Thursday, 10 April 2014

The wheel turns slowly ...

As someone who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s I sometimes look back and wonder at the hubris that sprang from the 'triumph' over Nazism and Japanese expansionism, which coupled with the Doomsday angst of the Cold War, to produce the world we live in now. As the saying is; "We didn't see THAT coming!" Mine was probably the last to grow up with teachers and parents word being 'law', in a world where 'drugs' were used by losers and idiots and we recycled everything glass, and even tin cans. Compost was something you made yourself if you were a gardener, and you didn't go to the supermarket for your groceries, meat, spare tyres, car parts and everything else. Even dog and cat food was bought raw from a butcher, and cooked, then minced by hand and sealed into 'preserve jars' and stored in the refrigerator.

Fresh vegetables came in bulk from the local 'German' Market held every Saturday in the Municipal Market Halls, which often supplied a plump fresh chicken for our Sunday dinner. Chickens and eggs were all 'free range' in those days, and, yes, not cheap. I look back in amazement now that roast chicken was our 'luxury' once a week, and we ate stews, meat loaf, fish pie and many other dishes which 'stretched' whatever meat was available. My grandmother (who lived above us with my grandfather) baked biscuits, cakes and other treats, and made jam - her speciality was orange marmalade - and also pickled and preserved a lot of the vegetables. Peas came in the pods, in large string sacks, and my brother and I had the job of shelling them and storing them in large glass storage bottles. Beans also had to be cut and the 'string' removed so they could be stored and there was very little went to waste. It wasn't that we couldn't afford the odd bit, it was more a case of being very aware that by some standards, we were very well off, and waste was definitely something to be avoided.

Groceries were bought daily from the local greengrocer who also stocked a range of tinned and bottled goods, liquor came from an 'off-licence' and meat from a local butcher (who happened to be my uncle). Fish we bought fresh from the fishing boats, or at our local fishmonger, milk was delivered in a hand drawn cart and the empties collected, washed and refilled, as were almost all other bottles. We could make a bit of pocket money going round looking for 'lost' empty cold drink bottles and returning them to the shops who paid 1d (One whole Penny!) per bottle. But then, a Mars Bar about three times as big as the ones you get now, cost 6d and a slab of Cadbury's chocolate cost 2s 0d (Two shillings, or twenty-four pennies, for the post metrication generation!). Wages were, by todays standards, low - my father earned only Thirty-two Pounds, ten shillings (32/10s/0d) a month and my mother around Twenty Pounds. Out of that they paid the rent, fed and clothed my brother and I and ran a car. There were few 'luxuries' - but heck, we had plenty and appreciated what we had.

Looking back I can now see the gradual change that came over our world, starting in the late 1950s, probably around 1958/9. First came the supermarket. Instead of carry a basket up to Henry's Shop as it was known locally, we all ended up going to the supermarket on Saturday after the German Market. Then we had to carry the shopping out to the car in the large paper bags. It wasn't long and 'Henry's Store' was downsizing, then closed. Our trips to the Market became less frequent - usually only now for the occasional fresh chicken. After all, we could get everything we needed at the supermarket - and it was cheaper.

Somewhere along this road, cold drinks stopped coming in glass bottles. First they went into tins - actually aluminium, and later into plastic 'bottles' which you threw away. Convenient, yes, but now we had a rubbish problem. Being a 'free-range' kid, something else I noticed was the way in which suburbs and townships were expanding. By the time I left school, a lot of the places I'd hiked through as a Scout were now covered in houses, laid out as townships and simply no longer 'wild space'. That accelerated from around 1965 and by the time I married whole tracts of land I'd camped on, or visited or known as farmland was covered in houses. And that brought with it the first 'ecological crisis' - rubbish.

Between 1945 and 1965 we'd somehow managed to shift from a society that minimised waste, recycled as much as possible (even clothing was 'passed down', collars and cuffs 'turned', shoes resoled and so on) to one which threw everything away at the first sign of wear, or the first sign of an 'improved' version, and the 'consumer' society took off. Great for the profits of the companies feeding this, not so good for the animals now being 'factory' farmed as things to be bred, fed, slaughtered and packed for the supermarket without compassion. Some say we turned the African Slave Trade into an 'industrial' process - you should see how we treat animals in our 'consumer' desire for cheap excess.

The first indication that something was going very wrong was the streamers of discarded plastic shopping bags adorning every fence around our cities (I grew up in Africa in case readers don't know) and the waste dumps began to overflow. It got worse, waste simply couldn't be cleared fast enough in some areas, and most of it was ecologically non-degradable. I hadn't been in the fire service lonbg when the first recycling businesses started to spring up, someone having realised there was more to the old Yorkshire saying of "where there's muck, there's brass" than just a quaint expression. At first though, they could only handle paper and clothing, but gradually that extended into other things.

For some of us, it was funny to watch as the wheel turned slowly back to doing things we remembered as kids as being 'normal'. This is why, now resident some six thousand miles north of where I was until 1987, I sometimes find it annoying to be lectured by soime snotty nosed 'Green' clutching his/her iPad/iPhone/Android/(Insert Name of Latest Gizmo Here) and dressed in designer jeans, teeshirt and synthetic jacket and expensive trainers, about the need to 'save' the planet by cutting down my 'consumerist' lifestyle. I should laugh, after all, my wife is constantly nagging me about wearing shirts I bought almost twenty years ago, or my extreme reluctance to give up perfectly serviceable furniture to the Crunchy-Munchy truck when I'm damned sure someone, somewhere out there would love to have it and use it.

Yes, it is convenient to be able to go to the supermarket and buy cheap produce. It is convenient to be able to discard my drinks carton/can/bottle, but there is a hidden cost to all this 'consumerism' and it is one we all end up paying. Yesterday I raised the issue of energy, and here again, I must point out that back in the 1950s, our power was locally generated by a small coal burning power plant (as Josephus pointed out, the coal creates steam, which turns the turbines, which ...) and our home had only one power socket per room, one central light fitting and in the kitchen we had a grand total of two power sockets, the light and an electric stove! Luxury. Power was expensive, and we didn't 'waste' it. If you left a room, you turned the light off. Nor did you waste water. the supply was metered and my father was always quick to 'have a go' if the monthly bill was higher than usual.

I think we have reached a turning point as a society. The straightforward 'consume-'til-you-bust' model is broken. The model most 'Green' organisations promote is unworkable and unsustainable with our populations at present levels. Somewhere between the two we need to find a balance, consume less, recycle more efficiently (I've just watched a perfectly good lounge suite be destroyed by the Crunchy-Munchy truck - one which, if there was a decent furniture recycling system in place would have been cleaned, any defects restored, and passed to someone who needed it) and relearn the art of living, rather than existing in a constant rush.

Yes, the 1950s were probably the apogee of the western dream lifestyle for many, but the naked consumerism that began in the 1960s is not an ideal model either. As Fagan says in Oliver Twist, "I t'ink I better t'ink it out again". Perhaps not me, but perhaps some of those very clever people in the corridors of power - assuming they can stop gourging long enough to do so ...

Mr Cameron? Mr Milliband? Mr Clegg? Frau Merkel? Anyone?


  1. The wheel turns slowly Part 1

    The Monk evokes memories of childhood flowing with nostalgia. Having said that, remembering that, whoever you are, the “Good Old Days” are primarily when you weren't good and you weren't old, there are one or two factors airbrushed out and others that differentiate South Africa from Northern England. Smogs that reduced visibility in cities, certainly Newcastle upon Tyne, to less than an arms-length, macintoshes (they were gaberdine raincoats, not personal computers!) that, if worn in the rain, took two days to dry out. Only having one pair of shoes and one macintosh, when the rain might well continue for several days. Having, if you were lucky enough to own a televisor as they were then called, two black & white 405 line channels to choose from, except that they only broadcast at certain hours of the day. Radio had the Home, the Light and the Third, unless, like me, you twiddled the dial once your valves had warmed up and tuned into Hilversum or Luxembourg.

    But, never having had iThis, iThat and it'other we couldn't miss it. However, I made the wisecrack earlier that macintosh was a raincoat, not a computer, the turning point in dating memories is that the Monk will immediately (I suspect, for I am putting words into his mouth.) answer the question about what apple was, as a fruit, whereas my word association would instantly answer “record label”. I travelled to my holidays in Aberdeen on the great LNER trains hauled by Gresley A3 and the imposing streamlined A4 steam locomotives when I was very young. I recall in Newcastle Central Station in 1958 (No, my memory is not that good, but my sister was born in '59 so it was the last 1950s holiday.) dropping my tiny suitcase while staring in awe at the gentle simmering monster before me, the “wheeltapper” picked it up and passed it to me with his long handled wheel-tapping hammer. The next time we went to Aberdeen would have been 1960 and my Father hired a Dormobile, the changes were beginning, independent personal transport replacing the transportation mainstay since 1830 of the railway. All the same 130 years of dominance is not bad. (Actually the last but one sentence is misinformation, the mainstay of transport then and now is maritime, however, it isn't often much use for visiting family, although my Mother was evacuated from Newcastle to Aberdeen by sea in 1939 on the SS Highlander.)

    So we move from social transport to individual transport. Only the rich or moderately well off had private cars in the fifties, my recollection of our street in Gosforth recalls only two cars, both large Vauxhalls, however my Father got an Austin A40, a modern skin on an old engine and chassis, in 1963 with a loan from his employer as it was taxed for business use. Henceforth the journey from Newcastle to Aberdeen, which took the unbelievable time of eight hours with two children, who naturally did not get on, and two adults in what today seems a tiny car, the Mk2 had a 1098cc engine and weighed 800kg and a flat out speed of just over seventy mph, although there were no roads on that journey where such a speed could be safely attempted. The AA provided a strip map of the route with directions which my Mother would read out. We would cross the border at Carter Bar just over an hour after leaving home, reach the outskirts of Edinburgh in just less than three hours and unbelievably, arrive at South Queensferry for the Forth ferry crossing a full hour later, the route went down Prince's Street, believe it or not. The next four hours, including a leg stretch and picnic in the Victoria Park near Cupar Angus, wended its way along roads not yet used to heavy traffic, through villages now long since by-passed with dual carriageway. We turned left at the traffic-lights in Forfar, where there were convenient public conveniences and were on the home stretch...

  2. The wheel turns slowly Part 2

    The supermarket had not yet reached Dyce, although Aberdeen Cooper's FineFare (Now ASDA which was then still Associated Dairies of Leeds.) at the Bridge of Dee, opened in 1970. My Mother sent food parcels to her sister until into the 1970s as the price, particularly of coffee, a nasty modern substitute for the traditional cuppa in straight-laced Scotland, being massive in the small local shops or the vans of the roundsmen. The Butcher, fishmonger, baker, grocer and so on all visited on certain days of the week as Dyce, although now a suburb of Aberdeen, was then strictly “County” and so far divorced from “the toon” That they were lucky that a Corporation bus travelled that far, the Bluebird County buses, of course continued further north, the Fyvie bus being a legend along the lines of the Wells Fargo stage-coach... “The bus will get through” and Aberdeen has more than its share of “snow, rain, gloom of night, winds of change” but not the “heat” referred to in the US Postal Creed. In later years, I bought the butcher's house in Newmachar and had the luxury of four garages which originally held the horses and carts for the county delivery runs.

    Indeed, when ASDA, Dyce opened in 1976/7, the shopkeepers from all of Aberdeenshire and beyond, flocked there to buy bread to sell in their own shops, partly because it was cheaper, but mostly because they would only get a wholesale delivery once a week at most. I recall in the mid-eighties trying to buy a 100m reel of 2½mm twin and earth cable. The price quoted from an electrical wholesaler was astronomical and when, as was my habit, I asked for discount, I thought I might need to call an ambulance, back in Manchester, you asked for and got discount and then said “Another 10% for the fire brigade?” and normally got it. To cut a long story short, I purchased copy of Exchange & Mart, (no Amazon then, it was a river in South America.) and five days later received my cable for half the quoted price, po9stage paid, I popped into the shop and told him how much I'd paid and he stared open eyed, “Do you want me to get you a dozen reels?” I asked. I truly believe that his supplier would drive to Edinburgh or Glasgow to collect his stock and then mark it up, no-one enquired because that was the way it had always been done. Apparently self-sufficient, in truth costly and wasteful. Yes, in those days “mail order” meant Exchange and Mart, not a Filipino bride!

    The towns and villages in the county areas of Aberdeen were still fiercely independent well into the nineteen eighties when the changes that had happened further south twenty years earlier caught up. ASDA opened a hypermarket in Dyce, then things snowballed and the modern world appeared in Aberdeenshire, now few remember the days of privation, however, in my house in Newmachar, there was an oil lamp in every room as we had the luxury of electricity installed, courtesy of the Butcher's need for modern fridges, but being older property, it was supplied by overhead cables and prone to weather interruptions, ten days was the longest blackout we had and we cooked on my large and varied collection of pressurised paraffin stoves, Optimus, Primus, fast burner, slow diffused burner and so on. The pub was visited often for food as well as drink in those ten days!

  3. Part 3

    As in the Monk's experience, the Christmas meal was a chicken. The unbelievable luxury of a whole fresh Salmon was served to us in Banchory one holiday, courtesy of a gamekeeper whose books my Aunt kept. I thought salmon was pink and came in tins. Steak was served with kidney, vegetables were boiled for twenty minutes, two cooked meals a day was commonplace, often three and yet few people were overweight. My uncle delivered our “rations” once a week, we had been registered with him during the wartime and later rationing period, as although he was not local, he was continuing the family trade. There is a ration book in my name as the scheme was finally withdrawn one month before I was born, but the system was so efficient that my Mother had received my ration book before the birth. Milk in one third pint bottles was provided at all state schools until I was well into my teens, provided to give essential nutrients to children. Until the wartime rationing, malnutrition was the eating issue of the day, not obesity. Sadly, the shop in Elswick, an early industrial workers housing area that served the Tyne shipyards and munitions factories of Messrs Armstrong, Vickers and many more and the collieries still working within the city boundaries such as the Montague which continued next to the Scotswood Bridge until the mid-sixties, was subject to compulsory purchase in the early sixties. The building was in my Grand-father's name and therefore compensation was paid at a tenant's rate, not an owner's rate, the entire street has been scrubbed from the map entirely, although watchers of “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” will remember in the closing credits, small children playing in a derelict window and door framing some newly built skyscrapers. That house was only one or two doors up the hill from my Uncle's shop. The street, Gloucester Road, was very, very wide and now and then a tank would be seen out on a test run from the Vickers factory where they were built.

    Those houses were black, the soot and pollution was terrible, but there was a community spirit. I remember someone once trying to push in front of an elderly Sikh gentleman, resplendent in his turban, when a woman told him in no uncertain terms to wait in line. The Sikh then proceeded, in broad Geordie dialect that he was British, born in Britain in 1924 to a hero of the Great War. That was my first sight of a foreign national, except that my best friend, Robert Koobah, was born to Dutch, German speaking parents who had fled Germany during the Nazi years, but despite his heavily accented speech, he was not “foreign”. At least in that aspect of life, today is better than yesterday.

    The world of those factories has gone, the current arms trade work is carried out in clean-rooms where the operatives wear rubber gloves and face-masks, not boiler suits. The last of the cotton spinning mills I remember from my time in Lancashire have gone, along with the sight of half naked women whipping the full spindles from the ring frame and their young trainees trying to match their pace fitting empty spindles and the overseer following to attach the thread, they have long since been converted or demolished, the coal mines I remember from my youth in Northumberland and my working days in Leigh, gone. We still have British industry, but it is high-tech, not dirty fingernail. We buy our railway locomotives from Canada, our white goods from Germany and our cameras from Japan, transport has revolutionised our buying habits as much as greed or avarice. The shipping has changed little, except in size, but freight forwarding adopted the ISO container and very rapidly developed the bar-code to keep track of the containers which all looked more or less alike. With the computer age, freight forwarding underwent a revolution. Your Kenyan mid-winter peas, Israeli avocados, your Nikon or Canon equipment (Made in China) are all brought to your door or supermarket as much by the computer as by the freight container ship.

  4. The wheel turns slowly, Part 4

    So, where did the divide between the slimline elder days and the modern world of excess, waste and consumerism occur? Well, I have researched and written on this topic in other places and for other purposes and as far as Western Europe, specifically Britain, it had begun by 1965 and was largely complete by 1975. There were leading trends that began in the late 1950s and early sixties and there were hang-ons such as I highlighted in the North east of Scotland that hung on much longer. To the native Briton I would be more obtuse and say little had happened when Macmillan retired and not much remained to be done by the time Thatcher entered No. 10. My personal timeline, suspect because it covered my late secondary school and early university years, narrows it down to a cultural “sixties” that lasted from 1968 to 1972. Before 1968 male undergraduates wore ties, hair might not pass the sergeant major's inspection but would be clear of the collar and ears, probably with a side parting and shoes would lace up. To make a similar comparison for female fashion, attire and appearance would require several thousand words.

    Concepts to deal with, “Policeman” meant Dixon of Dock Green, not “The Sweeney”, “Nurse” meant someone in a smart uniform who worked for Hattie Jacques, not “Angels” who did wear smart uniform as they were students being taught by their senior who had worked for that sister, but worked in “scrubs”. Divorce was still a matter of shame before these dates, not after, a child born out of wedlock was a bastard and would probably be taken from the mother and put up for adoption. Children, certainly boys were routinely beaten up to 1968 but such behaviour was removed from state schools, if not most public (In the UK that means private!) schools by 1970 and totally by '75, although the tawse hung on in the Scottish classroom for another five or more years, although it was entirely unofficial. Homosexuality was illegal and would be punished prior to the 1967 Wolfenden Act, but 1975 in some areas it was almost compulsory! Pornography before was a discreet gentleman's magazine with Hugh Hefner in a smoking jacket glimpsing a girl's bosom, after, the Sun had blatant bosoms daily and some of the Danish and Swedish material would make even today's youth blush. (Yes they have seen the same type of thing, but portrayed by stylish super-humans with no bodily hair, not real people who sweat and have pimples! Oh, and “HD” had not been invented, if you wanted a film, it was 8mm.)

    To put it bluntly, pre '68 was black & white, post '72 was colour, the early sixties were “Post-War Britain” the mid seventies were leading up to Thatcherism, Yuppies, Punk Rock. It is very noticeable that many of the great rock bands formed (or rising to stardom) in the '68-'72 era are still highly successful today, indeed many still perform and tour well into their seventies and with several million in the bank. Pre '68 women and girls wore socks or stockings unless they were stinking rich, when tights arrived, they were no good for skinny girls once they were washed until Lycra was introduced in 1972 to improve the Elastane used earlier, the materials are technically identical, but one retains the elasticity much, much longer. In the early phase a weekly bath was enough for anyone. Smoking was tolerated everywhere, there was an ashtray on every desk or bench in universities although I recall one man being asked to leave a class for eating an apple.

    I will stop now, because the comparisons are only meaningful to those who could easily add to the list, to those too young to remember, they are simply history, like young boys being sent up chimneys, girls leaving school to go “into service” and children working in coal mines and cotton mills. I quite like living today, especially in retirement and I have seen enough of the older days to remember them, but remember enough to paint them in realistic drab grey rather than rose tint them.

    1. A fascinating look at the UK perspective of the 'Golden 50s' as some would like them to be. I think Josephus highlights some of the things we have lost - the 'community' spirit and the family cohesion being examples. He is right too, that certainly in the heavily industrialised towns and cities there was a lot of air pollution - which, in the more sparsely populated southern hemiosphere wasn't quite so dire. Many things were far more costly, for a variety of reasons, and we have all beneifitted from the reduced costs in that regard. I cannot entirely escape the feeling though, that many Greens wish to return to the idyll of the 1950s, not the realities Josephus identifies. Personally, I'm with the Monk in thinking we need to rethink our wastage however.