What's Gone Wrong? It was the worst of times: Was it better in the Fifties when we had families and values? Perhaps it was, but two writers now have very different memories of childhood

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I WAS five when the Fifties started, 15 when they finished, and nothing exciting happened in between. We seemed very poor - no car, no telly - and I remember a lot of discussion about whether we could afford 'kitchen units' ending with the decision that we couldn't. It is hard to understand, in retrospect, just why we were so poor: my father was a civil servant and my mother a teacher, so we must have been better off than the average family, but we seemed to be always struggling up some new financial Everest - saving for furniture or carpets, for my new bike or my mother's Lambretta.

The most exciting event of the Fifties was the advent of the Birds Eye Roast Beef Frozen Dinner for One. It came in a sweet little tinfoil compartmentalised tray, and, once having tasted it, I refused to eat anything else. Fortunately the term 'eating disorder' was unknown, so nobody found it alarming that I lived on scrambled eggs for the first 12 years of my life and Birds Eye Roast Beef Frozen Dinners For One thereafter. The only other thing I would eat was fruit, but we rarely had any - only occasional apples, tinned mandarin oranges or Christmas tangerines.

My mother meanwhile thrilled to new man-made fibres and we were all very proud of our fibreglass curtains which were considered the height of modernity in Twickenham. Modern, or preferably 'moderne' or 'contemporary', were terms of universal approbation: the alternative was 'old', which meant bad. We lived in what I now realise was a rather pretty Victorian terraced house, with a conservatory and chequerboard tiles in the hall, but I longed for moderne flush doors and wrap-around windows.

One girl at school was rumoured to have central heating and we all wondered what it could be. Our house - like most houses in the Fifties - was only patchily heated and in the evenings we would sit reading, my parents and I, with our three chairs huddled so close to the gasfire that our legs developed scorch marks. Whenever people blether about how wonderful family life must have been before television, with everyone 'making their own entertainment', I think of those silent bookworm evenings and laugh.

The bathroom was so icy there was no temptation to take a bath more than necessary, and necessary was deemed to be once a week. We prepared for 'bath night' by half-changing the beds (top sheet to bottom) and laying out clean underwear - it is appalling but true that we changed our underwear only once a week. We had no washing machine, so the arrival of Twickenham's first laundrette was a godsend, but I wished my mother rather than my father, would take the weekly wash. (My parents shared the housework, but I felt that this was shameful and wrong and another lamentable symptom of our family's eccentricity. No proper father, I felt sure, would go to the laundrette.)

Culturally, it was a bleak scene and everything good came from abroad. The best writers - Hemingway, Kerouac, Mailer, Salinger - were all American but, probably out of teenage affectation, I preferred to get my intellectual fix from France. I was a passionate existentialist and forced all my gang to read Camus and Sartre and to say after me: 'We are each responsible for our own lives.' Thus was selfishness sanctioned and parental influence eliminated. The only problem with being an existentialist was that it meant looking like Juliette Greco who was tiny, Oriental and pale, whereas I was a galumphing English schoolgirl with ruddy cheeks.

Sexually, it was an appalling time, possibly the darkest in the history of the planet, especially if you were a girl. You were given fairly sketchy information about periods and 'where babies come from' (your tummy), a course on reproduction unfortunately confined to the frog, and many exhaustive and terrifying lectures about venereal disease.

Then there was the bizarre ritual of 'dating', with all its accompanying shibboleths: it was permissible to hold a boy's hand in the cinema but not otherwise; he could kiss you on the second date, but not French kiss; from the fifth or sixth date he might touch your breasts, but never inside your clothing. Never must his hands be allowed to stray below the belt or above the knee: only 'slags' permitted this. The whole transaction was essentially commercial: a boy had to show his bona fides by investing the price of several cinema trips in you (there was never any question of the girl paying) before you would grant any sexual favours and to do otherwise made you 'cheap'. The well-brought-up Fifties girl had to appear 'feminine' (ie, bird-brained) while performing calculations as hard-headed as any actuary's: the ideal to aim for was Doris Day.

I suppose deference did obtain - we respected policemen, doctors, headteachers and vicars - but since we never met anyone from the upper classes, we had no idea what 'toffs' might be like. Snobbery was positively encouraged at my school and we were taught to sneer at anyone with a different accent from our own. I almost died once when I brought a schoolfriend home to tea and my father said 'Side the pots' (for clear the tea things) in his broad Lancashire accent, but I explained sotto voce that he was Scottish, which I thought made it all right. At school we spent much time discussing whether it was 'better' to live in Claygate or Oxshot, Shepperton or Walton, St Margaret's or Richmond: our snobbery was all the more ferocious for being exercised within such a tiny social gamut.

Religion didn't impinge on our lives, but my parents advised me always to say I was C of E - anything else was 'asking for trouble'. Not asking for trouble was a major tenet of our lives - the important thing was not to cross Authority, or even come to its attention. The world was Them and Us and we left the ruling classes to run the country while we just kept our heads down and grumbled.

We were, I suppose, patriotic, or at any rate xenophobic in that we never met any foreigners and would distrust them if we did: on the other hand, I often feel that my parents' attitude was almost that of first-generation immigrants, trying to 'get on' in a deeply alien society. They were among that pioneering generation who, through access to grammar schools in the 1920s and 1930s, managed to rise from the working class to attain a fragile toehold in the middle class. But their social rise was accompanied by great anxiety: the effect was to leave them deracinated, cut off both geographically and culturally from their family roots. Since all their relatives did the same, there was no ancestral village, or even ancestral slum, to return to. I have come to realise subsequently that there were many families like ours in the Fifties, but we were all so secretive, so isolated, so busy keeping ourselves to ourselves, that we never knew how numerous we were. That is why I can never feel any nostalgia for the Fifties, which I remember as a drab, depressed, depressing decade. Emerging into the Sixties was like coming out into sunlight.

(Photograph omitted)

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