What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping


I don’t sleep so much now I’m old, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to go to work! 

Also, since I discovered audio books, I can just plug myself into my earphones and listen. I like value for money (the influence of that thrifty childhood again) so I go for long reads – hence Dickens.

Thinking about Advent and preparing for Christmas, I quickly arrived at the topic of shopping. At this point I googled for pictures of the grocers’ shops I remembered from the 50s. Then I noticed that these were pretty thin on the ground, although pictures of older shops from the 19th & early 20th centuries were common. But, guess what? They looked much the same!

Had Charles Dickens walked into the grocers on the corner of the road where I lived at five years old, he would have felt quite at home. The dark wood fittings; the large block of butter from which a lump of the requested weight was scooped with a flat wooden spoon; the ornate cast iron till.

Most of my friends and I ran errands from an early age. Far fewer people had cars, so side roads were often empty. We children were accustomed to considering the streets our territory. All of us were thrown out of the house to play. Housework, washing and cooking were much more onerous then. Children underfoot were an unwanted hindrance.

I was scared of the grocers. It was gloomy and confusing. You had to ask for items, which meant you had to memorise exactly what you had been sent to fetch.  I doubted my competence and the grocer in his Dickensian apron wasn’t very helpful in prompting, though he must have known what my mother usually bought. She went there all the time. We didn’t have a fridge, so had to buy perishable items day by day.

My experience might not have been quite the equivalent of Scrooge sending a boy for the biggest goose on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t that far off.

Yet I’m glad I grew up in a time when children were generally expected to be self-reliant and to be useful, whether in going for messages, or in removing themselves from under busy adults’ feet.

In braving the grocers, I learnt to face up to uncomfortable situations and to put aside my own individual qualms in the interests of the general good. 

Even, if in this case, it only amounted to ensuring there was sufficient butter to put on the bread for tea!


Simple Pleasures – A Winter’s Tale

Advent 3  Playtime BH&S (Before Health & Safety)


This was my best primary school. I attended there after we yet again moved house.  There were fifty six in my classroom, I do not tell a lie, and one poor teacher sitting at her high desk in front of our straight rows of single desks. On Friday afternoons she used to open her desk lid and, hiding behind it, have a silent cry.

To ensure discipline when she was really stressed she would issue stern warnings that anybody who talked would get the belt. On bad days she could collect a small queue. I was only caught once. It was mostly the boys who suffered.

The great advantage of the playground was that it sloped. The building was at the bottom of a hill. This ensured that winter playtimes held the promise of unlimited joy.

As soon as the weather turned bitter and the ground icy, we would make a series of slides. At the steepest end of the playground was the most demanding of daring and skill, then there were five or six others in descending levels of difficulty. You queued up at the one matching your ability and took turns. With practice you could improve your standard and progress to a more prestigious level.


I can’t remember any adult supervision. It was much too cold for any sensible person to leave the staffroom until the bell needed to be rung.

At secondary school we only had one outdoor area that sloped.  This was an enclosed square yard fortuitously created when a new building had been added. It was bounded by the girls toilet block, a window fronted corridor where the men’s and women’s (separate) staff rooms were situated, and the rear wall of the gym.

This was a hazard when it came to winter slides, as there was very little run-off space between the ends of the slides and the brick wall. However we had seven years of sliding practice behind us by this stage. It was just an added challenge.

Nevertheless one particularly icy winter, somebody fell more awkwardly than normal and even we could see that adult help needed to be summoned. This was a problem. There were notices on the staffroom doors threatening dire consequences for any disturbance.

Two brave messengers were deputed to knock at the men’s staff room. We watched anxiously through the windows.

A gowned figure, cigarette in hand, threw the door open. Billows of smoke issued from behind his impressive outline. The messengers pointed towards the injured figure on the freezing ground and stuttered apologies.

“How many times have you been told to be careful?” was the bellowed response. We were in no doubt at whose door the fault lay.

Nevertheless medical help was summoned and the careless culprit removed to have his leg set at the cottage hospital.

After that sliding was banned.

It posed too great a hazard to the comfortable sanctuary of the staffroom.


The Perils of the Shivery Bite

Advent 2 On the unintended consequences of freedom to roam


I told a lie yesterday when I said I had only a single childhood memory of Christmas. I woke up thinking of another one.

It must have been well into December and in North East Scotland that meant it was dark and cold by the end of the school day. Nevertheless on Tuesday afternoons after school I went to swimming classes. In Aberdeen in the 1950s every school child began swimming classes as soon as they started in the Infants.

For some reason (I think it was the prevention of child drownings plus the enthusiasm of some counsellor to produce an Olympic champion) Aberdeen had set up a free swimming programme for all children and built an Olympic standard pool. It had the deepest deep end in the country and proper diving platforms. The city was very proud of this.

I just thought all swimming pools were like that and swimming was what all children did.

Nobodies’ parents (that I knew anyway) ever took them or collected them from these classes. Mothers were far too busy cooking tea and fathers were at work. We just walked to the baths from school and then daundered home afterwards.

But first, and always after swimming, we had our “shivery bite”.

There was a chip shop conveniently opposite the baths so we always stopped for a 3d poke of chips before we made our way home. This could take quite a time, hanging around relishing the steamy aroma of the fryer, sharp with the tang of the vinegar.

This particular evening I ate all my chips before starting for home. I walked on my own, because by this time we had moved house and I was no longer on the tram route. I had to cut through the back roads to our new flat.

It wasn’t a brightly lit route lined with cheerful houses. I went down a steep narrowish wynd at the side of the baths, then along an ill lit lane of storage depots towards the rear of the main shopping street. Even I thought it was a bit spooky, but it was usually deserted and you had good sight lines if anybody should appear, so it would have been no problem taking to your heels. I often dawdled, hard as this may seem to believe.

This particular evening I was just getting towards the end of the lane when I saw a figure advancing from the distance.  I was horrified to realise it was my mother!  I was immediately struck with dread. I must be in trouble if she had come looking for me! What forgotten crime had come to light that I had committed?

It never occurred to me that she might be worried!

Nor was she!  She was furious!

As a great surprise treat she had bought tickets for the pantomime, and now it was so late we would never make it. We hadn’t got a car and public transport or Shank’s pony would never get us there in time.

I was marched home in disgrace, doubly guilty for dawdling and wasting precious money.

I was just coming up to nine years old!

I never did make it to a pantomime, but, on the plus side, I could dive and life save by the time I was ten!



Christmas Past

Advent 1 On being careful what you wish for….


I have very few childhood Christmas memories. In fact I can only think of one.  Perhaps Christmas wasn’t such a big deal before modern marketing and credit cards.

After the end of World War 2 rationing went on for years, and not just food. Clothes and toys were scarce too. I can remember how careful I had to be of my two precious picture books, specially imported from Holland, my mother told me. The first new coloured children’s books printed after the war.

For the Christmas after I started school I had only one desperate wish. I longed for a doll with hair you could brush. I only had two inherited baby dolls, who rejoiced in the names of Emmeline and Dorothy, but who wouldn’t win any prizes in the glamour stakes. They were both bald.

I wanted a “china” doll with a painted face, eyelashes and opening eyes, plus the all important long golden plaits.

Such things were hard to come by, but my mother searched until she found one and on the afternoon of Christmas day I carried my prize off to my bedroom to brush her hair.

It was then that the disaster happened!  Her hair came away from her head tangled in the little hard brush.  I was distraught with guilt and panic. I hid the crime under my bed and cried. Sooner or later I knew it must be discovered.

But wonder of wonders, when my mother sought me out it was not me she was angry with. She railed against the manufacturers and shopkeepers responsible for ruining children’s Christmas. My growing doubts about Santa Claus were amply reinforced by her determination to call these mundane, non supernatural bodies to account.

At some point in the following weeks a replacement doll appeared, but I never felt the same about her.  I fell back on the secure reliability of Emmeline and Dorothy, and kept Gloria for show.

Like all my generation, I grew up knowing you couldn’t always have everything you wanted. You had to make the best of whatever came your way.

We were a bridging generation, living through the privations of war and postwar, the growing prosperity of the 60s and 70s, then onwards ever onwards into the blatant, credit-driven consumerism of the 21st century.

It’s hard to shake off that early training in the careful tending of scarce commodities.

A few years ago I stood behind a woman in the queue at our local garden centre. She had a trolley full of silver Christmas decorations.

“I fancied silver this year,” she was explaining to her companion. “We had red and tartan last year.”

I was rivetted by this revelation that there were people who actually changed their Christmas decorations. Surely these lived in a box in the loft until they rotted or broke and even then were only replaced item by item as the need arose?

There wasn’t very much pious preaching about recycling and conservation in my childhood. We simply never discarded anything that could be used or reused!

Even now the chairs at my own table are the sturdy wartime utility ones that used to stand around my parents’.

I still can’t bear to throw them away!


The Seventies – Sorry You Missed Them?

On pens, paper and a past world

Last night I watched a “documentary” about the Seventies. It was really an excuse to use all the naughty words and scenes that are now banned from view. Assorted young people expressed mock horror.

It got me thinking about that pre-online era , its lack of monitoring and surveillance, its strange innocence of the seedy corruption now being so ruthlessly exposed.  Swearing was still considered improper in mixed company or outside the privacy of the home. And homes were still considered private space. If someone had seriously suggested we shouldn’t smoke in them or have a drink while nursing our infants, we would have gaped at them in amazement.

Nobody checked up on you much, record keeping was often sporadic and haphazard. When all you had was paper and pen, or a typewriter that demanded carbon copies and correcting fluid, recording every detail was too onerous and bulky to be manageable.

Of course, the opportunities for evil to flourish were manifest, but for most people, I would point out to the judgemental young of the online era, this didn’t impinge hugely on their day-to-day lives.

I particularly loved the job references of those days. They were seldom wordy. One of my favourites, which conjured up a whole world picture in a single sentence, was elegantly hand written on ancient college notepaper.

” Alisdair’s First in Classics was well-deserved.”

Poor Fiona, however, was given shorter shrift from her employer.

“Miss Smith is a well-spoken, neatly presented young woman, who has been with us for two years”

Yet when I look at the painstakingly documented minutae on today’s profiles and portfolios, I wonder how much more they actually tell us about the essential Alisdair or Fiona, than those single sheets of the past.

We’re smothered with all the mountainous documentation on multiple competences, which information technology has made possible. Hundreds upon hundreds of boxes meticulously ticked, but has the quality of work/workers and the culture of the work environment really been manifestly improved?

Of course we can never easily tell, ironically because of those very  deficiencies of record keeping and patchy measures (if any) used in the past. Commentators on the Seventies are free to claim whatever suits their own perspective and ideology.

All I can say for sure is that, despite all the information we now have, it doesn’t seem to prevent the corrupt practices of global business, powerful elites or the authoritarian, opinionated, politically polarised gatekeepers of public services. It doesn’t even prevent the brutal murder of little children in their cruel homes and CCTVed communities, nor the institutional ill-treatment of the old and vulnerable.

We little people just know more about it now.

We can see it on television.

Just like all the explicit brutality and close-up, lip-licking violence that was never screened in the benighted Seventies; the online porn desensitising a whole generation; the dubious faux porn of the pop video degrading “emancipated” young women; the pitiless exploitation and humiliation of the afflicted in “reality” shows; the freak shows masquerading as medical “documentaries”.

For many of us, the Seventies weren’t such a bad time to be alive – despite all that shiny artificial satin and those silly platform shoes!