This last year I’ve found myself watching a fair bit of TV on Netflix, mostly BBC, which is quite unusual for me. Initially I was drawn to Last Tango in Halifax, primarily because I hadn’t heard adult males begin sentences with ‘Happen’ or actually ‘appen’ as in ‘appen I might go to t’spill for a minute love’, and I hadn’t seen the countryside of my childhood since I’d lived there, it was a real pleasure. Another program was Happy Valley which I enjoyed for similar reasons plus the excellent Sarah Lancashire who was also in Last Tango. Peaky Blinders was definitely different, but even though it was set in Birmingham it absolutely brought back for me so many memories of the slums of Sheffield during WW2, the filth, the smoke, the canals, the depression, it was all there. Plus the stories of the Irish gangs, we had ’em also; I started out on Solly Street in 1936 and Wiki will tell you about the Irish Solly Street gangs of the 30’s. Many industrial northern cities were inundated with Irish immigrants due to the famine and the social conditions there.
Through the magic of Google Earth’s street level views I’ve spent hours cruising around the streets of Sheffield that I knew so well and of course nothing looks the same. Many streets no longer exist, our old houses are gone, there are new trees everywhere that block the views that I remember. My ‘Peaky Blinders’ memories are in total conflict with current reality but 70 odd years have elapsed, no wonder it looks totally different. I wonder what it would have looked like if I’d had the opportunity in 1940 to see how Sheffield looked 70 years earlier, i.e.1860, slap into the tail end of the industrial revolution. It makes you think. One thing I’m conscious of on the telly is how Americanised everything now looks, especially the interiors of houses and how people look and dress and speak, their lifestyles. Somehow it surprises me but then it’s what I’ve been living, but I somehow didn’t anticipate Sheffield following suite.
One thing that I really miss is the dialect, I know I mentioned the Yorkshire accents in ‘Tango’ but it’s just not the same. BBC has bred the real dialects out of folk, I wish I had a recording of how I used to speak as a teenager. Many years ago I took a trip with my stepmother and we visited some of her friends in Sheffield and around Yorks & Lancs. One day as we sat chatting with an old friend who was in her 90’s her hairdresser arrived for the weekly perm, the hairdresser was an old woman that spoke exactly the way I remembered, pure unadulterated Sheffield dialect of the WW2 era, I would love to have a recording of her voice. That’s how I used to talk.
I realize that I’ve evolved in a bubble for the last umpteen years, my ‘image’ of Britain is in part the one I grew up with during and immediately after WW2. I left in 1958 at the age of 24 and my subconscious perspective is sadly based on the memories of my childhood/adolescence. My memory is of the slums, the cramped and dirty row houses, all with outside toilets, very undernourished and sickly grey people. The houses were ‘heated’ with a tiny fireplace in the living room. Central heating was totally unknown. My Granny’s house had only cold water, no gas, an outside toilet about 50 yards from the back door, all cooking was done on that fireplace that was less than 8″ square. There were two tiny bedrooms upstairs.
At the age of 24 my reality changed dramatically, I entered a technicolor fantasy that was Los Angeles; it was as different from Britain as is chalk from cheese. In the post WW2 era Britain was a very different place than it is today, it was financially bankrupt as a result of the war, [If you want a better understanding of it read ‘Blood, Tears & Folly by Len Deighton] Food and clothing were rationed and rationing persisted well into the ’50’s, the news was always bad, as was the weather, nothing worked and there was an air of universal depression. My father was a bricklayer, he worked in all weathers, rain or snow for 2/6d and hour, that worked out to be a pound a day, about 5 quid a week! That’s what he came home from the army to, that’s what he got for winning the war. Postwar England was not a happy place and I suspect that subconsciously influenced my choice to leave.
When I left there were no blacks or browns in England, of course there were but only a relative few in the major cities, living in rural East Anglia I never saw them. Consequently everyday open verbal racism didn’t exist either, but of course it did, it always has. Wog was a common word, it supposedly meant Western Oriental Gentleman but that was us being superior to Indians and Asians and other citizens of the Empire, we had very clearly defined attitudes to anyone darker than we were but we were furtive about it. Nigger was a commonly used word that wasn’t derogative, it was used to be descriptive. I recall going with my grandmother to the fabric shop for a reel of thread for something she was making. She asked the assistant for the thread, Nigger brown, and that’s what was printed on the spool she bought. Robertson’s sold Gollywog jam and Darky was a brand of toothpaste, on every tube it had a grinning caricature in blackface with a top hat.
Probably the most evident visible change in not only England but also the rest of Europe, in other words those countries with 19th century colonial aspirations, is the presence of huge populations of immigrants, black and brown immigrants who’ve brought their cultures and religions with them. And in almost every case they’ve become an underclass, often undereducated and unemployed and the ‘traditional’ underclass are feeling the effects of their own unemployment and the subsidization of their brown counterparts. I think that the days of Downton Abbey etc are long gone living only in a few romanticized memories of the ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. The reality is what’s happening in Paris, Woolwich and in the major industrial cities and the rise of UKIP and it’s equivalents in every country. The US has similar problems but they’re based on an entirely different set of circumstances.
We didn’t have TV, it was too expensive, we had radio. TV has changed dramatically, it started out as tiny B&W screens with hardly any relevant programs and now we have huge flat screens mounted on the wall with unbelievable image quality and some decent programming. During the 70’s BBC were producing epic programs, they were the standard for the world; the US started very low and went down from there, American TV has always been totally irrelevant until the advent of cable TV, that’s what initiated HBO and then The Sopranos, the Wire and other high quality programs shortly followed, and then there were more, Breaking Bad was produced by a commercial channel. This has all evolved into an advantageous situation for all TV viewers worldwide, we now all can share each others best programs.
Pop music in the ’50’s, you wouldn’t believe it and you don’t want to hear it; Perry Como, Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra, Cliff Richard, Donald Peers, Johnny Ray; they were all popular as were several female artists; Dinah Shore, Teresa Brewer, Doris Day, Patti Page et. al. plus the odd instrumental, Anton Karas and Les Paul & Mary Ford.
You bought or listened to music based on the name of the singer, never the group, there were generally no groups, only studio musicians.
Obviously there were no CD’s or MP3’s or personal radios, there were LP’s but they were prohibitively expensive, I never owned one but on my second day in LA I bought 3 at the checkout stand in a supermarket, they cost 88 cents each! In England they would have been about 5 quid each. Still got ’em.
Telephones; Usually kept in the hall just inside the front door. You put your name on a list to get one, it usually took over a year, we had one, our phone number was Beyton 338, three digits! Phone calls were very distorted and also very expensive; transatlantic calls were insane, incomprehensible with echoes and several dollars/pounds a minute, definitely not a medium for conversation. We sent telegrams.
Drugs: Never heard of ’em in the 50’s, from the papers I knew that heroin existed but reefer, ganja or coke, never saw ’em even though I was thoroughly involved in the jazz scene where supposedly they flourished. Drugs were definitely not a part of the youth community, I never ever heard about prescription drugs either. Late 60’s I saw hash and ganja happening in rural East Anglia but we’d never even heard of coke.
Football; There was a radio program every Saturday at 5pm, the results of the 4 leagues plus the Scottish league were announced. The leagues were divisions 1 2 3 & 4 plus Scotland, they had some weird names for their clubs, like Hamilton Academicals, Airdrieonians, Partick Thistle and Stenhousemuir, I always wondered where these places were, do they still exist? The results were always read in exactly the same monotone, i.e. Arsenal 2, Liverpool 3, on and on for 30 minutes. One major attraction was that was how you determined whether you’d won on the pools, a new national obsession, the newspapers had blank tables into which you could enter the scores. I believe that most stadiums were basically standing room and that all the teams were all local lads, i.e. all British. The only one I ever went to was Goodison Park, that was like that, I think it cost about 2 shillings to get in and I think we stood at the Stanley Park end adjacent to Stanley Park Road.
One thing I’m aware of when looking at current football photos in the Guardian is that the crowd is very predominantly middle aged white blokes, hardly any women and no blacks, except on the pitch. How much football has changed in 70 years, the Americanisation of football? Well it seems that way, every stadium is half covered and everyone is seated and the majority of the players are foreign, and possibly also the club owners and the salaries are astronomical and TV is the name of the game, all that sounds very American. It happened while I wasn’t looking. Now NBC has a channel that’s devoted to the Premiere League and FA and European games, they’re on almost every day, I’ve read that we get more TV coverage than UK. NBC is trying unsuccessfully to find a way to introduce commercials onto the screen during play, this presence has changed the American sports TV within the last 6 months, since the world cup actually, it’s become a major item. Another thing is the way the game is now played, someone’s put some thought into that, it’s now a very well thought out military exercise and I like the inter team camaraderie. Any team playing in the Premier League today could have easily won the FA Cup in 1950. I just watched the Arsenal vs Man. City game.
Guns, NOBODY had guns! especially cops, being caught with a gun meant an automatic life sentence. Now they seem as common as they are in America, everybody’s got one, or so it seems. The cops with their fully automatic Heckler & Kochs look like a US swat team, it used to be that only specialized cops could withdraw a Webley service revolver for use in very special circumstances and then return it; when and why did all that change?
Cars, Late 50’s I was in my 20’s, I had a good job and I drove a 1937 Austin 7, 7HP and 20 years old, I passed my driving license test in a 1936 Hillman. Within 2 years of arriving in LA where petrol was 29c a gallon I had two cars, a brand new Citroen ID 19 and a year old Jaguar XK 150, that’s part of what I mean by ‘technicolor’, plus I lived in an apartment with a swimming pool and the sun shone everyday year round. Plus I was getting paid 10 times what I earned at ICI in Suffolk. Just to put those cars into perspective, the Citroen cost $2500 and the Jag was $1900, my wife and I had joint salaries of about $1200 a month; the Citroen cost us 2 months wages, the Jag, about 6 weeks!
Those are some of my memories of those years, memories that I find influence my current perception of life in Britain. Ring any bells? Anybody else want to share ’em.
A ps. There’s one other detail and I’m not sure if it’s worth mentioning, but today’s Guardian has a story on British expat’s views of American healthcare. I fit right in there. As a socialist growing up I was always a strong advocate of the NHS, even though I had no personal experience of it. But I continued to read critical articles about it, particularly re. hospital waiting times.
Let me tell you about my American medical experiences; I worked for a university and was covered by a state agency for my whole career, approx. 24 years. I was covered by CALPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.
Every month an amount was withdrawn from my salary, I couldn’t tell you how much but I didn’t notice it, it covered my medical plan and my retirement. For 24 years I paid in but I never visited a doctor, I was healthy, still am.
When I retired I moved from LA to northern California and had to choose a new health plan, I chose Kaiser Permanente [Google it]
To keep it simple let me just say that I’ve had surgery, stent replacement, ankle joint replacement and a variety of minor medical procedures, free dental care and free optical care plus annual check ups for 25 + years, all at no cost! My contributions ceased when I retired. The amazing part is that my wife is also totally covered and that she will continue to be covered for the rest of her life. And the other amazing part is that PERS sends me my retirement check [$2000+] every month and after my death they will continue to send it to my wife for the rest of her life and she’s 30 years younger than I am.
Can you argue with any of that?