Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Why I Wish I'd Been Born in 1946

When was the best time to be born?

There are many periods that I'd like to visit if I could: Britain during the late Victorian age, America in the 50s, or Andalucia before the reconquista are three that instantly spring to mind. But would I want to swap them for my comfortable world of antibiotics, hot water and edible food? I don't think so.

Sometimes I find myself yearning for a world where no-one has ever heard of Alesha Dixon or Facebook, but if I start to get dewy-eyed about the past, I remind myself that history is always written by the winners and survivors. The stories of the millions of individuals who lived Hobbes's "poor, nasty, brutish and short lives" will never be heard.

After a great deal of thought, I've chosen 1946 as the best time to be born. If I'd been born ten years earlier, I would have experienced warfare, rationing and Shirley Temple films. But in the late 1940s, I'd be entering a world in which improved healthcare and educational opportunities were transforming the lives of millions.

Also, I could enjoy growing up in the world of Ealing comedies, Uncle Mac and steam engines.

It's a world that is celebrated in a Ladybird book I found recently, which has the slightly creepy title 'In the Train with Uncle Mac':

This is a Britain that now only exists in model railway displays and episodes of Chigley. It is a world of timeless villages and market towns, where technology has unobtrusively augmented peoples lives rather than changed them beyound all recognition.

Old maids still cycle to communion, village greens echo to the sound of willow on leather and car ownership is limited to the great and the good.

"Hullo! Here are our friends Bob and Betty just off on a long journey to the seaside. Dog Trigger is with them, so they are happy".

Whatever happened to 'hullo'? Nobody uses it any more, although Lionel Richie's notorious song sounds more like hullo than hello to me. Even hallo is disappearing.

I don't know how old Bob and Betty are, but I don't think I'd send them halfway across the country, unaccompanied, on a journey that includes changing in London.

It's time to leave and this smartly-dressed guard is a stark contrast to the scruffy, slouching men in donkey jackets who shuffled around the station platforms of my youth, blowing their whistles half-heartedly and shrugging their shoulders when I told them that the Nestle machine had swallowed two 5p coins.

"It is thrilling to stand on a railway footbridge and watch the trains rush by"

In those days, even a small, provincial station would have a full complement of staff, including porters, guards, clerks and signalmen:

I have vague memories of waving to men in signal boxes when I was very young. They always waved back. Then the signal boxes became automated. I wonder what happened to the signalmen?

"Bob and Betty are by themselves, but the guard will keep an eye on them". Oh, well that's all right then.

"So at last our express train has reached London where all is bustle and hurry".

It's time to change trains and the station porter is giving Bob and Betty directions to the Underground. But hasn't anyone noticed that creepy stranger standing right behind them?

Oh dear - it's that man again. Bob and Betty are so excited by the underground train that they haven't noticed that they're being followed.

"The train is rather noisy, and it sways and rattles as it rushes along".

The stranger sits next to Bob and Betty, pretending to read a newspaper.

Betty has now noticed the strange man following them and a woman on the down escalator looks concerned. But as they reach the top of the escalator, the man is stopped by a policeman, who seems to know him. Perhaps the man is a detective.

"There is a kitchen on the train and a real chef to cook the meals. Betty and Bob are smiling at the thought of a jolly good meal"

Bob and Betty are about to enjoy a bowl of thin, tasteless oxtail soup and a shepherd's pie of indeterminate origin, washed down with two glasses of weak squash.

"Betty and Bob had a glimpse of the driver. But an equally important person is the fireman, or stoker. He MUST keep up steam for the engine to pull the train. He shoots more and more coal into the great furnace and the wheels go faster and faster. Well done, fireman!"

Sadly, the recently-qualified fireman is unaware that the line is due to be electrified in a couple of years..

"Bob and Betty know that the long run is nearly done"

"Thank you for a safe and lovely journey!"

"Glad you enjoyed it!" grins the driver, while the fireman waves a grimy hand. The engine, too, looks dirty but somehow very proud".

So there you have it: incontrovertible documentary evidence that if I'd been born in 1946, this was the world I would have grown up in. A society in which youth crime meant St Trinians and young men who wanted 'respect' wore tweed.

It might have been a stuffy, stifling world, but that wouldn't have affected me because by the time I'd reached 18, everyone would have been listening to the Rolling Stones and sleeping with each other.

Obviously I'm being silly, but there is a kernel of truth. My wife's parents were part of the theatrical world of the 1960s and whenever I hear anecdotes about them or their friends, it sounds as if they lived in an enchanted age. It's not that stories themselves that impress me, but the incidental details: being able to move around London easily by car, turning up at the BBC to see if they have a job and actually getting one (which changes from teaboy to assistant producer within months), buying a four-storey house in Islington for a few thousand and the way a casual flirtation would end up in bed.

It was an enchanted time, for some at least, because it felt as if they lived in a world of possibilities where people were no longer tied to jobs or relationships for life. This experimentation was all done against the backdrop of their secure, Uncle Mac childhoods, blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions on the next generation.

If I'd been born in 1946, I would also be retiring at a time when health care, benefits and private pensions were still sustainable.

I could spend my dotage enjoying fond memories of exciting holidays with Betty and Trigger, travelling across Britain by train, being offered sweets by kindly strangers.

NB - People born in 1946 include Stephen Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, David Lynch, John Waters, Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Diane Keaton, Danny Glover, Cher, Charlotte Rampling, Dolly Parton, Liza Minelli, Freddie Mercury, Joanna Lumley, Felicity Kendal, George W Bush, Steve Biko and Philip Pullman.


Rog said...

I was born in 1948 and this is EXACTLY what life was like for us in Kent. I remember the kitchen on the train from Margate to Charing Cross with a real chef to cook meals. Those Southern Region trains were so spotless, the late night vomit was sometimes cleaned up within days. It was spiffing! And you could smoke on the underground!
Our local signalman is about to be made redundant and replaced by a portakabin and my extensive final-salary pension no longer exists so like all your class of 1946 (apart from the dead ones) I'll carry on working.
(I never slept with the Rolling Stones either)

MikeP said...

And, of course, Bob and Betty (who wouldn't have been called Bob and Betty, but Stephen and Susan) were gearing themselves up for the Beatles, Stones etc, not to mention getting bombed out of their skulls on Moroccan Red...

I was conceived in 1946 and born in 1947. 1963/4/5 was a great time to be 15/16/17. Rog is right, though, you're being a bit dewy-eyed about pensions.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

The 50s were a time of deprivation and repression. You had to eat up the revolting food because it was character building. In winter it was freezing and you got chilblains. Children did travel alone on trains, but as you say, railways had a lot of staff who looked after them. Lovely as it is, this book is just an excuse to draw a lot of railway engines and tube trains.

Oh, and the years of opportunity in the late 60s - there were about five of them. The 70s soon set in, with oil crises and strikes and the three-day week. The power was off half the time.

Those who were 18 in the late 60s gained a completely unrealistic sense that planning for the future didn't matter because you could always drift around in purple velvet loon pants playing the flute.

Steerforth said...

Rog - Yes, I did think that perhaps 1936 would have been nearer the mark for good pensions. But you're still better off than me. I'll be in the workhouse, whilst my sons' generation will probably die of malnutrition and cold.

I'm sure the light night vomit was of a better class in those days - probably caused by drinking an extra half pint of mild.

Mike - Yes it would be Stephen and Susan (or Colin and Anne). When I was at school, everyone seemed to be called David, Mark, John, Peter, Stephen or Michael. I never thought the day would come when David would go out of fashion.

Richmonde - I'd hate to live in the 50s, but as a child I'd be oblivious to the rationing and austerity - my parents were ridiculously poor when I was young, but I never noticed because I had nothing to compare with.

I like the idea of hitting puberty in the 60s. By the time I started 'stepping out', the dying Rock Hudson was splashed all over the tabloids and the world I thought I was going to enter - gleaned from watching episodes of Jason King - vanished overnight.

Canadian Chickadee said...

It's easy to wax nostalgic about other times and eras. However, there is NO WAY I would spend even five minutes in Victorian times!

Poor hygiene not just for the huddled masses but for everyone. Even Prince Albert wasn't immune. And hypocrisy about sex and perversion was rampant.

The gap between haves and have nots was even wider than it is today.

If you were "lucky" enough to go to a private school, they beat and starved you, and if you were a girl -- forget it! Even that option didn't exist. You were just supposed to learn to embroider things and sit around looking decorative.

Maybe the 18th cent. wouldn't have been too bad -- still a lot of squalor and disease, but some great books and music. Plus they seemed to have a much healthier and more ribald attitude to matters sexual!

lucy joy said...

My mother was born in '49 and had a terrible childhood thanks to lack of understanding about dyslexia, and poor provision for people with disabilities (her mother had MS). Mum ended up leaving school at 13 to care for her mum.
An intelligent and broad-minded lady, my maternal grandmother spent her last years in severe pain trying to kill herself every week because she was so frustrated at not being able to go anywhere, and couldn't leave her vile husband because she relied on him for money.
Having said all that, mum does look back fondly on some aspects of her past, and hates the way we've become such a needy and greedy society.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I'll chip in with you for a time machine Steerforth!

Steerforth said...

Chickadee - I agree, the Victorian age wasn't much fun for most people. My ancestors come from a village in Kent - Aylesford - and in the 18th century, all lived well into their 70s. In the mid-19th century they moved to London and no-one made it beyong 55. But the Victorian age lasted for 65 years and by the 1890s - the time I'd choose to visit - improvements in sanitation, public health and education had made it a very different world from the 1840s.

Obviously, I'd only go back if I could be a 'gentleman'.

Lucy - I should have added that I'd only want to be born in 1946 to a middle class family. My wife's family's experience of the 1960s - a sort of Austin Powers montage - contrasts sharply with my own family's, which was like a black and white episode of Coronation Street.

Steerforth said...

Laura - It needn't cost you a penny. We could go back to 1970 and place a bet that there'll be a woman prime minister within ten years.

The Big M said...

There is always a tendency to romanticise certain eras, but there were defintely many more job opportunties in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
A friend of mine's dad who ended up working as a journalist for the Financial Times was working on a building site when a man approached him and others and asked them if any of them would like to be a journalist!
My great uncle Charlie who was a bit of a wanderer would leave a job on a Friday and have a job on Monday.
My dad, who was born in 1938, always said he was lucky to be born when he was. Although from a working class, London background He received an excellent grammar school education had a choice of jobs when he left school at 16.
He was then able to retire at 52 with a pension in 1992 of half his annual salary. His ambition now, at the age of 73 is to claim his pension for as long a period of time as he worked for them!
I think a lot changed in the 80s in this country. Before this period, there was still an idea of paternalism, whereby companies still felt a duty to look after their staff. But we started to import dog-eat-dog capitalism from the states and it became acceptible to make people redundant to improve profits. So long live the good old days!

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I as a kid in the 1960s, and often went up to work with my Mum or Dad for the odd day during the hols. We got to go on the tube - rare excitement. I remember the red trains and escalators with wooden treads. I loved being a child in 60s suburbia, but I loved being a teenager in the 70s more (because of Davids - Cassidy and Bowie). I probably wouldn't choose a different period.

nilly said...

This post rang a lot of bells - born in 1947 (father a train driver, grandfather a signalman), very jolly 1950s childhood, then art college in the sixties - Woo Hoo!
However nobody has mentioned that a lot of us still have jobs, careers and businesses AND are supporting our grown-up children physically (free food and accommodation,free child-care), emotionally (failed relationships, failed careers) and, of course, financially (free loans never to be repaid).
That said, you are right, it was a great time to be born and, being a free-thinking child of that era, I'm cool with being generous and giving to the young. By the way, I love your blog - it is thoughtful and beautifully written.

Canadian Chickadee said...

But you ARE a gentleman, Steerforth -- kindly, intelligent, widely read. So you'd probably be a success in any era. xoxo

Steerforth said...

Big M - I couldn't agree more - things did change for the worse after the 1980s in many ways. In the mid-20th century, we had the best of both worlds - a lingering sense of noblesse oblige on the part of the ruling classes, but a generally more meritocratic society.

Re: pensions - my father retired from the Civil Service in his late 50s and seemed to be wealthier than he'd ever been when he worked.

The FT anecdote is extraordinary, but quite believable.

Annabel - I LOVED the 1970s and my DVD collection is chockablock with programmes like Ace of Wands. However, I didn't enjoy being young in the 1980s and I'm not looking forward to retiring in the 2030s. Please send me back to 1946, where I can grow up in a world of milk bars, youth clubs and Joe Lyons teahouses.

Nilly - Yes, the baby boomer generation are now the bankers, babysitters and landlords of mine. I'm amazed at how much energy grandparents have these days, compared to the wizened, ancient-looking husks that were mine.

It's humiliating for people in their 30s and 40s to have to rely on parental help, but perhaps it's a symbiotic relationship. If I was retired, I'd relish to opportunity to feel needed (up to a point!).

Glad you like the blog - I've just been looking at yours and really enjoyed it - a visual feast!

Chickadee - Thank you (I'm blushing!) for the vote of confidence. I may have the trappings of a gentleman (I'm a Justice of the Peace and have been told that I "talk like them newsreaders"), but if I went back to the 1890s, I'd never be able to bluff my way through a nine-course meal and would be bound to slip up, passing the soup tureen the wrong way, or something like that.

If things got tricky, I'd have to say that I'd spent some years in the colonies ;)

On a serious note, when I was very young, my mother told me that a gentleman was someone who made everyone feel comfortable in his presence. That seemed like a good example to follow.

David said...

Well, I was born in the late 60s, so most of my life has been like just having missed something and being told endlessly how great it was.

On the other hand I'm now enjoying all the series about the 70s, and telling my 13 year old son how great is was - the power cuts were fun!

I do like the World According to Ladybird. I think my favourite Ladybird book was The Policeman (sic) which had a wonderful illustration of a shifty looking character running down a street waving a spanner, while a policeman in a blue coat runs after, truncheon draw. I'm sure the chap with the spanner is a villain: suspect that if you redid the book now he'd tun out to be an innocent bystander who gets Tasered and slung in the back of a riot van.

PearlFog said...

What a lovely sentiment from your mother :o) Hope she's getting on well by the way, I thought of her when I was in the library the other day, remembering your story of her sneaky speed reading technique!

My approach in life has always been that, no matter what your own or the other's party gender, you should behave like a gentleman and treat him/ her like a lady. Your life should be filled with surprised but rather pleased people, no matter what place, era or strata of society you fetch up in.

Thanks for another great set of nostalgic pictures as well :o)

Steerforth said...

David - I loved the power cuts too, apart from when they coincided with Doctor Who! My dad managed to rig up a light to an old car battery so we felt a great sense of victory.

Pearl - Thanks for thinking of my mother. She's lived in her sheltered accommodation flat in Lewes for the best part of a year now and is really glad that she made the move. The only thing she doesn't like is spending so much time with old people, but my six-year-old soon makes up for that.

Roget said...

I was born in 1947 so probably don’t qualify to engage in this yearist debate. But what the hell – I’ll join in anyway.
Children did indeed travel alone on long railway journeys, Steerforth, if my experience was anything to go by. Every summer in the mid- and late-‘50s, my elder brother and I would be loaded onto the Devonian Express at Cudworth outside Barnsley in South Yorkshire. We were bound for Bristol where our Uncle Colin would meet us at Temple Meads Station. It was a riveting and romantic journey (stops at Derby! Burton-on-Trent! Birmingham!), fortified by a bag of new unread comics, tomato sandwiches and a bottle of Tizer. There was no thought of the unspeakable cost and poshness of a restaurant car. To my Mum and Dad, the concept of the Man in the Hat was in the realm of unknowing. And if he sat beside us, we never noticed him. Of course he might have been Dr Beeching.
Now Uncle Mac – a totemic ‘50s figure in his time. As I remember, he had lost a leg in the Great War and had become a radio actor as the BBC grew under Reith. He provided the voice (or bleat) for Larry the Lamb on Children’s Hour. I knew him best for the record request show he did on the Light Programme – Children’s Favourites. The Owl and the Pussycat, They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace, I’m a Pink Toothbrush – You’re a Blue Toothbrush, The Runaway Train and Sparky and his Magic Piano were all staple fare. On a particularly bad day, he would hit us with Kathleen Ferrier singing Blow the Wind Southerly. Of course he sounded exactly like Mr Cholmondley-Warner, pronouncing every “a” as an “e” and sounding to a northern boy impossibly grand and distant. His sign-off was always “This is Derek McCullough, Uncle Mac, saying Goodbye, Children – Everywhere.” He was swept away in the mid-‘60s by the decade’s encroaching hipness. The programme became Junior Choice with Ed Stewart. Probably not a change for the better in retrospect. Uncle Mac used to be featured every year along with, among others, Wilfred Pickles, Izzy Bon and Peter Brough and Archie Andrews in the Radio Fun Annual. Whatever happened to that?

Steerforth said...

Ahhhhh....unread comics, tomato sandwiches, Tizer...

Less was definitely more.

Your post makes me feel nostagic for a world that I barely knew, raking over the dying embers of it in the 1970s. The idea of sending my children off on a long journey, trusting in the kindness of strangers and the integrity of railwaymen, seems fantastic (in the traditional sense of the word - or should that be 'fentestic'?).

At least I was along to hang around on street corners and climb ruined castles, with only a rusting metal bannister to stop me from plunging to my doom.

But I won't hear a word against 'Stewpot'.

Anonymous said...

The best part about back then was there were fewer people on planet earth. As a result everyone got more, for less. That is why I wish I'd been born in 1946.

Steerforth said...

With some qualifications, I'd agree. Apparently the optimum population of the UK is 12,000,000, so why are we blithely accepting that it will be 70,000,000 and growing, in 20 years?

Christine said...

As wishing you were born in 1946 is fantasy, why not only have the good bits! I sometimes wish I could could escape the rat race and return to a time described by Enid Blyton ie, the 40s and 50s and of course be middle class!

I've been reading back your blog from your 'Ladybird Book of Recession; Part 2' and loving it. Cheers

Anonymous said...

Well for me finding love would've been much easier for me since so many women today are very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, greedy, and very money hungry which makes it much harder for many of us good single guys looking for love these days.

Anonymous said...

Born in 1946, regularly two of us were entrained alone Scotland to London 1958—1960, elder sister, born two years earlier. We were met at each end of journeys. Could we have found our way from St Pancras to west London near 'London Airport'? Yes, once we simply asked. It was not uncommon to see youngsters travelling solo.

Separately, came across your splendid memoir when researching what then was going on in this 70th year. Two other returns of note: The Cold War started and, summary: "In March 1946, scientists recorded the birth of almost every British baby born in one week. They have been following thousands of them ever since, in what has become the longest-running major study of human development in the world." ... Search for "Studying the British 1946"

"People born in 1946" Also there is Bill Clinton.

The Ladybird images are most striking. Thanks.


22-May-16 2:08 PM