My earliest memories, from the mid and late 1940s to the early 1950s, were of war-time and post-war Britain. Where we lived, in Essex, there was food rationing, bomb craters, barefoot children hanging around the street, and regular trips to the cemetery with my mother to tend her parents’ grave and mourn their passing, the result of a bomb landing on their house. From 1950 to 1953, there were constant news bulletins about the Korean War, and worries that my father would be called upon to fight again.
Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was the cold war to worry about, with constant news stories about inter-continental ballistic missiles, missile defence barriers, and diplomatic standoffs.
There is nothing more disabling for people than the constant presence of war or worries about war. That is why I have always strongly felt the importance of cooperation between nations to improve society and maintain peace. Over the decades there have been some developments to be pleased about, such as the creation of the United Nations and the European Union, and many to be worried about, such as the dictatorships throughout the world, and the forever wars in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East.
But the UN is largely impotent in any peace-keeping role because of the way the veto works in the Security Council, and the EU is increasingly threatened by the far right which has emerged in the UK, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and now Sweden. It does appear that success is a dream that will never materialise, that degrees of failure will always be with us, but that it is essential to keep on trying to aim for the best and try to mitigate the worst.
Unfortunately, extreme rivalry, ultra-competitiveness, ultra-nationalism and insane egomaniacal drives for power always seem to be present somewhere. It is virtually impossible to cooperate and be rational with people who behave like this. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the supply of F16 aircraft to Ukraine would escalate the war. Is this not hypocrisy? Is Ukraine not entitled to defend itself after an unprovoked Russian invasion?
I have never gone hungry, and for that I’m grateful to the UK farming industry and the food supply chain firms, as well as to the foreign countries which supplement the UK’s own production. During the war, the merchant navy’s ships brought in food across the Atlantic, at great danger to themselves. My father’s cousin died, aged 20, serving as a signaller in the war in the Atlantic.
As far as I’m aware, the rationing system in place until 1954 worked, and people accepted it, although there was occasional talk of the black market. Fresh milk was delivered daily in glass bottles, and the empty bottles collected, usually before I was awake. A baker’s van called twice a week, leaving a loaf of bread.
My mother and grandmother made frequent trips with their shopping basket to the local shops, which were all within 200 yards of our flat. The shopkeepers were all known by their names – Charlie (butcher), Doug (grocer), Clive (greengrocer), Mr Reason (repairman), Mrs Prior (sweetshop), Miglorini (ice cream), and Pam (hairdresser). And then there was MacFisheries, the baker and the bookseller.
At the grocer’s shop, you queued at the one counter to wait to be served. When your turn came, Doug would ask what you wanted today. You replied, ‘half a pound of butter, half a pound of cheese, and six slices of bacon please’. Doug cut the cheese in front of you (‘Is that about right Mrs Ryder’?), and the butter, and sliced the bacon off a ham, put them all into separate little pieces of paper, and handed them over. ‘Anything else’? ‘Half a dozen eggs, and a bag of flour please’. And that’s how it went. My mother would then go to the next shop and return with a full basket of shopping. It took some time, but it was friendly, chatting to people in the queue and to the shopkeepers. Fresh fish purchases were wrapped in newspaper. A loaf of bread was wrapped in a very thin covering of loose-fitting paper. Sweets were dispensed, after weighing, by the 2 ounce or quarter pound, in a small paper bag from large jars behind the counter. There was almost no resulting packaging waste.
Today there is a weekly drive to the supermarket. Large quantities and varieties of food, mostly heavily processed, tinned, packeted, frozen and marketed, long aisles of cereal packets, cakes, crisps, fizzy drinks, sweets and alcohol to navigate. The business model isolates customers from any contact with employees. Automate everything to self-service. Finally, the perilous transfer of all the stuff into the car, and the extraction of the car from the car park. All without any meaningful social contact.
Relatively simple, fresh food eaten three times a day has been replaced by a huge variety of pre-prepared and pre-packaged food, often containing far too much salt, sugar and preservative chemicals and colouring, some from places far away. And snacks which can be eaten throughout the day and evening, which partly explains the amount of obesity in society. In my childhood we had porridge, herrings, kippers, sardines and eggs quite regularly with freshly-sliced bread and butter, and a chicken at Xmas. There was no fruit juice, yoghurt, or ice cream from the freezer. In fact there was no fridge or freezer. I don’t remember many biscuits. Cake was very occasional. The only chocolate available was a bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate, but that came later.
My infant school was one hundred yards away. I could see it from the kitchen window. My boys’ junior school was over a mile away, and I walked there and back by myself. I didn’t view this walk as a hardship. Up the High Street, left at the church, right into a long residential road, left along the bypass, cross the bypass at the school gates. On the way there, in the frosty mornings, I would bend a stick into a circle and collect spider’s webs within it from the hedges. On the way back I tarried in the park and at the bomb crater (fenced off but we still got in).
School was punctuated by a half bottle of milk in the morning, and a very extended lunchbreak on the tarmac, playing with cigarette cards and marbles in the dust. There was no sport or cultural activity. I was in one play, as Brer Bear, but I had no lines. When it was announced in class in 1952 that King George VI had died, the boy next to me, who had recently come back from Sudan where his father was something in the Government, surprised me by bursting into tears.
My secondary school, where I was a boarder, was 10 miles away, and my parents visited the school only to bring me back and forth at holiday time. On the first morning, I was left on my own in the boarding house, which was unfamiliar to me, and I became distressed when I realised that everyone else had disappeared. I hadn’t been told that the school was actually on the other side of the road, a ten minute walk away. I was subsequently escorted across the road, up the lane and into my classroom.
At first, I was very unhappy and wrote home to my parents asking them to take me away. I used some very uncomplimentary language in my letter. My parents embarrassingly returned the letter to the housemaster, who arranged for me to have a buddy who would help me. That didn’t work out very well, but eventually I accepted the situation and settled down. I don’t think that would be allowed to happen today. Children’s needs are catered for much more sensitively I think, and parental involvement is much increased.
I received 6d (2.5p) twice a week for pocket money. I spent this on Saturday after games on a bottle of Corona or Tizer, which cost 10d. When you took the empty bottle back, you got a 2d refund, so a net cost of 8d, or 3 pence in today’s money. A cup of tea was 2d (1p), Bovril 2.5d, coffee 3d, compared to £2 or more today. There was no takeaway service. Why bottle refund doesn’t happen today, I don’t understand. Norway has done it for years, Scotland proposes to do it but this is being prevented by the UK government. Perhaps this is due to successful lobbying of the government by retailers and manufacturers.
The school was a male-only environment. The teachers were mostly well-qualified and dedicated, but in hindsight the teaching seemed very old-fashioned, a lot of chalk and talk, and ritual note-taking and rote learning, Sporting activities were particularly encouraged and admired. Discipline including corporal punishment was strict to keep order. There was a seemingly devout but totally unapproachable headmaster, who didn’t appear to like children at all. Looking back, I don’t think the school brought out the best in us. It was too regimented, pseudo-religious and it over-emphasised sport to the detriment of other meaningful stuff, but many others have had a worse experience.
Chapel attendance was obligatory, four or five times a week. Although I quite enjoyed the hymns and psalms, the unrelenting Creed, sermons, kneeling, humility, worship, and bible-readings were pretty insufferable. They almost amounted to brainwashing, which didn’t work. The very real contributions to society of Christianity, in terms of spirituality, morality, sacrifice, community, care for the weak and alms-giving, and on the other hand its history of greed, abuse of power, deceit of the public and talisman-worship, were not explored, rather they were obscured by all the impenetrable theological mumbo-jumbo.
The school probably reflected the rather rigid, parochial and unenlightened social attitudes prevalent at the time. I believe this has now improved beyond measure.