|My parents and I on our first post-war holiday at Prestatyn, 1946|
Children of my generation used to be told "Think of all the starving in India" if we didn't eat what was put in front of us. During the war and immediately after, food was rationed, so there wasn't much choice, but because it was nutritionally balanced, most people were healthy. Our mothers (it was rarely our fathers) shopped with lists and were served by shop assistants. We only had sweets at weekends, as a treat, and then only a few ounces in a paper bag. My favourites were dolly mixtures. There may have been cases of anorexia and bulimia, but we’d never heard of them. I’m inclined to think that they’re unknown in poor countries, where having enough to eat is always a problem.
We didn’t have central heating. There was an open fire in the room where we spent most of our time. In winter, the bedroom windows would be covered in frost and you huffed on them to melt a hole to see through. Chilblains, now almost unheard of, were common. I remember a girl who rode to school on her bicycle over open country and was so cold when she arrived that we had to half carry her into the cloakroom and lie her next to the heating pipes to thaw out.
We didn’t have a fridge, so milk, delivered each morning, had to be kept in the coolest place in the summer. Perishable stuff, like meat and fish, was bought and cooked the same day. Leftover lamb from the Sunday joint would be put through a mincer (I still have one) and used for shepherd’s pie on Monday.
These were just some of the things that we took for granted. No point in complaining about them; most people were in the same boat. But it was possible to play unsupervised out of doors all day in summertime, roaming over fields that are now housing estates and catching sticklebacks in clear streams and ponds. My father made some of my toys; a dolls’ house, a doll’s cot with a drop-down side, just like my baby sister’s. My mother sewed clothes and blankets for my doll, Patsy. She was heart-broken when her own doll, which she’d taken out of storage to show me, was destroyed by my puppy while we were out at the shop. I was heart-broken when that same puppy, a gift from an uncle, was run over and killed by a lorry. A Liverpool Victoria insurance man opened the door before Mum had a chance to grab her collar, and she ran out into the street. In those days, you paid your premiums in cash to insurance men who came to collect them regularly. I still can’t see adverts for ‘LV’, as Liverpool Victoria is now known, without remembering that stupid man, who was so busy talking that he didn’t hear Mum, and the horrible screams of my lovely puppy, a gorgeous Cocker Spaniel called Bonnie.
I was born before the NHS was founded, so my father paid over £100 (it would be over £3,000 now) for my mother to give birth in a private maternity home, where she could have the benefit of gas and air anaesthesia. Dad was still away in the war and didn’t see me until his next leave.
As a funeral celebrant, I’ve heard lots of life stories about people older than me, some of whom experienced real hardship. It was common for bright boys, and especially girls, to be denied opportunities to go on to higher education because their families couldn’t afford it. Women who were widowed or divorced had a much harder time of it than they do today, because there were few benefits and wages for part-time work were very low. Their children knew better than to ask for or expect fancy clothes, toys or gadgets. They found ways of amusing themselves. The older girls were often expected to help to care for their younger siblings. I liked to include some social history in the funeral tributes, mainly for the benefit of younger members of the families who’d only known the subjects as old people.
Within the last fifty years, the consumer economy has developed, manual jobs have decreased, large corporations have dictated our shopping habits, the NHS has gone from strength to struggle, an education system that started in the 1940s has offered better opportunities for all, then dismantled, old people are living longer but costing more, expectations have continued to rise, and the population of the British Isles has increased by over 10 million people (18.7%). About half of this growth has occurred since 2001. That means more people, wanting more, at a time when pressures on natural resources will force us to have less, even if we don’t like it. There’s no sign of this increase slowing down, or of this or any other European government being prepared to address the problem.
Pressures on land and resources are creating conflict around the world, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America. High energy consumption and greenhouse gases are raising the global temperature, resulting in climate change, already evident through extreme weather, melting ice caps and permafrost, forest fires and rising sea levels. It’s no longer sensible to consider retiring to the coast, as you could soon lose your home to erosion and the sea. Driving is no longer socially responsible, if you can avoid it, despite all the glossy TV adverts that show the latest models on open roads without a traffic jam in sight. The decrease in the number of bird species in my rural garden is indicative of the decline of species worldwide, thanks to loss of habitat and changing temperatures.
Post-war, the British government had plans for food production, housing, health and education. If there are any plans now, they don’t appear to have taken much reality into consideration, only the aspirations of a greedy electorate, largely oblivious of the facts, for fear of losing elections. Stoicism, frugality, thrift, are all qualities that only a minority seem to value. It’ll take some brave women and men to tell it like it is. The sooner the better.