Sitting in front of a class of twenty-odd primary school children can be a disconcerting proposition. And that is exactly how I felt following a request from my daughter, a teacher’s aid in a small community primary school, to talk to her class about being a grandparent, and what life was like during my childhood. It brought home the reality of my situation; I was being asked to talk about grand-parenting therefore I am officially OLD! I don’t really need reminding of that fact, my four grandchildren (the youngest of whom is in the class in question) do that for me on a weekly basis. It was the idea that life was different when I was young, that I am now one of the older generation, which concerned me.
“What was it like in the olden days, Miss” they asked, when I was introduced, “when you were at school?” Olden days! When did they think I was born, the last century? The truth is I was, and they are all children of the twenty-first century! It made me think.
Having accepted the challenge, I now needed some photographs of when I was young. I found four taken when I was aged two to about six or seven. They were in black and white which intrigued the schoolchildren especially when I explained that televisions were also black and white in those days, and we didn’t have digital cameras, mobile phones or computers either. The children could not comprehend a world without technology. When I told them that my parents didn’t own a television until I was about twelve, they were shocked. Yet I watched some great occasions on Gran’s old rented, black and white Redifusion set: the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II (I didn’t actually see that as I was only two but I recall family tales of our whole family squashed into Gran’s front room watching it), the first Doctor Who which became my all time favourite programme ever and still is in its 50th year, the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, the moon landings, Martin Luther Kings’ dream speech, the shooting of John F Kennedy, to name a few. All through that school talk, the children kept coming back, disbelievingly, to my not having a TV at home:
“But what did you do if you didn’t have a ‘tellie’, miss?”
“What did you play games on?” They asked.
“Ooh!” I replied, “I did all kinds of things, played outdoor games in the street, drew, painted, read books, listened to story-time on the wireless …” It must be hard to visualise a world so different from your own. Indeed, I’m amazed at how altered things are now from those more simple times in the fifties and sixties. You rarely see children playing out in the street today, or if you do there’s always some busybody organising a petition, or demanding ASBOs to prevent them from becoming an annoyance. I don’t remember our skipping games, with a rope stretched right across the road, annoying anyone, though admittedly there were fewer cars then. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if today’s children stretched ropes across the road? I’m laughing at the thought. I don’t remember playing double-ball against the end house irritating the inhabitants enough to call the police, either. It was more likely to entice an apron-clad, tea-drinking mother or two out to watch, or just as likely, to join in. In fact, back then, there was always someone’s mother, or big sister, or brother, to turn the rope and keep an eye on us.
“[Johnny or whatever] gave me apples, [Johnny] gave me pears, [Johnny] gave me sixpence and kissed me on the stairs. I’d rather wash the dishes, I’d rather scrub the floor, I’d rather kiss [add new name] behind the kitchen door,” we chanted as we skipped. No-one worried about children roaming, stranger-danger, or accidents when playing such ‘wildly dangerous’ games as conkers or British Bulldog, both now banned in many school playgrounds. Breaking an arm (or knee in my case) by falling out of a tree or being chased by an angry neighbour were seen as normal, everyday hazards to be dealt with philosophically, not banned or requiring police intervention.
As I scanned the photographs for my presentation, one by one, it was like travelling in a time-machine, each one a window into my life, but always there: my omnipresent grandparents. The first showed a two-year-old me, my grandparents and an aunt. I’m cute in pigtails and a smocked, puff-sleeved dress, waving a very unsophisticated toy – the plastic windmill. We must have recently visited the seaside as I can only remember buying those at ‘bucket-n-spade’ shops along the seafront at places like Hornsea and Bridlington. Now modern versions are more frequently seen in Garden Centres as accessories to patio furniture; the garden now an extension of the house and used for entertaining, with afternoon barbecues and sophisticated evening soirees complete with subtle up-lighting and water features, rather than somewhere to grow vegetables, or a few regimented annuals. Then it was where we built dens, held picnics, dug up worms.
The clothes and hair styles in this photo typify the era. It’s clearly sunny in the picture but Granddad has his jacket on, and a fair-isle woollen jumper with shirt and tie. Gran has a blouse and cardigan, and no make-up; I would never be photographed without mine – how times change. My young Aunty, in comparison, is vampishly made up with short waved hair and a ‘new look’ dress (full skirt, tightly waisted) emphasising my grandparents more drab appearance. The post-war decade was when teenage fashion started to take precedence, and the differences between three generations are very clear – dowdy adults, glamourous young woman and babyish child. I wonder if the digital photograph that my granddaughter’s teacher took of me, my daughter and granddaughter will show such a difference in style between our three generations. I don’t think so. We were, all three, dressed in sweat shirts, trousers with our blond hair in pigtail or pony tail.
I’m three years old in the second picture; dungaree-clad with a large bow in my wavy hair (Grandma must have put it in rags the night before – yes rags!). I’m sitting on the grass in a corner of Granddad’s garden, cuddling Ginger, his huge old tom cat. How fond I was of that cat. I loved him devotedly despite being almost as big, certainly as heavy, as me. I’d dress him up in dolls’ clothes and push him around in a pram, Ginger lazily tolerant, and seemingly enjoying the luxury of a pram-ride, if not the indignity of being dressed up. Over time, I would spend many hours in that neat, walled garden watching Granddad patiently weeding, or thinning out delicate seedlings with his large work-roughened hands whilst I sat making daisy chains with Ginger sprawled dotingly beside me. As I grew older he helped me create my own garden, teaching me more about growing vegetables and herbs, the mysteries of companion planting, and how to garden using a moon-phase calendar, than any modern-day TV garden guru has since.
“Allus plant nasturtiums between yer lettuces and cabbages, our lass,” he expounded in his gruff East Yorkshire dialect,” cos caterpillars prefer ‘em. Add some marigolds too; they’ll tempt yer slugs away from the veggies; and some dill or fennel to attract yer friendly ladybird. She’ll gobble up all the aphids.”
“And plant leafy vegetables during a new moon and root vegetables at a full moon,” I’d recite back, drinking in his wisdom without hardly noticing, I was so absorbed. I’ve forgotten all but snippets now, sadly. All day we would spend out in the garden, breaking only to snack on home-baked doorstep bread, and cheese, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice, or to suck sticks of sugar-dipped tart rhubarb cut raw from the plant. Those times are undoubtedly viewed through retrospective rose-tinted memory bytes, but of one thing I’m certain, it never rained, ever … honest!
In the third photograph I’m aged about seven, with my grandparents and younger sister, strolling down the promenade of some seaside resort, probably Bridlington as Granddad had relatives with a sweet shop there. We’re all dressed in winter coats though there are flowers in tubs by the side of the pavement. Did people never let the sun touch their skin in those days? Gran and Granddad are holding our hands. Try that today; it seems to have been beneath the dignity of my grandchildren since they reached about three. But I remember how safe it felt walking beside my grandfather, his large knotted hand swallowing mine, tough but tender. He walked with a rolling, bowlegged gait that some people found eccentric.
“Too many years astride an ‘oss in the cavalry,” he explained, but caused, more likely, by some nutritional deficiency during infancy. I found his craggy face and white, bushy eyebrows familiar and reassuring, though he often frightened others. Grandma was small and rounded, soft and comforting. Seated at her large, rustic kitchen table, scrubbed to hospital cleanliness, she taught me to bake cakes, make gravy from the juices of succulent meat, knit with two, then four needles, and darn a sock! Who darns these days? Certainly not me, but I still know how to, just in case.
The last photograph portrays me dressed in an organza rosebud-strewn bridesmaid dress, looking pale and wan, at my aunt’s wedding. (I’m the little bridesmaid holding hands with my male cousin). Unlike the other bridesmaids I’m also wearing an angora-wool bolero (now re-marketed as a shrug).The significance of this photograph (and the shrug) is not the wedding but how ill I look. When it was taken, I was still recovering from a double-dose of whooping cough and pneumonia; both conditions rare today. Back in the fifties, with vaccinations and antibiotics in their infancy, childhood illnesses were rife. Indeed I spent very little time at primary school since a babyhood dose of measles had left me with a chronic weakness in my lungs, hence being hit hard when whooping cough, and other regular infections, struck. Those were days, long past thankfully, of lying on our settee wrapped in blankets, and tended to by my mother or read and sung to by Grandma. I loved to hear Gran read from Grimm’s fairytales (the Twelve Dancing Princesses in particular) or stories like The Magic Faraway Tree, the roots of my enduring love-affair with fantasy. Grandma sang constantly, not just at my sickbed; she was always humming away. Nothing specific, snatches of popular songs off the wireless, anything from Gilbert and Sullivan to David Whitfield or folk tunes, sometimes accompanied by Granddad on the piano. It was as if she was singing everything right, a kind of musical magic.
Weeks of recuperation followed for me, spent doing endless jigsaws or designing fashion collections for the cut-out paper dolls in my weekly Bunty comic. Treasured within a green Clarks shoe box, they became a symbol of my aspirations to be a real designer. It never happened, for like most women born in the fifties, and despite the apparent progressiveness of the sixties, I just ended up getting married and having children. It took a brave (or wealthy) woman to fight the system back then; feminism’s heyday was still to come. But those family-raising years resulted eventually and inevitably in four delightful grandchildren of my own. Hopefully I can do the job as well as my grandparents did.
Gran and Granddad played a massive part in my childhood as both of my parents worked – dad on the docks, mum in a shop – to pay for clothes, an annual holiday and eventually a TV and car. They were the mainstay of those early years. It’s no coincidence that the only four photographs I possess from those times are connected to them. The photographs are as much a tribute to those remarkable people as they are portrayals of my early life. Today, as I reflect on my past, I wonder what became of that great ginger tomcat, and Granddad’s heavenly produce-filled garden with its moss covered walls and rickety potting shed. What jealous god allowed his fingers to falter and cease up with arthritis and Grandma’s nurturing spirit turn bitter with age? Where are they now? It’s their legacy that enables me to create for my grandchildren those same carefree, unconditional love-filled memories in turn: gardening and hunting for worms and ladybirds, cookie cooking, storytelling and singing. What sort of memories and changes will those schoolchildren I spoke to see in their lives; what might they talk about to a class of children in the year 2063, if they become grandparents? Will they have interesting memories? Will they see similar sweeping changes over five decades, as I have? It’s hard to believe things can change much more but I expect that’s what my grandparents thought too, so long ago.