Past Perfect?

I’ve banged on a bit here, so no time to get into coronavirus. I’ll cover that and Chris Packham’s 7.7 Billion next month if any of us are still alive.

No one can deny that the bush fires that have devastated vast tracts of Australia are a huge catastrophe but as far as scientific records go this entire continent is only ten years older than the clock in my hall and as I understand things it has been just as hot down there before, even according to records that only date back to 1889, with 1938-9 being particularly bad.

A Royal Commission in Victoria previously recommended a return to the ancient Aboriginal method of ‘prescribed burning’ to prevent forests accumulating excessive fuel loads by regular, controlled, burning of the brush. I am no expert but I imagine there may, like our flooding and the abandonment of ancient drainage methods, be another truth here that needs to be investigated before blaming man-made global warming as the sole villain of the piece.

By the way did anyone notice that the year began with Delhi having its coldest day for 119 years? It was hardly reported anywhere and I have to ask myself If the warmists who now dominate our media are only interested in hot records these days? Surely there can be no bias here?

2018 we are confidently told was the hottest year since 1850. Alternatively, doesn’t that mean that 2018 was cooler than 1850? So what caused all the heat in 1850 then? There are lies, damn lies and statistics is all I’m saying, without pointing a finger anywhere.

With the Profumo affair being brought back to prominence by The Trial of Christine Keeler showing on our TV screens it reminded me just what an eventful period that was. In the space of a single year, from autumn 62 to autumn 63, not only was Mr Profumo in all sorts of trouble, I arrived at snotty Rutlish Grammar School in Merton for five years of endless thrashings, the Cuban Missile Crisis took us to the very brink of nuclear annihilation, we personally endured, and survived, one of the hardest winters in history with only a single paraffin heater for warmth, The Beatles first hit the pop scene and an unknown fighter called Cassius Marcellus Clay arrived on our shores to do battle with ‘our Henry’. Then this mini era was nicely rounded off with The Great Train robbery and an assassination that shook the world.

Immigration was low in those days and our population was around a third less than now. We had one Asian kid in a school of 730 when I started. By the time I left we had two, a Nigerian, an Australian and a Canadian. Go back today and you will struggle to find anyone not of Asian origin. Takeaway meant fish and chips (Jewish/French combination origins, arrived the same year as my house, 1860) or in London, perhaps, pie and mash, all wrapped in newspaper of course, the print of which would transfer perfectly onto hot mashed potato. Exotic meant jellied eels (Brought over by the Dutch to feed the population of London after The Great Fire) or whelks. Curry, Chinese, Italian etc. was a rarity of more central London. Wimpey’s were around, arriving in Preston in 54, Kentucky Fried Chicken got here in 65 and MacDonald’s? not until 76.

School taught me nothing. I hated the place from start to finish. We were bullied by older kids and did our fair share with the younger ones. It was just accepted, almost compulsory, back then. There was no dyslexia, Asperger’s or autism. Barely any ‘ism’s’ at all in-fact, if a kid was ‘thick’ you just hit it until it got clever or died. Many of our teachers were ex servicemen, some liberally sprinkled with a penchant for sadism, and military discipline. After all, the birch was still in use in the wider world in 62 and was last used in the Isle of Man as late as 76. Thrashing kids was not only normal, it was expected.

In adult life, aside of flogging for assault on a prison officer, hanging was still the penalty for murder, treason and arson in HM’s dockyards. Last used I believe in 64, there were undoubtedly a few miscarriages of justice but no reoffenders and not nearly so much costly maintenance of lifers.

The last to serve in what had become the family business, Mr Albert Pierrepoint, who’s biography I read in the seventies, was the acknowledged master of this method of dispatch, his father Henry and uncle Thomas having also been hangmen. Critical of his rivals in the craft, he would always get things right, cell door to dead in under ten seconds (many F1 pit-teams would struggle with that), no pulling the heads off or puppet shows when Albert was in charge. He boasted that he could judge the drop to within half an inch to ensure that not only would the neck break cleanly but the spine would also be ripped into five sections, to prevent any irritating nervous twitching which might delay his traditional ‘post drop’ fag and a cuppa.

Happy times! We were taught that oil supplies would run out within twenty years but, with the advent of nuclear power, electric cars would become the norm and, with this magical source, energy would become so cheap and freely available that it would probably become uneconomic to even send out bills for its supply. It would undoubtedly be provided to every household free of charge within a few years.

With free power and the advances being made in technology it was forecast that the major problem for the future would lie in keeping ourselves entertained during our long and luxurious retirement. In order to give the young up and comers who would follow us into this brave new world a chance to prove themselves most of us would probably retire before we were 35. After all we were constantly being told, between beatings, that we were the top 10%, society’s elite. As a result I’m afraid that many of this glorious institution’s pupils remained firmly up themselves for several decades after liberation.

At the time we were being told all this my family had no phone, no fridge, no washing machine and felt lucky to have a plumbed in bath (many did not) which we used every Sunday night whether we needed to or not. Those without either resorted to a zinc bath, filled by means of a kettle as hot water on tap was another luxury not to be taken for granted, or resorted to a trip to the local slipper baths where a good soak was available for sixpence a bash.

Socks were darned, holed sheets re-sown sides to middle, soap scraps saved in a jam-jar and remoulded into one new bar, rendered meat fat was saved in a basin and used for glorious dripping sandwiches with lashings of salt, worn shirt collars were turned inside out and old car tyres were not only remoulded but often simply recut, which was even cheaper. This meant that the bald surface simply had a new tread cut into it, often down to the canvas liner. I could go on but, take it from me, very little was wasted.

If you needed a doctor and were particularly unwell you got someone to phone from a call box for 4d in the slot and one would call at your home within an hour or so. If you needed to go to A&E you were seen immediately. If you were able to get along to your doctors surgery you would simply turn up, take a seat, and wait to be called (jumping the queue could be fatal), usually within ten minutes or so. The downside to this wonderful service was that if diagnosed with cancer you usually just died horribly and likewise if you needed a transplant of some kind, as for the most part they did not yet exist.

Polio was the nightmare for kids back then although immunisation was starting to eradicate it by 62-63. It was one of my earliest memories of senior school, queuing up for a jab with my classmates, after which we were allowed to keep the hypodermic syringes. Why? that would never happen these days or you’d have the entirety of the remove shooting up before lunchtime!

Until this time children wearing leg irons as a legacy of this viral infection were a common sight. One outbreak I seem to recall was traced back to the kiddies paddling pools at the bottom of Streatham Common. It affected the muscles and could cripple, or worse leave the victim unable to breath unaided resulting in a life sentence of confinement within an iron lung, a contraption the size of a large fridge, which did the work for you. My cousin Marion had it mildly but fortunately made a full recovery.

As I recall, anaesthetic was a luxury not to be wasted on children back then. No dentist in their right mind seemed to imagine the young could feel pain, although a few used an ether pad to render them unconscious in order to stop them shrieking and wriggling unduly. At the age of four (1955. God those T.rex were a pest!) I tripped over a soft toy and split my forehead wide open on the fire grate. The doctor said that I really needed a dozen stitches to close the three inch gash but he would make do with four to spare my pain. Humane or what? Two burly nurses duly arrived to hold me down while I was repaired, screaming the place down all the while, only to return a fortnight later to have the reverse treatment as the catgut stitches were gouged out. Anaesthetic was never an option throughout the whole process and I still bear the scar, which remains as tender to the touch as it was 64 years ago.

I have been ridiculed in the past for saying that it started to snow on Boxing Day 1962 and thereafter snowed, at least intermittently, on every consecutive day for 72 days. I’ll say it again because its absolutely true. In one of our hardest ever winters temperatures went down to -20c at times. In certain places the sea froze for up to a mile offshore and our poor dog ‘Yogi’, reluctant to even go outdoors, was unable to cock his leg in 3ft of snow. We had to tread down great patches so the poor bugger could pee. Then as now yellow snow should always be avoided.

We only had a single ‘Viceroy’ paraffin heater for the whole of our council house back then and our bedroom windows were permanently thick with ice——–on the inside. Throughout all of this my primary school remained open, apart from three days when the boiler broke down, and I like everyone else would walk the mile or so to and fro through the drifts. Me in my grey winceyette shorts, as come hell or high water boys back then did not wear long trousers until the second year of senior school. Chapping was an ever present hazard in any winter, in this one frost bite was a real possibility. Finally a thaw set in in March only for snow to return a week later. Not until April did things finally warm up. The World was rapidly cooling down and we were obviously slipping back into an ice age.

I don’t remember vegetarianism featuring large back then. We didn’t eat meat every day, either because we couldn’t afford to or because, without a refrigerator (We had a meat safe consisting of a cloth mesh supported on a wire frame to keep the bluebottles off and a bucket of water to keep our milk cool. Both systems often failed), or it had become flyblown. Mild infestations were simply brushed off prior to cooking.

Factory farming was not yet widely established which meant that chicken was a hugely expensive luxury eaten only at Christmas or on special occasions. Knackered old laying hens were available more cheaply but these were as tough as old boots and needed hours of boiling to make them even remotely edible. Capons served as stand ins for turkey for many at Christmas, a kind of giant chicken produced by the cruelest of castrations.

Only the very posh drank wine or went on foreign holidays but it seemed that nearly everybody smoked. After all it was good for you and fostered a manly image or gave ladies extra allure. Many top sportsmen of the day endorsed various brands, and rumours were only just beginning to circulate suggesting that it may not, after all, be as healthy as all that! Much of what we owned, which was precious little, included chronic hacking coughs and came via the exchange of vast quantities of Kensitas coupons for ‘gifts’ from their catalogue.

Following The Clean Air Act of 1956, smog was becoming less frequent. Prior to that we had regular peasoupers. We stress today about our inner city’s air quality but I remember my father arriving home during one such episode with this thick yellow haze clinging to him like some sinister mystic aura. Even once the front door was closed it oozed in around the cracks and through the letterbox. You could smell it everywhere.

Blind people were employed to act as guides for the sighted during these episodes, as at times it was so dense that you could quite literally not see your own hand held in front of your face. At every corner or bollard burned a paraffin fog lamp, its naked wavy flame dispersing the cloying gloom for a small distance around it, yet still not enough to stop a double decker bus driving across a twenty foot wide pavement and into the fish shop window at The Swan, Mitcham on one occasion.

I fancy there was less envy or status seeking, as we all had sod all back then and much of what we either lust after today or take for granted simply did not exist for anyone as it had not yet been invented. The average house cost £3,160 in 63 and if you could afford one at all it was regarded as an item of utility, not a badge of status. Warm and dry, yes, comfortable even, but not a pampered palace for display or posing in.

Since the sales boom, prompted by the coronation in 53, telly was just taking off and becoming more common as a household fixture but programs were not broadcast all day and certainly not through the night. Nine inch black and white screen, two channels (initially just one) BBC or ITV and no means of recording anything, spoilt for choice or what? Intrusive, ever present media bombardment was decades down the road.

We took our pleasures without any sense of guilt, after all smoking was good for us and a pint or two did us no harm, pregnant ladies included. Obesity was not an issue even with our fatty diet. We couldn’t afford excess and most worked long hours in hard physical jobs, including housework without the sophisticated appliances of today.

Motorways were in their infancy, starting with The Preston bypass (now incorporated into the M6) in 58, followed by the M1 in 59. With no speed restrictions high speed joy riding, anything over 40mph, was affordable in easily maintained cars, with petrol at five bob a gallon (apx 4.5 litres). That’s 5.5p a litre, in toy money for you children under fifty. You could even park for free when you arrived, and why not?

Just enjoy the moment. The planet was cooling, no one had heard of particulates or problems with CO2 and what the hell, if we didn’t freeze to death in the coming ice-age we’d be vaporised in a nuclear strike shortly anyway. Air raid sirens from WWII were still in situ and were tested regularly. If the note should ever vary from the continuous all clear tone to an alternating wail it meant you had just three minutes to frying time.

Much of our countryside was still unspoilt back then, managed in less intensive ways, certainly far less was covered in housing and tarmac. Insects in particular were hugely more abundant, despite us chucking DDT all over the place, and every puddle, ditch, and pond seemed to hold frogs and newts in season. Common lizards lived up to their name and could be seen on garden walls, even in town if you were stealthy enough. Sparrows were everywhere as were starlings and no open packet of crisps was safe, both somewhat hard to find these days. Otters, avocets and bitterns on the other hand were great rarities. Sparrowhawks in Kent were down to a single breeding pair (certainly not for any lack of prey) and raptors in general were struggling, due to the same DDT concentrating in them at the top of the food chain. This didn’t cause sterility but rather caused them to produce thin shelled eggs that broke before they were viable.

Most of us had our milk delivered to our doorsteps back then, in glass reusable bottles, capped in aluminium foil. Unless you used a pottery cover or similar protective device you would be robbed on a daily basis by the local tit population who would unfailingly peck through the cap and relieve you of the top inch or so of cream. Tits are still abundant and although fewer have deliveries and the trend is towards low-fat, even the gold tops are ignored. Have the tits become less felonious or is something wrong with our milk?

On 22nd November 63 the doors suddenly slammed shut on this mini era as two doses of lead passed in rapid succession through the throat and brain of one JFK as he enjoyed a drive through downtown Dallas. Whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the true culprit or if Grassy Noel was involved I guess we’ll never really know. What is for sure is that those alive at the time will always remember where they were and what they were doing when the news broke on that fateful afternoon. Round my mate Martin’s house as I recall, playing with his Labrador, Honey, in the front room.

Better times? Perhaps not, youth and nostalgia put a rosy spin on most things but I genuinely believe we were happier and more content with our lot in those distant days. Undeniably these were exciting times, with a live for the moment philosophy. We were at the start of the sixties after all. They say that if you can remember them you weren’t there. The summer of love was coming. Was it all sex, drugs and rock n roll? I really can’t remember.

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