A Swinging Sixties childhood remembered

When I was a child growing up in the late Sixties, the technology that we rely upon today didn’t exist.   As the first mobile phone wasn’t made until 1973, and few people had a landline, staying in touch with family and friends was more difficult.  Phone calls involved going out, in all weathers, to queue at the big, red, telephone kiosk at the end of the street. My family only made phone calls when it was really necessary; to call a doctor, to check on an elderly relative, or the annual long-distance phone call, that required many coins, to book our seaside holiday.  On these occasions, Mum and I would trudge to the phone box, our pockets weighed down with money to pay for the call.   When we got there, if there was someone already using the phone, then we had to wait outside for them to finish.  I remember the dismay that I felt, having stood around in the pouring rain for ten minutes, only to see the person inside push another coin into the slot.  Often my Mum and I would be waiting for half an hour or more, as the person inside carried on chatting, determined to use up every last coin that they had stacked in a neat pile on the shelf next to them. People seem to fret these days if they misplace their phone, but for years we coped without having a phone at home. It wasn’t until I was 14 years old, and we moved to a house that already had a landline that the trek to the phone box ended.  I do miss seeing those red telephone boxes though, a lot have disappeared and they were an old, familiar part of my childhood and as quintessentially British as cricket on a summer afternoon, a nice cup of tea and the Royal family.

For entertainment we had a small black and white TV, but there were only three channels available; BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.  If there was nothing I wanted to see, or my father was glued to “The World about Us”, (which was a programme I particularly hated), then the only alternative to amuse myself was to listen to my radio, read or do homework.  In the evenings, my Mum would usually be busy in the kitchen reading, knitting or sewing.  She couldn’t be bothered to argue with my father over which TV channel to watch; there was enough friction between them as it was. At that time, video players, DVD players and even CDs, were yet to be made and personal computers didn’t start appearing until 1975, so she couldn’t occupy herself with any of those. We couldn’t indulge in a bit of online shopping, we didn’t have social networking sites, nor could we grab an I-pad and spend a few hours gaming to while away the dark winter nights.  As well as being limited to three TV stations,  the channels would all close down around midnight, so if my Mum and Dad fell asleep in their chairs, they’d have woken up to the shutdown screen and the national  anthem blaring.

When it came to buying food, a lot of families didn’t own a car, so we had to walk to the nearest local shops. There were very few supermarkets, so buying the weekly groceries involved going to many individual shops to get everything we needed. Therefore, on a daily basis, we visited the butchers, greengrocers, chemists, a tiny general store, and the newsagents.  In the school holidays, I can remember the daily visits to the shops with my childminder,  who was a plump, cheerful, kind, rather old-fashioned lady. She knew everyone that lived in our street and would always stop and chat, on her way to buy the groceries.  This led to me standing around in the street, bored out of my head, whilst she and her friends discussed anything and everything from the weather, to who had been in hospital, and the price of ham.  It was my job to stand still, not interrupt the grown-up conversation, and wait patiently until they’d run out of things to say.  We’d then move on, with me silently praying that she wouldn’t bump into anyone else that she knew. Since opening hours were strictly nine to five thirty from Monday to Saturday, and Wednesdays half day closing, we needed to get there before they locked up for the day.  This certainly was a challenge if she met more than one friend or neighbour on the way!

In as much as I didn’t enjoy the shopping trips, it was worth putting up with because my childminder was a fabulous cook.  She effortlessly, turned out filling, warming, nutritious meals from scratch every day; morning, noon and night.  How she managed it, amongst all that chatting, I’ll never know, but we always looked forward to being called to the table.  Her mouth-watering menu consisted of plain, but fantastic meals.  I have fond memories of her large, steaming, meaty, fragrant bowls of “Potato hash”, which was a strange, soup-like concoction, made from leftover stewed meat, potatoes and fried vegetables. It was delicious. She fed us on some real classics too; stew and dumplings, steak and kidney pie, shepherd’s pies, light-as-a feather steamed syrup sponge with a thick, yellow sea of custard and, my personal favourite, treacle tart which was to die for.

Today, there’s a lot of choice if you want to eat out, and new restaurants seem to be springing up all the time to meet the demands of people who dine out regularly.  However, when I was growing up, having money to spare for a meal out was unusual, even though both my parents worked full time. I remember one particular occasion when I was taken to the new Wimpy café in the centre of town; I was so excited at being taken to have a drink in an actual café. It seemed a very posh thing to do. There were tall, metal chairs at the counter, with bright red padded seats, too high for children to reach and I was lifted onto one, so that I could sit at the counter “like a big girl”.  Along the sides of the room there were low booths with lamps suspended over the tables and behind the counter were large, stainless steel machines. The biggest one, which made coffee, hissed out steam loudly at regular intervals, making me jump, and next to it, was another complicated looking machine that noisily made thick, creamy milkshakes.  I was taken aback by the size of the place, as it seemed massive to my seven year old self. The floor was a vast expanse of black and white tiles, laid in a chequered pattern, which seemed to go on forever. I was struck by how it looked like an American diner from one of the films that I had seen on our little television at home. It looked so pristine and perfect.  It was bright, polished and futuristic.  I hadn’t seen anything like it before.

As a rare treat Mum ordered a large strawberry milkshake for me and I made sure that I drank every single drop earning a disapproving look from Mum, who tutted at me and told me off for noisily chasing the last few dregs with the straw.  Apparently it was “bad manners” to make a noise like that.

My family didn’t always have the money to go out very much in those days, but good behaviour was rewarded in simple ways. Mum would sometimes be tempted by the array of cakes, in the baker’s basket, that were sold door to door each week.  The delivery driver had a gigantic wicker basket, which he carried on his arm, with bread, rolls, cakes and all sorts of other goodies tucked away in it.  Mum usually just bought bread, but if my brother and I had been especially well-behaved then she would get soft, sugary doughnuts oozing with raspberry jam or, if she was feeling extravagant, then she would treat us to pink iced buns, with fluffy whipped cream in the middle. We had our milk delivered too, and occasionally she ordered soft drinks from the Corona man who brought “pop” which was actually lemonade, cola, cherryade or limeade sold in tall, glass, screw-topped bottles.   If you took the pop bottles back to the local shop as empties, then you could get a few pence for returning them. This was a favourite thing for children to do, as we were often allowed to keep the money we got back.

We had regular deliveries and shopped daily because in those days, most families, like my own, didn’t own a fridge, only a pantry to store tins, jars and packets of dried food.   Our glass bottles of milk, from the milkman, were kept in a pail of cold water on the back step in the summer, in an effort to stop it going sour in the heat.   Our first “fridge” was actually nothing more than a cool-box.  It was just a shiny, painted, metal box, similar in appearance and size to a modern day microwave and it had a door at the front, so that milk could be taken in and out easily.  Inside, there were thick, white, polystyrene, insulated walls to keep things cool.  It was called an “O-so-kool” and my Mum was very excited when it arrived and immensely proud that she was the first person in our whole street to have this new technology.

Although we had milk, bread, soft drinks and sometimes fresh fish delivered from the fish-man, one thing we didn’t have delivered was takeaway food.  If our parents didn’t want to cook, and wanted a takeaway, then they would have had to walk to the local fish and chip shop.  Ours was run by a pleasant, middle-aged couple with a son called Nigel, who was in the same class as me at school. The fact that Nigel’s parents owned a shop greatly impressed my parents, and so they were delighted when Nigel asked them if he could take me out to the cinema. He was a nice lad, and one of the perks of being his, albeit short-term, girlfriend was that it did earn me extra chips for a while and he wasn’t a bad kisser either.   Nigel’s dad was a short, serious man. He had jet black hair, that he wore slicked back, with colossal amounts of Brylcreem so that it had the appearance of a rather elaborate sculpture and, together with his polar opposite, his bubbly, blonde-haired wife, ran the chip shop with all the efficiency of a military operation.

Despite my Mum’s concerns over us eating fried food too often, once a week, with my friends, I was allowed to visit the fish and chip shop and get some chips.  We would often challenge each other to a race and then off we’d run at top speed, ponytails swishing, hearts thumping, legs pumping, each desperate to beat the other and be first in the queue.   We’d burst through the door of the chip shop, red in the face, panting and sweating, and if we were lucky, the shop would be empty and we’d get served straightaway. The main reason for the race was that we each wanted to get the “scraps” to go with our chips as these were in short supply and much sought after. Scraps were little pieces of batter left over from cooking the fish. They were golden, crunchy and delicious when eaten sprinkled with salt and soaked in vinegar along with the chips and, best of all, they were free.  Much less desirable were the pickled eggs which were kept in a glass jar on top of the counter, suspended in a yellow, murky liquid.   They always reminded me of the weird looking science specimens that our teacher kept in the classroom at school, so I certainly never bought them, but the shop also sold gigantic pickled onions, which we all loved and ate like sweets.

If there was a queue, as they only had one counter assistant, then we’d while away the time by watching Nigel’s Dad frying up the fish. First he would fetch a fresh tray of fish from the back of the shop, and then a big bucket of glutinous, creamy white batter and pour this into a tray hooked over a rail above the vat of hot oil.  We’d stare, fascinated, as he dipped the fish into the batter, swishing it back and forth to get an even coating, and then deftly lay it on the surface of the hot oil where it would immediately start sizzling and cooking, the outer edges spreading out and turning golden brown in seconds.    When it was ready, he would swiftly lift it out of the fryer and slide it into the transparent hot holding cabinet that ran along the top of the counter. There it would sit, in front of our eager eyes, hot, crisp, golden, glistening with droplets of oil, waiting to be sold.  His wife, would be in the back of the shop, just visible, in her blue checked nylon overall and white net hat, putting potatoes through the chipper, heating up Pukka Pies or spooning mushy peas  into polystyrene pots in between serving customers.   Once it was our turn, we’d be greeted with a “Yes,please?” and, like most kids, our order was always the same “a portion of chips, open, with scraps please, if you’ve got them.” The “open” was that the chips would be put in a small greaseproof paper packet and then a sling of white paper used to keep the packet upright in our hands, so that we could eat our chips right out of the bag.  After paying for them, we’d sprinkle them with salt and way too much vinegar and start our journey back home, eating chips, gossiping and giggling, leaving a trail of vinegar from the chip shop to our doorsteps.

Looking back, my childhood was, for the most part enjoyable. The swinging sixties has been called the decade that shook Britain, and I believe it did in many ways.  It was a great time to grow up, and I have many magnificent memories of that time and of the early seventies, when I was a teenager.  Since then, so much has changed in so many ways. Everything seems much more sophisticated now, than it was then, but I wouldn’t change my childhood for the world; those were the golden days when I was satisfied with very simple pleasures.  People actually talked to each other over garden fences. Work finished when you left the office, shop or factory as bosses couldn’t and didn’t contact you at home.  Kids played out in the street together; we played hopscotch and hide and seek, french skipping and five stones, we made “perfume” from rose petals and raced snails.  In the summer we were outside, playing, from after breakfast until bedtime. Our parents only saw us at mealtimes and the long school summer holidays seemed to last forever.   We have all come so far; we have the internet at our fingertips and smart phones to make communication easier than it has ever been, but somehow, along the way, have we lost the sense of community that we had then?