My parents' wedding day
For better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health...when Britain joined the EU in 1973, a whole mode of living slipped away unnoticed. Until then, attitudes, expectations and material wants had been stuck, broadly-speaking, in the Edwardian era, held in check by two world wars which reshuffled the cards completely.
Last Friday (27) would have been my parents' wedding anniversary. They were part of the moral and economic struggle to get the nation back on its feet during a decade or more after WW2. Hopeful newly-weds were scrambling to find properties, and I don't know to this day how my parents successfully landed a Georgian cottage when there were around four hundred applicants. The rent was ten shillings a week. That's 50p now, or 83 US cents! The kitchen was neatly equipped with an ancient Belfast sink and built in 'copper' under which a fire could be lit for boiling laundry. The fireplace had a cast iron cooking range which, I suppose would be the forerunner of the Aga. Improvements were done at the tenant's expense and, although there was gas, it was some years before electricity was installed. One of my earliest memories is of my father reading by the light of a paraffin lamp. By then, he had a good job so they were on the way up, saving hard and aspiring to better things. My mother, who led a reclusive life, was highly skilled at half-forgotten domestic arts and was well-employed in making ends meet. She was a fine tailoress, cook, gardener, decorator, a cushion, curtain, bedspread and rugmaker, with a thousand ways to make do and mend. It was the closest she ever came to happiness, except, maybe, for the day of her marriage.
Whatever the problems and emotional constraints at home, she sent me into the world in beautiful clothes. She could never express affection or give hugs, but I do remember finely-embroidered little dresses made of bone-white parachute silk. She made pinafores edged with emerald bias-binding conjured from shiny blackout poplin, and coats with velvet collars and matching hats, pleated skirts on shoulder straps and cardigans with pretty 'fair isle' borders. Ration books were still in use and her industry with garden vegetables, salting and pickling, and the bottling of fruit, helped to stretch the budget. I remember the tangy-gold plums and glistening garnet damsons lining the pantry shelves and my father bringing home a rabbit he'd run into on his bicycle in the dark. He cycled twelve miles to the office in the summer, worked long hours, and cycled back. In the winter, the journey was a mix of bike and train. That was before Dr Beeching axed all the branch lines which didn't pay. It certainly put car manufacturers into business! I think there were three, maybe four, families in our village who had cars. One was a taxi service.
Though the general approach to life was upbeat and the peddled wisdom was that 'there's no such thing as can't', there was what can only be described as a miasmic gloom in the atmosphere. The stench of something terrible lingered in the psyche which I later came to associate with the Holocaust. It tempered the euphoria of victory and must have emanated from Central Europe whose disintegrating cultures led to an exodus into neighbouring lands.
We may have lived in the backwoods with next to no transport, but the upheaval of war brought the world to our doorstep and was the beginning of our multi-cultural society. War hits a close-knit country especially hard and turns the demographic upside down and inside out. At the end of it, fathers came home to children they'd never seen, who viewed them as interlopers. Or fathers didn't come home, which led to many adopted and stepchildren. Evacuees returned to their parents, mostly having formed close bonds with their host families, sometimes stronger than the natural ones. Unwanted youngsters were shipped in their thousands to Australia to populate the country with 'good white stock' and provide hard labour. Allied troops hung around and started new families, else whisked off their English sweethearts to other parts of the globe.
I was too young to understand all this, but its spirit was vibrantly alive in the microcosm of the schoolyard.
The local children, bred from Danish and Huguenot stock, had the varied features and muted colouring of bloodlines mingled with Celtic, Gaelic and Saxon, as did the drawling, good-natured Americans who had the world taped and expected to be liked. Their very nationhood owed its being to the religious purges of the northern hemisphere during recent centuries. But among this medley were those with a distinct look of exile, the raisin-eyed Jew from Golders Green who fitted anywhere and belonged nowhere but the foothills of Zion, the Italian half-caste whose father had been a POW, the Poles and Romanies with their broad cheekbones and dark and dolorous stare from the camp on the main road out of the village. They throve on rootcrops and their skin was tinged with their native soil. Sometimes, during lessons, they were lifted on to chairs at the front of the class and encouraged to sing folk-songs in their own thrumming tongue. They sang with confidence and passion of things that were gone, of vintages that would never be repeated and dances whose measure they no longer trod, of costumes banished to the wardrobes of theatre.
I was drawn to the refugees. There was a wholeheartedness about them. They seemed to live on a metaphysical plane, imbuing every act with a tribal significance which kept their identity intact beyond their homeland. I understood the outsider’s plight, though there was no such thing as racial tension, then. The issue had not reared its head. Every child was familiar with the picture of Jesus gathering the youngsters of five Continents about his feet. We knew that the blood under the skin was one colour. Some of our soft toys were golliwogs in those days, and black dolls, which, paradoxically, were banned as un-PC to the next generation.
Then came the era of spending and shopping as a leisure pursuit. Household crafts were largely forgotten. Gypsies no longer knocked on the door to sell pegs and tell fortunes. Nor did the dapper 'man from the Pru' collect weekly insurance premiums.
They started to build motorways in Britain in the late fifties, and open supermarkets, and fit homes with central heating. The wonderful patterns woven by frost on the bedroom window on a winter's morning melted away. No more sitting around the fire as one, listening to the BBC Home Service, or reading quietly to the driven clicking of knitting needles, whilst, in another corner, the broadsheet was shaken pointedly behind which my father had retired to lap his tea in peace.
During those years, people developed a taste for going abroad. Our palate began to change. Air travel became cheaper. My parents never ventured further than the Isle of Wight, but for me there were short school trips to France and holidays on the Continent with the families of friends.
It all sounds so quaint, and barbaric, too! But I think my generation is the most privileged in history. We were linked to all that. Most of us knew we were well off. We rode the tide of economic prosperity in such a way it has followed us through to middle and later years.
If the apocalypse comes soon, if utilities fail and our method of living breaks down, we shall know how to set about re-inventing the world in an eco-friendly way, aided by developments in popular science. It behoves us to pass on our knowledge to our children and grandchildren and support those revivalist movements that are seeking a viable alternative lifestyle.
But our best gift must be the wisdom that there's no such thing as 'can't'.
The Leicestershire village of my first home. King Charles I was said to have taken refuge in the timber-framed cottage on the left of the picture during the English Civil Wars.
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...