Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Days of old

I was musing on what life used to be like when I was growing up as a child in the 1950s. Gosh, that makes me sooooooo old. Today we seem to have everything. HD flat panel TV (3D on the cusp), central heating as standard, cars which do not rust, the Internet, satnav.....etc....etc. We take everything so much for granted, iPods, iPhones, clean air, cheap air travel.............the list goes on.

I once read that in a technological society, it takes around 50 years to transform itself beyond recognition. Really? Well, I thought it a good idea to remember back to what it used to be like and when I think about it, yes - we really are very different to the way we were. Here are some of the things I remember:-

We lived in a semi with no inside loo. To relieve yourself at night we had pee pots which we emptied in the morning. The loo itself was a small vertical shed across the yard opposite the kitchen door. My parents never spent money on such luxury items as bog paper - that was just for the rich posh people, not us council tenants! No, my lot was to walk around with a permanent imprint from the Daily Mirror (which cost 2 pence at the time in the old currency) across my sorry buttocks. This was how we recycled our newspapers, folded behind the down pipe. You didn't spend too long sat on the bog in the depths of winter lest your arse got frozen to the seat and you got frost bitten in an embarrassing place!

We had a tiny triangular shaped bathroom, the entrance door leading into the tiny kitchen. It was a true bathroom in that it only contained a bath and nothing else. We only bathed once a week and that was on a Friday night. We must have stank. Of course, you couldn't go wasting hot water (which was heated in a back boiler behind the fireplace), so we shared the bath water. If you were the first in then you were lucky, otherwise it was the other people's diluted dirt and a skin of scum the thickness of which depended upon how many had used it before you! To add a bit of heat you'd boil a kettle and pour some in. The kettle of course, was not electric but one you had to heat up on the gas hob which had to be lit using matches. An alternative to using the bathroom was to take your bath in the old grey tin tub in front of the fire in the living room. This was great if you didn't mind an audience. Only posh people had showers (or shower baths as we used to call them). The only time I got a shower was after games or PE at school. Also, we only washed our hair once a week. I can only think that greasy, lank hair must have been in vogue at the time. Mind you, if you used Brylcream, as many did, then it didn't really matter!

In 1955 my dad finally took the plunge and opened his wallet (letting out a whole load of moths) to buy our first TV set - on the "never-never" of course! This was a "Ferguson" 14" TV with one channel, the BBC. No HD like today, but lo-res 405 line black and white. I couldn't wait for my dad to get a telly as I was really excited about being able to watch the Popeye cartoons I kept hearing about from my posh well heeled classmates at infants school. When the great day arrived and "the man" delivered the set, we couldn't watch it straight away as there were no programmes on until "Childrens' Hour" at 5 o' clock. As we were one of the few families on our street who had such an opulent extravagance, we invited some of the neighbours' kids around to share in the wonder of it all. My dad flicked the switch for the grand switch on. We waited for the screen to light up......and waited.......and waited.......and waited. Nothing happened. The set was buggered as soon as we got it. Oh the let down! Oh the trauma! To say I was pissed off would be an under-statement. "The man" took the TV away and brought it back again about a week later. This time it worked, but we weren't taking any chances so this time the neighbourhood kids weren't invited, so I had a private viewing of Popeye. I really loved Popeye - especially the one on "Goon Island". Other programmes I remember were "War in the Air", "What's My Line?", and the "Quatermass" series. Now Quatermass was seen as a sci-fi horror series at the time, on at around 9.00pm and accompanied by a "This programme is unsuitable for children" warning. After much pleading, my parents let me stay up to see it. "Quatermass and the Pit" came on. It frightened the living crap out of me and gave me nightmares. Several years later I saw "Quatermass II" at the cinema. I was 15 posing as a 16 year old as it was an "X" rated film which meant you had to be 16 to see it. Whilst I enjoyed the film, I never really found it frightening. A cinema version of "Quaternmass and the Pit" was also released, and I never found that frightening either.

Before we had a TV we all used to huddle around the radio which was a large, classical wooden beast full of glowing valves which often blew and had to be changed. We listened to the Goon Show, Journey into Space, Take it From Here with Ron and Eff, The Star Gazers and Mike Sams Singers, not to mention Dick Barton and The Lost Planet. At weekends we sat down to dinner and listened to the Ted Ray show and the hilarious Round the Horn which REALLY was funny - oh how we laughed!

On the subject of radio, I had a crystal set which my dad made for me. Goodness knows how, that was a black art which I didn't question. I would lay in my bed at night with my heavy bakerlite headphones on twiddling my knob hoping to pick up some interesting radio station. In order to get a good reception and a strong signal, I kept increasing the length of the aerial which consisted of a thin wire which went from the set, out of my bedroom window, all the way down the garden and finished up at the top of a tree in the spinney behind the garden fence. To be honest, I think I probably got more enjoyment and interest from playing around with that crystal set than just about anything else.

Travelling was always fun. Neither of my parents ever drove, so we walked, took buses or trains to get around. We sometimes used to go to Canvey Island on the Thames Estuary for holidays. It was only about 30 miles or so from where we lived, but to get there we had to take at least two buses and a steam train and a coach to get to "Fielders Holiday Camp" at Thorney Bay. It would be the best part of a days travelling at the time, but these days I can drive there from our old house in less than an hour. The "holiday camp" was an old converted army camp taken over and converted by Colonel Fielder, who ran the place with military precision, stood no nonsense and strutted the site with his walking cane. The barrack huts had been converted into chalets. There was one hut which was not a chalet, but a kitchen with a long row of gas cookers which ran off coin meters. The poor unfortunate wives spent much of their time toiling to get the meals in this hut while the rest of the family had fun. There were no toilets in the chalets, these were in the tin huts outside. Lovely. I sometimes return to the site to reminisce. Those were exciting times to me, and I loved the holidays on Canvey.

Shopping was a very different experience. There were no supermarkets. My Mum would walk to the shops every other day or so and visit a whole variety of stores to get the different items we needed for our daily survival. She would carry heavy shopping bags and eventually went up-market and bought a shopping carrier on wheels with pulling handle. We had a lot more snow in those days, so sometimes we would take our sled to the shops and pull all the groceries back on it. Shopping malls did not exist, well not in England anyway. As a teenager I had 2 shop jobs. The best one being in Sainsbury's which had not yet transmogrified into a self service store, let alone a superstore. I used to work on the bacon counter where I had a good view of Kate who I fancied like mad who worked on the counter opposite. We had purely mechanical tills - no electronics in sight. This meant that we had to do the adding up of customers' bills ourselves. We had a notepad and pencil to do this, though I became very proficient at doing it in my head - it was also a lot quicker than writing everything down, especially if you had a long queue which was the norm on a Saturday afternoon. One day a crabby woman bought a whole load of staff from my counter and challenged me on the total price I quoted after adding it all in my head. She insisted I add it all again in front of her using the pencil and pad. Of course, this was very amusing to all the other customers waiting in the queue. The result was my adding was perfect - even down to the last halfpenny; this was in the days of pounds, shillings and pence. She was rather miffed at failing to dis my adding and I was rather smug. Even so, if the manager spotted you not using the pad, you'd get a telling off. The pads were taken in at night and the manager would check them. If you were the slightest bit out on any of the sums, you'd be called to the office. Happy days! When I handed in my notice the manager was quite taken aback as it was apparent he had plans for me, but I went off and joined the RAF instead. When I look at what Sainsbury's has become, I sometimes wonder where I would have been now if I had stayed with them. Sometimes, I wish I had!!!

Back home my Mum would do the laundry washing the cloths in a copper which she would stir with a stick. Only posh people had washing machines. After much stirring and several rinses, she would ring the cloths through a mangle before hanging them out on the the washing line. We had no fridge in the early days, but my dad finally pushed the boat out and bought one when I was about 12 years old. This was all very exciting at the time, but the novelty soon wore off. I imagined we'd keep lots of ice cream in it, but having such a small ice-box that was not to be.

It was very common in those days for people to keep chickens. My dad bought into this trend and I remember him coming home with a cardboard box under his arm with lots of little holes in it. He placed it on the kitchen table and opened it to reveal a whole load of cute chicken chicks. He kept them in the house in a home made coup with a light bulb around which they would huddle to keep warm. Once they were "grown up" enough they were transferred to the chicken run in the garden he had constructed while they were growing up. I used to amuse myself by pulling their heads through the wire mesh. They didn't find this very amusing, and neither did my Dad when I opened the coup door one day and they all escaped! The neighbours had a wonderful time hunting them down all along the street. One of the chickens was victimised by the others who used to peck his head pulling out his feathers. We used to call him "Baldy". One day my dad put him out of his misery - and then we ate him! Along with my dad's extensive vegetable patch, this was our contribution to the "good life" - and life was good.


Unknown said...

This was a wonderful post. I could visualize every event in your life. Well written. I guess, it was fun to live then....
Have a wonderful weekend...:)

Steve said...

Thank you for that. When I think back, there are masses of other things I could write about from my childhood and teen era, so I guess I'll folllow this up with more specific stuff in the future.