Nostalgia, it ain’t what it used to be
My boiler recently stopped working and so with no central heating, I had to go back to lighting fires in the morning. It got me thinking how much life has changed since the 50’s and early 60’s and just how much we look back with rose tinted spectacles.
In the 1950’s the smell of smoke was everywhere. It belched from factory chimneys and steam trains. It billowed from hearths through chimneys to the sky before descending as soot on every clean surface. Low-rise streets were still cratered with bomb sites. Millions of homes still lacked basic sanitation and I recall having a weekly bath in a huge tin bowl and having to go to the end of the yard to get to the outside toilet which froze in winter.
Washing machines were a rarity, most homes had a heavy, metal mangle, which required strength and bravery to risk crushed fingers when drying the sheets. Even entertainment was limited. Most people only had radios and the few televisions in existence had tiny screens showing grainy, blurry, grey pictures.
These days we tend to mock the health and safety lobby for being overly protective, but in the 50’s workers were exposed to asbestos, coal dust and hundreds of other safety hazards. People worked long hours and had short holidays. Speaking of holidays, they were almost all taken in Britain. Foreign trips were the preserve of the rich and most of us made do with a trip to the country or the heady delights of Blackpool.
Rationing ended in 1954, and towards the end of the decade, prime minister Harold Macmillan famously stated that “we’d never had it so good”. Between 1957 and 1960, ownership of TV sets rose from 53% of households to 78%, and of washing machines from 21% to 37%. Significantly, though, only 29% of those householders were living in homes that they owned.
The good news was the NHS, which had been introduced in 1948, was getting into full swing and saving lives. Ironically this while one arm of the state was keeping people alive in ever greater numbers, another was preparing for the possibility of mass funerals. Ten years after Queen Elizabeth II’s accession, what remained of her empire was rapidly disappearing and the two world superpowers, Russia and the USA were eyeball to eyeball during what became known as the Cuban missile crisis. It was the closest the globe had come to nuclear war. Fear was almost palpable, as it had been at various stages for much of the previous decade. “Living in the shadow of The Bomb” became a 50s catchphrase. Winston Churchill’s estimated that 10 hydrogen bombs dropped on Britain would have killed 12 million people in an hour or so.
Finally, in the cinema, there were a series of films that purported to depict the harshness of life in the “grim North” which Southern cinema goers lapped up. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, and A Taste of Honey, all depicted Northern families as poor, fractious and uneducated a myth which has been perpetuated to this day.
Nostalgia is fine, but I wouldn’t swap it for today’s easier life.