Tuesday 16 August 2016

What I Don't Miss About the 50s 8


They hated us to have likes and dislikes, but loved to force us to do things we hated and stop us doing things we liked.

You had to be completely original, while being utterly conventional.

You couldn’t talk about sex or bodily functions, but there was a subculture of “dirty” jokes, rhymes, limericks and cartoon books.

Adults were angry with children all the time, but children could not be angry.

We were supposed to be mini adults and miss out childhood (or at least become adults at 10), but we couldn’t use adult words or have adult interests – that was “precocious”.

You couldn’t think about yourself, but you had to “be yourself”.

You had to do a lot of things to "build character", but you just "had" a personality. The “character building” crushed your confidence. You were then derided for having no confidence due to your defective personality.

You had no chance to learn social skills, and then were denigrated for having no social skills.

Children had no autonomy, no control over their lives, but at boarding school aged 7 or 10 we had to “become autonomous far too soon”. (TF)

They were constantly raining on our parades, but we couldn’t be a “spoilsport”. (We had to be “good sports”.)

No wonder Kingsley Amis concluded “nice things are nicer than nasty things”. He grew up in the repressive 30s. Yes, it wasn’t just the 50s. Many of the above attitudes continued into the 70s and 80s – with a different rationale and vocabulary.

It was all gas-lighting: you weren’t ill but neurotic, cruelty was really kindness, unhappiness was just a state of mind, your schooldays are the best days of your life... Did they want Stepford Children – smiling automata who always did what they were told and had no thoughts or feelings? Did they think that’s what children were like?

They must have had some aim, some overarching plan, which we only glimpsed in fragments. They saw us as the adults we would be one day, not as the children we actually were.

If you were a big, strong, extrovert child perhaps it wasn’t so bad. Being a bit older than your peers was an advantage. I was a small, feeble child and for most of my school career I was educated with children a year or two older than me. But no allowances were made, and I had to play sport and spend my time with the big, strong, extrovert, more mature children. And I was being treated as a 12-year-old when I was 10...

Did the treatment work? After this upbringing I should be pretty tough. But no, I’m shy and avoidant. I turn central heating on “full blast”, wear thick, warm clothes and eat soft, sweet food. I sleep under three quilts with a hot water bottle and leave the heating on all night. I have been told so many lies I take nothing on trust.


More 50s food here.
You couldn’t like sweet things. You had to say how delicious sour (sorry, “tart”) apples and gooseberries were. And Cheshire cheese. And strawberries with lemon juice and pepper instead of cream and sugar. (Really.)

Instead of caster or soft brown sugar, we ate granulated or Demerara (no cheaper, but less sweet). We were encouraged to prefer butterscotch (not very sweet) to chocolate. The strings weren’t cut off runner beans, and they were cooked when they were huge, woody and bitter. Butter was doled out begrudgingly in tiny amounts.

Food was hard, dry and tasteless, but we had to use a knife and fork even when tiny. Adult strength was required, and adult jaw muscles and teeth. You couldn’t even eat items separately – you were supposed to assemble meat, potato, carrot on the BACK of your fork and transfer it to your mouth with your left hand. This is almost impossible for an adult with excellent motor skills. We had to chew tough meat and dry crusts because “otherwise your teeth will fall out”.  Some authorities said you couldn’t drink at all while you ate; most said you couldn’t “wash down” a mouthful (the only way to cope).

Food we liked wasn’t more expensive or more trouble – it was just deliberately withheld. Hang on, food we liked was a lot less trouble to prepare, and less expensive. We'd have been happy with macaroni cheese or fish and chips.

It was “greedy” not to eat food you didn’t like, and “greedy” to eat food you did like. We could never choose what to eat, we had to “eat what you are given”. We always had to take the drab, dull, tasteless or bitter option (brown bread, endive, unflavoured yoghourt). There was something joyless and punitive even about brown eggs. And then we had to "acquire" the taste of sophisticated adult food – when we'd been trained not to notice how things tasted. It was so mean-minded! And so pointless!

Are these mean-spirited attitudes just part of being bourgeois? Many can be found in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas published in 1911, some years after his death.

CHILBLAINS Come from warming yourself when you are cold.
TEA Cools you down on a hot day quicker than a cold drink.
PATIENT To cheer up the sick, make fun of their illnesses and deny their pains.

More here, and links to the rest.

And now for the 80s...


  1. How depressing and how true all these posts are. Also - 'showing off' was a terrible crime: we were told to keep quiet about our abilities, and that those in authority would notice us and see our true worth. And then you grow up and do jobs,and scorn to boast about yourself, and the people who get on are the ones who loudly tell people all the time how great they are. They show off and do well...

  2. And children shouldn't be "over-excited" (basically behaving like a small child).