyone who had an unemployed parent.

Every man smoked, everywhere. On the bus, in shops and offices, in schools and homes. Life was spent in a haze of tobacco poisons. Cigarette brands had a loyalty system with coupons in every packet that could be saved up and exchanged for goods. Women didn’t smoke, it was considered very unladylike. Alcohol was very expensive and was nearly all consumed in the pub, which had limited opening hours. It was very rare to have alcohol in the house. Wine was very exotic.

There was no central heating or double glazing. In winter evenings a coal fire was lit in the living room, so the whole family would be there. Bedrooms were cold places to go to only for sleeping, with a hot water bottle to take the worst of the chill out of the bed. The coal was delivered in bags by a “coal man”. Electric bar fires were available but only used sparingly because they were so expensive to operate.

Overall in my youth a middle class person, such as a doctor or architect, had a standard of living far lower than that enjoyed by an unemployed person on benefits today. And it is capitalism that has brought us the huge advances that we now enjoy.

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