The magic of Fifties suburbia when socks were darned, baths shared and kids roamed wild. Only now does Michelle Hanson appreciate what a glorious age it was to grow up in
People often sneer at suburbia these days. They assume it’s dull, conventional and stuffed with nosy old spinsters hiding behind their net curtains and privet hedges.
They think it’s all identical little houses, pebble-dashed, semi-detached with pointy roofs and a couple of mock-Tudor beams. Inside, it’s three-up, two-down, kitchen at the back, all identical.
They are perhaps mocking what they believe to be the home of Middle England, where everyone pokes their nose into everyone else’s business because there’s so little going on in their own lives.
Young and free: Children playing in 1950s Britain when “no one seemed to be as frightened as they are now”
For many years, I felt like this myself. Ruislip — my typically suburban home town in Middlesex — seemed motionless and stifling to the young me. Everything shut down on a Sunday. There was nothing much to do and nowhere to go.
I didn’t leave until I was 21, when I moved to London, thrilled to escape the stuffy old place for good. And it’s only now, aged 69, with the benefit of hindsight and firmly entrenched in the madness that is Central London 2012, that I look back and realise that Ruislip was actually a lost paradise.
Back then, suburbia was one huge playground for us children. I was an only child, luckily living in one of the larger, detached houses, but we all had our gardens, the fields, the woods, the banks of the River Pinn, the lido, our dogs, pet mice and riding (it didn’t cost an arm and a leg in those days).
And oddly enough — and this is perhaps the major difference between my childhood and that of today’s children — we were allowed out. /02/22/article-2104579-11D92A32000005DC-670_634x416.jpg” width=”634″ height=”416″ alt=”A nostalgic look back at 1950s suburbia in Britain” class=”blkBorder” />
Playing conkers in the school playground. Children often made up their own games, held snail races, picked blackberries and made dens
Most of the time, my friends and I made our own games up: making perfume from rose petals, brewing ginger beer, holding snail races, picking blackberries, making dens in the woods.
We played by the river bank, fishing for sticklebacks and newts, climbed trees and cycled everywhere.
Other children played doctors and nurses, but not me and my chums. We preferred more daring games, such as jumping off the garage roof — which was several feet high. And, most daring of all, we once hauled my boxer dog, Lusty, up there in a blanket. What a triumph!
But whatever was my mother thinking to allow that Did she even see us at it
In fact, she seemed to leave us to our own devices most of the time. No after-school this, that or the other.
This must all sound so primitive to today’s young. How would they cope with just two channels of black- and-white telly for only a couple of hours a day And just the one rotary-dial telephone in the hall
So how did we manage
I don’t want to sound a show-off here, but we used our imaginations. We had to. There wasn’t anything much else around.
For the grown-ups in Ruislip, just like anywhere else, life could sometimes be difficult, and under the respectable surface, Ruislip was sometimes hit by scandal.
Some of the parents in the neighbourhood were locked in unhappy marriages. One mother I knew of had countless affairs; another turned to drink; and my Auntie Celia tried hard to diddle us out of money left to us by my grandma when she died.
These events took their toll on my mother, who used to shout a lot, especially at my father, who was such a sulker.
Learning about the great outdoors: Children used their imaginations as there was little else around to entertain them
I escaped the uproar by going out to play with my friends. Or I could go to the library at the bottom of the High Street, housed in what used to be a 16th-century barn, still with its huge, old, wooden beams, surrounded by gardens, a duck pond and a bit of original moat, and full of books. Only books, mind: there were no DVDs and no PCs in the library. Or at school either — where we had little pots of ink on our desks and dip pens.
“For the grown-ups in Ruislip, just like anywhere else, life could sometimes be difficult, and under the respectable surface, Ruislip was sometimes hit by scandal”
For us, new technology meant a lever fountain pen. No cartridges. I still think cartridges are wasteful — a few drops of ink wrapped in all that plastic. But we were altogether far less wasteful back then.
When you think about it, our mothers were the first recyclers in an earlier age of austerity. Soon, we might have to be following their example: darning socks, turning lights off, sharing baths and saving brown paper bags — which is something I still do. They’re perfect for soaking up the excess chip fat.
That’s another relic from my thoroughly suburban childhood: home-made chips. Who makes home-made chips any more Hardly anyone. My mother did.
Like most other Ruislip mothers, she cooked everything, because there were no ready-meals or fast food then. Not even pizzas, hamburgers or fried chicken.
No wonder she was browned off. Stuck in the kitchen, like all the other housewives, slaving away at their cookers.
But at least, out in Ruislip, they had plenty of space: somewhere to hang out the washing, wring things out through the mangle (yes, we still had them).
Even the poorer families had gardens big enough to grow vegetables and fruit trees; to have tea on the lawn and a lively pet dog. And with all the home-cooked food and running about, we children seemed to be healthier.
A young boy playing with his train set. Children had freedom in the fifties but adults did not
We mightn’t have heard of avocados out in Ruislip, but we hardly ever heard of obesity either.
We didn’t appreciate that contentment at the time, though. My friends and I grew into teenagers, rock ’n’ roll’ and Buddy Holly arrived, and Ruislip (even with its two whole cinemas) began to feel far too dull for us. What did still hold our interest were the boys from the nearby U.S. air force base, known as American Dependents.
They perked Ruislip up with their crew-cuts, bobby-socks and blue jeans, which we local youngsters still couldn’t buy.
We could always find them out rowing on the lido, our own local seaside resort complete with lawns, beach and a miniature railway.
My parents chummed up with a charming American couple who brought nylons, bourbon whisky and laughs to our house. One friend of mine married a Dependent. In the main, the Americans were a huge plus.
But by the time I was 17, even the Americans couldn’t sustain my interest. I had become a beatnik, joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and attended art school in Ealing during the day, which I thought much more sophisticated than boring old Ruislip.
That was the thing about the suburbs in the Fifties: while children had freedom, the grown-ups didn’t.
My father worked hard and was always worrying about ‘the business’ — a factory he owned making women’s belts and accessories.
And I suspect that life as a suburban housewife was frustrating for my mother and many of her friends. Although my mother had left school at 14, she was an energetic, bright and forceful woman.
Boys playing football in a residential street in London. Children today do not have the freedom these children had
But, in those days, wives didn’t often have careers. And leaving your husband wasn’t the comparative breeze that it is now. You wouldn’t necessarily have been allowed to take the children with you, and living in sin was a terrible thing to do.
My father, like most husbands then, came home and expected his dinner to be ready.
Eventually, I moved to Shepherd’s Bush, and then North London, and taught in schools all over the inner city. I had a daughter and never returned to suburbia.
Luckily for my daughter, Amy, we had a small garden and lived near Hampstead Heath, but she and her friends never had the freedom to play like we did.
Now that I’m so much older, I can once again see the charm of the suburbs. My very oldest friend, Jacqueline, still lives there — in a small house with a big garden — so I do get to return now and again.
The Ruislip of the Fifties that I knew is gone for ever, of course, with its farrier, Tom, in his forge next to the library, the police station with its blue light, the village sweet and toy shops, and the passing tradesmen who used to call at our house — the coalman, the poultry farmer, the milkman and the horse-drawn carts with bread and vegetables.
And as for the two cinemas, they’re now a Sainsbury’s and a McDonald’s. And heaven only knows what’s going on inside the library.
Yet it’s all still the same in some ways. If I drive down the quiet road to Jacqueline’s house, there’s hardly any traffic, no constant roaring background noise. And there are fields and masses of blackberry bushes behind her garden.
So although many Ruislip residents probably now spend much of their lives indoors stuck in front of screens like the rest of us, their brains scrambled by information overload, glued to Google and Facebook, thinking they have a squillion friends, they could, if they fancied it, still find some space, peace and quiet and relatively fresh air out there in the suburbs.
Michele Hanson’s memoir, What The Grown-Ups Were Doing: An Odyssey Through 1950s Suburbia, is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now in hardback and ebook.
WHEN WE WAS BRUNG UP PROPER!
It’s the new online sensation — a lyrical evocation of growing up in the more innocent days of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, when children were safe to play where they liked, the internet was decades away and political correctness was unheard of . . .
A policeman helps a young child post a letter. For the grown-ups in Ruislip, just like anywhere else, life could sometimes be difficult
Congratulations to all my friends who were born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank sherry while they carried us and lived in houses made of asbestos.
They took aspirin, ate blue cheese, bread and dripping, raw egg products, loads of bacon and processed meat, and didn’t get tested for diabetes or cervical cancer.
Then, after that trauma, our baby cots were covered with bright coloured lead-based paints.
We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, or locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets or shoes, not to mention the risks we took hitchhiking.
As children, we would ride in cars with no seatbelts or air bags.
We drank water from the garden hose, not from a bottle.
Takeaway food was limited to fish and chips, there were no pizza shops, McDonald’s, KFC, Subway or Nando’s.
Even though all the shops closed at 6pm and didn’t open on a Sunday, somehow we didn’t starve to death!
We shared one soft drink with four friends from one bottle and no one died from this. We could collect old drink bottles and cash them in at the corner store and buy toffees, gobstoppers and bubble gum.
We ate white bread and real butter, drank cow’s milk and soft drinks with sugar, but we weren’t overweight because . . . we were always outside playing!
We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day, but we were OK. We would spend hours building go-karts out of old prams and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes.
We built treehouses and dens and played in riverbeds with Matchbox cars.
We did not have PlayStations, Nintendo Wii and Xboxes, or video games, DVDs, or colour TV.
There were no mobiles, computers, internet or chatrooms. We had friends and we went outside and found them!
We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. And we ate worms and mud pies made from dirt, too.
Only girls had pierced ears.
You could buy Easter eggs and hot cross buns only at Easter time.
We were given air guns and catapults for our tenth birthdays, we rode bikes or walked to a friend’s house and knocked on the door or just yelled for them.
Not everyone made the school rugby, football, cricket or netball teams. Those who didn’t had to learn to deal with disappointment. Imagine that. Getting into the team was based on merit.
Our teachers hit us with canes, gym shoes and threw the blackboard rubber at us if they thought we weren’t concentrating.
We can string sentences together, spell and have proper conversations now because of a solid three Rs education.
Our parents would tell us to ask a stranger to help us cross the road.
Mum didn’t have to go to work to help Dad make ends meet because we didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses!
The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of. They actually sided with the law!
Parents didn’t invent stupid names for their kids like Kiora, Blade, Ridge and Vanilla.
We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.
You might want to share this with others who grew up in an era before the lawyers and the government regulated our lives.
And while you are at it, forward it to your children, so they will know how brave their parents were.