We all do it of course. And the older we get the more we’re inclined to. It’s only to be expected. As we pass the statistically-probable halfway point in life and realise, somewhat to our alarm, that from now on, increasingly, we’ll have a longer past than a future, we hark back. TV programmes revive memories and we wallow in nostalgia. It’s only natural.
And usually we look back selectively. Through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles. Unless we’ve been unlucky to suffer in one way or another in our early years, the past seems a warm, untroubled, cosily recollected country. In Britain it was bucolic Hovis TV adverts with the largo from Dvorak’s New World symphony rendered in north-of-England brass band. It was Cider with Rosie. It was Larkrise to Candleford. For American readers of these words it might have been gingham, apple pie and Little House on the Prairie.
Of course, it was never really like that.
The Good Old Days, so called, meant grinding poverty for many, dying young from cancer, being crippled by polio (if you survived it), homophobia, race prejudice, misogyny. The horrors of world war; the threat of nuclear annihilation. There was never a Golden Age. It wasn’t all bad of course; there were some old-fashioned virtues that it’s a shame have been lost. But it’s easy to romanticise the past when we grumble about the present. It perhaps behoves us sometimes to read history through glasses that are critically clear of tinting, even if it’s uncomfortable so to do.
Not that, for all the social progress of the last hundred years, we should rest on our laurels and complacently feel (leaving aside for a moment the present economic slump) that things have never been better socially; that we’re now fully enlightened. There’s still a way to go in that, and there always will be.
However you view it though, reading about the near-past is fascinating, and perhaps the more so the older you get, as memories become buried ever deeper in the sedimentary layers of personal experience. It just takes an evocation by a writer to spark a recollection; make you smile, fondly or wryly, as you exclaim, ‘Ah, yes, I remember that.’ I’m currently reading Small Island by Andrea Levy, set in and just after WW2. It reminds me that polite people substituted words like ’blinking’ and ‘blow me’ for the earthier b-words (although as far as tolerating minorities went the politeness was often gossamer-thin).
Rosy nostalgia versus clinical realism; like all genres of literature it comes down in the end, of course, to a matter of taste. What’s your taste in nostalgia? Do you like the warm bath sort, or the make-you-cross-at-the-injustice sort? And speaking of nostalgia, here’s part two of Wishing for the Better, if you’d like me to continue.
Wishing for the Better: 2
To say that our house lacked amenities would certainly have been an understatement. It was not hugely better than it had been fifty years earlier when it had been rented by my mum’s parents, who had brought up eleven children (Mum being the last) there. Admittedly there was electricity, but – at least in my early childhood – there was no mains water. It hadn’t yet reached the backwater of Empingham. There was no kitchen in the modern sense. Our ‘kitchen’ was the scullery, housing a bottled gas cooker and boiler, an unplumbed bath and a few cupboards. Later there would be the luxury of a cold tap when the mains arrived. The main living-kitchen had an old fashioned black-lead cooking range in the big old fireplace as the only heat source for the room, and for additional cooking. There was never a flushing toilet, inside or out, in all our time there, just an ‘earth closet’ (simply a wooden seat with large pan under, collected weekly by a grim-face-averting Henry Pike who spread the contents, untreated, on the farmers’ fields), in an outhouse next to the pigsty. People today don’t know they’re born.
But it was a surprisingly spacious house. It would have had to have been to accommodate all the Staffords. It was ‘double-pile’ in layout; that is, it had rooms front and back. There were two ‘best’ front rooms with a central hall and main staircase, and a back kitchen, scullery, pantry and a fourth service room that perhaps might have been a dairy. A back stairs led from the kitchen to three bedrooms and a spacious landing. In early years one of the front rooms and the ‘dairy’, serving as an even more basic kitchen, were occupied by Dad’s mum.
But there was a falling-out I believe, and Granny Needham upped and went to live with a daughter (she had even more offspring than Granny Stafford) in Leicester. Whereupon my hard-up parents, who needed all the extra old pennies they could get, sub-let both front rooms and the little kitchen to a series of tenants. These were many and varied, and perhaps living alongside so many different people was character building, because I’ve always hated nationalistic bigotry. There were a Canadian air force couple, a middle-aged Scottish couple (every day I would find the good lady scrubbing the ‘toilet’ floor with disinfectant in a vain attempt to impart a little hygiene), a Welsh couple with a daughter named Gwen, and an Italian couple. That lady was fascinating because she made her own spaghetti and used to hang out the strands of pasta over a line to dry, like washing.
And there was even a young English couple, from London. He, unaccountably, was in the Canadian Air Force. They were a laugh a minute and appealed to my mum’s sense of fun. Sometimes they would have ‘water fights’, which basically consisted of throwing water at each other from any container that came to hand. These battles would often escalate out of control, the containers getting bigger and bigger until eventually they were chasing each other, squealing, with bucketfuls and getting absolutely drenched. My mum could never admit how she sometimes spent her days to my rather straight-laced dad. He would not have been amused.
Poor old Dad: he wasn’t a very happy man. I suppose this might have been due his childhood and then later events, and his poor health. There was a dark secret about his own father who it was rumoured, mysteriously, was a bit of a wrong ’un; he then had problems with his own firstborn; and after having idealistically volunteered for war service he was invalided out with double pneumonia, rather than a wound, which left him with a legacy of bronchitis for the rest of his life, and perhaps some loss of self-esteem. But he had the occasional moment of frivolity: sometimes he would rearrange his false teeth (complete upper and lower plates) in his mouth and make gurning faces for Derek and me. We thought it hilarious.
On the whole though he was quite a distant figure. He was a very moral man, very strong on parental responsibility, and did his best to support his family in those austere post-war years on his painter-and-decorator’s wages. But he didn’t find it easy to relate to children. As my dad’s character perhaps developed out of his early upbringing (if you buy the ‘nurture’ theory) with – who knows? – some genetic influence too, so I might in my turn also have unconsciously absorbed some of his traits.
I certainly have quite a ‘moral’ and ‘spiritual’ tendency, but I can thank my mum for some of this too. She had a strong religious faith, as many people did then, and was a churchgoer all her life. So Derek and I were packed off to Sunday School on Sunday afternoons (arter dinner) and as we got older had to accompany her to Evensong too. I remember these being pretty boring affairs, as the vicar regaled his captive audience with dry-as-dust, interminably long sermons the points of which utterly escaped me. But in time he was replaced by a younger, more dynamic and down-to-earth man better at communicating, and I began to feel a positive interest in this business of consciously trying to be good. I recall the developing feeling of self-satisfaction, of weekly Christian duty done, as we ambled home afterwards, Mum and the other ladies (no men present) strung out in a contented gossipy line across the empty 1950s village street. Dad didn’t really hold with this demonstrative religiosity, maintaining that you should try to be good every day of the week. Part of me thought he had a point.
I became a choirboy, not that I could ever sing a note in tune, and at age thirteen became ‘confirmed’ with great mystery and ceremony at Peterborough Cathedral so that I could be a grown-up worshipper and receive Communion. Mum was very proud. Conventional religious faith would completely desert me as I reached my twenties, but (leaving aside the Deity aspect) the underlying values perhaps coloured my outlook throughout life. That sounds terribly pompous. But maybe the combination of a sometimes-troublesome childhood, a sometimes-solitary one (due to the asthma), parent-imitation, genes and religion were the cocktail that resulted in me.
There’s another aspect of the Empingham days that probably influenced later life: the fact that my parents kept animals for food. In those straightened times it wasn’t uncommon for country people to do so. We kept chickens for eggs and occasionally meat. I remember the cockerel fiercely defending his harem so that my mum had to take a stick with her to fend him off when she entered the run to collect eggs. Derek and I thought that he was also attacking his ladies when he mounted them with amorous intent and used to beat at the chicken wire to make him desist.
Our parents also kept a pig, which lived out its short dismal life in one of our brick outhouses. The poor creature never saw the light of day. I always felt sorry for it. Quite the worst point of the year for me was pig-killing day. The local slaughter-man would arrive and he and Dad would disappear into the pigsty. We kids, kept firmly indoors (not that I would have wanted to be outside anyway) would wait for the inevitable: the sound of the pig squealing in death. Then the creature was hauled onto a trestle set up in full view of the kitchen window, from which we watched the butchering in fascinated horror. When that grisly process was finished and the blood washed away we were allowed out. Following the slaughtering, Mum would process the carcass into various pork products such as haslet, brawn and sausages, and the kitchen would be festooned with hams for weeks afterwards
One year I remember being chased, terrified, around the garden by Gerald brandishing a bloody unspeakable remnant of pig. It may have been that incident and the killing event in general that was the catalyst for my later vegetarianism. Although I ate the meat on my plate in those days, it had to be wrapped in a parcel of mashed potato, and I could certainly never bring myself to eat fat. Many years later, in late middle age, meat eating a distant memory, I did some work on a farm. One day they slaughtered some beautiful white geese in a shed as I worked uncomfortably outside. It was very unpleasant. I had to avert my eyes as the birds were brought out to be hung for the blood to drain out of them, and had to drive my van well away from the farm that lunchtime, and think of other things, to eat my sandwiches. Worse, at around the same time I worked on another farm when they slaughtered a pig. To cap it all, they kindly offered me some (very) fresh pork. I politely declined.
And so the sunny days of childhood rolled by, until they were rudely interrupted, at age eleven, by the dreaded 11plus. In my case it certainly was dreaded. With the exceptions of art and English, I was no scholar and certainly lacking in confidence. Perhaps having missed so much school was a drawback. Anyway, the exam was an ordeal and stays a vague, miserable memory. I remember just one question, and to this day I think it was an unreasonable one: ‘What is meant by a box hedge?’ I gave the obvious, logical one: ‘A hedge trimmed into the shape of a box’. Wrong of course, but how could an eleven-year-old be expected to know that box is a species of hedging plant? Perhaps the bar was set particularly high because the ‘grammar’ option was a scholarship (and perhaps there weren’t many available) to Stamford School, which is actually a public school (which in Britain means, illogically, a private one). Are you still with me?
I failed the exam, predictably, and suffered the fate of the vast majority of working class kids then: the local ‘secondary-modern’ school. People disparage comprehensive schools now and bang on about ‘choice’, but in those days children from humble backgrounds had no choice at all. I think the three greatest individual achievements of the Labour Party (you notice I didn’t say New Labour) in the twentieth century were the NHS, the welfare state and comprehensive education.
So September 1954 found me boarding the school bus to Great Casterton village and the county secondary modern. I had a brand new uniform, rather oversized (to allow for growth): blazer, cap, shirt, tie and short trousers, which I hated. I had quite expected, having graduated to the big school, to qualify for long ones, but Mum wouldn’t have it. I think she regarded them as rather dangerously precocious. Of course, when I got there all the other new kids where flaunting long trousers. I felt utterly stupid. It didn’t help my low self-esteem. Throughout that first year I badgered Mum endlessly for long ones, but the short ones were now bought, money was tight and I just had to get on with things. I suppose it was character-building, anyway. A lesson that we can’t always have whatever we want. This was, after all, in the days before instant gratification, before consumer credit became the norm and you got now and paid later.
Perhaps Casterton school wasn’t too bad of its type. At any rate, I had nothing to compare it with. Gradually confidence improved and so did learning. I found myself in the A stream, in a respectable position not too far from the top. English and art were still my best subjects. I became a rather smug little teacher’s pet in the latter because I was still the best in class – not that the competition was very fierce. I also enjoyed woodwork (a sign of things to come) and made an early discovery of Culture, because the Welsh woodwork teacher also taught poetry. I loved that. Such wonders as Lewis Carol’s splendidly nonsensical Jabberwocky:
Beware the jubjub bird and shun
The frumious bandersnatch
And Masefield’s Quinquereme of Nineveh, Stately Spanish Galleon
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack
Butting through the Cannel in the mad March days
Magical fantasy! Magnificent imagery! Wonderful rhythm! I discovered the power and beauty of words.
The art education developed well although, as I say, I was a little too self-satisfied about it. I was brought back to earth though in an unexpected way. The art teacher also had another expertise: he did judo and held sessions for anyone who was interested during the lunch hour. I was still rather weedy and unassertive and this looked like a way of gaining some kudos with the other kids. And it would enhance my Special Relationship (as I saw it) with my teacher/role model.
But I was quickly disabused of that notion. I’ve done some pretty bold things in my life, but I learned physical cowardice at a very early age. The first lesson in judo is how to fall safely after being thrown. There are two basic sorts of ‘break fall’: usually you fall on your side, simultaneously throwing out your arm to smack the mat smartly and break your fall. That’s fairly easy to master. The other is basically a forward roll if you are thrown over your opponent’s head, potentially risking a broken neck if not done properly. I could not grasp this at all. I was set to practise over and over again but could never bring myself to tuck my head safely forward onto my chest as I went into the roll. Instead I would just launch myself ineffectually at the mat, arm correctly crooked forward but head extended, only to hit the floor without rolling and collapse sideways in an undignified heap. The teacher was horrified – he obviously feared litigation if I came to grief – and after several failed attempts gently told me I just wasn’t getting it and judo – or any other sport for that matter – wasn’t going to be my forte.
I wasn’t too disappointed. In fact secretly I was quite relieved. Attempts at other sports proved just as pathetic. I was no good at all at football, just as likely to flinch away if the ball was kicked to me too hard than go into a dazzlingly brilliant run with it. Very quickly I was weeded out of the team and sent with the other useless kids to kick about aimlessly in a corner of the playing field. Cricket was no better. I could neither bat nor bowl. I didn’t like the dangerously hard ball. The headmaster, who took us for cricket, used to say that when he was a boy they had one foot strapped down to the crease so that they couldn’t flinch away from fast bowling. ‘Great’, I used to think, ‘Thanks a lot’. I couldn’t throw a ball either; much less catch one. Still can’t, to this day.
And it was the same for athletics. I was always humiliatingly last in races (but I suppose somebody has to be: that why I hate competitiveness – I always feel sorry for the loser). On sports days Mum, bless her, would always turn up to root for me, although I was hardly the star turn. I was too young to realize then the kindness of that support.
But I had successes in other areas. One year the school ran an anti-litter campaign and I was commissioned to do a poster for it. I devised an ugly bloated bee-like creature under which, in dreadful doggerel, I ran the legend:
This creature is a litter bug,
As you can clearly see.
It’s hard to think this monster
Is either you or me.
The poster was displayed outside the school hall, attracting much attention, and I basked, in my shy way, in the glory of it all.
Another year the school ran a drive to improve writing standards and a teacher taught (largely unreceptive kids) italic handwriting. But I loved it: I thought it beautiful. After a course of teaching, a competition was held. I won the senior section and had the even greater glory (and embarrassment) of receiving a cash prize on stage during assembly. I didn’t know it then, but the discovery of calligraphy was a very formative event. That was the first – and almost last – time I ever won anything. I took my prize money to Stamford one Saturday afternoon and discovered retail therapy.
I consciously tried to spend the money sensibly rather than blue it on rubbish, and chose quite an eclectic selection of books: two educational ones, a New Testament and one boys’ adventure novel. When I reported this back to school they were quite impressed, I think, by my maturity. What other child would have been so serious-minded and thoughtful? Most kids would rather have spent the money on comics. I was already showing a tendency to old fogy-ness. But it did germinate a love for books, reinforce my inclination to retreat into the world of the imaginative, and perhaps also, coupled with religious influence, begin to sow seeds of idealism, of wishing for the world to be as I thought it should be rather than how it brutally and unfairly actually was.
But this limited success did nothing really for self-esteem or kudos among my peers. There was quite the opposite effect sometimes. Children can be cruel. Rather than attract admiration – I suppose it would have been quite different if I’d been brilliant on the football field – some of the other kids, those perhaps who weren’t finding success in any field, resented my achievement and sometimes bullied me. I never suffered physical harm, but psychological bullying can be unpleasant too. One ghastly incident took place on the bus one afternoon on the way back home. Two of the lady schoolteachers lived in Empingham and normally took the bus with us, riding in the rear to keep a stern eye on the more unruly kids. But this one time they were otherwise detained and we had the bus, unsupervised, to ourselves. A couple of boys saw the opportunity for hellraising (the driver could do nothing to exercise control because he was isolated in the separate driving cab beside the engine), stole one of my gym plimsoles and began throwing it around the bus. I was nowhere near brave enough to assert myself and demand it back. I arrived home tearful, sobbing to my mum that they were ‘just jealous’. That wasn’t the end of it. One of the girls reported the naughtiness and the culprits were duly disciplined, after which I got it in the neck from them for snitching on them. The bullying was self-interestedly selective though. Later that year there was snow. Derek and I had a sledge, and my chief tormentor, who was less lucky, suddenly became my temporary friend. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him to get lost.
It was around this time that my parents began to think about moving. The home situation wasn’t ideal: Dad didn’t run a car (few dads did then) but had a motorbike to get him to work in Stamford. This he did in all weathers, when he wasn’t laid up with bronchitis. I don’t know how my parents managed financially during those interludes. It must have been hard for them.
During the last part of that period Dad had an Ariel motorbike and sidecar and on Sundays we would sometimes have Trips Out – not going very far, just pootling along the quiet Rutland roads at a sedate 30 miles an hour. To begin with Derek and I squeezed together into the tiny rear seat of the sidecar, but that couldn’t last. So one of us had to ride pillion, and as senior child it had to be me. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded if it had been Derek. Cowardice always got the better of pride, and I’ve never been macho. So there we were, a Sunday-arter-tea travelling tableau, Dad at the controls, Mum, arms folded, in the sidecar pretending she was enjoying it, Derek grinning smugly up at me from the now relative comfort of the dicky-seat and me gripping Dad’s belt loops for dear life, feeling distinctly vulnerable. Dad drove so carefully that I need hardly have worried, but it probably goes without saying that I’ve never been interested in motorbikes. But, low-key outings apart, the parents felt that it was time we lived closer to Dad’s work and wanted a house with twentieth century facilities, so they joined the waiting list for a council house in Stamford.
Meanwhile secondary education, such as it was, continued at Casterton. I moved further up the class and did quite well in most subjects except maths. I wrote essays fairly well (as Derek would soon find to his benefit) and tried a bit of comic writing. They were weak attempts. One effort I remember ran something like: ‘The bowler ran up to the crease, unaware that his trousers were falling down exposing his pink and white-striped underpants’. The class fell about laughing (well, we were only thirteen years old) when I awkwardly read it out. The teacher laughed too and so, emboldened, I tried another little gem involving cream cakes. It was mildly funny too, but when the teacher joined in this time he was laughing at me. Always trying to be too clever by half, I’d searched my vocabulary for a more expressive adjective than ‘luscious’ and in ignorance come up with ‘illustrious cream cake’. I was being much funnier, inadvertently, than I realised. It served me right for being a smug little swine.
One day there came the exciting news that we had been offered a council house in Stamford. Mum and Dad accepted with alacrity. So an era was drawing to an end. And a new one rich in possibility was about to begin.