Tuesday 16 August 2016

What I Don't Miss About the 50s 5

Forced to go through the motions

Why on earth would anyone want to go back to the 50s? Is there no end to what I don't miss about that era?

Negative experiences such as annoyance and disappointment are distorted with an "it was all for the best" attitude... People tend to redeem bad memories (such as "we were poor") with a positive narrative ("but we had love"). (Psychology Today)

[The headmaster] was telling us that life is serious, we were going to become responsible, respectable, citizens, stiff upper lip, no joy, no laughter, no love, no displays of emotion, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, pull our socks up, don't rock the boat, chin up, head back, straight spine, clean hands... (RK)

In the 50s, many things “had to” be done. Or were done because it was “done”. Or not done because it was “not done”. Not everybody was going to be happy, but they didn’t mind losing a few. There was no suggestion of improving anyone’s circumstances, or giving practical help. You didn’t have your teeth straightened, or your ears pinned back.

Timid children were “wet”. Shyness, dyslexia and short sight were all due to selfishness and laziness. If your child wasn’t academic, you called him “intellectually lazy”. You had to be strong, and it was weak to be ill, afraid or tired – or kind; feel pain, hunger, cold or thirst; have problems or feelings.

Domestic violence, boarding schools and children’s homes were just accepted or explained away. And “tramps choose their way of life”.

“Raking up the past” was frowned on. Everybody probably had “family secrets” they didn’t want talked about: divorce, cohabitation, alcoholism.

The 50s must have been fun for sadists, who had many opportunities to hurt other people “for their own good”. Fortunately some of the cruelty that was routine in the 50s is now illegal.

Adults were fond of saying “life’s not fair”, as they did something unfair. The parade-raining, fun-spoiling, wet-blanketing, squashing, defeatism and quietism was constant.

Anything pleasant was just out of reach, anything you liked was bad for you or forbidden or common, and you could never be quite comfortable. Horrible things were good for you. You didn’t “eat” chocolate cake, you “indulged” in it. Children and ill people should not be “pampered and cosseted”.

The derided “over-stuffed” furniture might have been comfortable. You could have three blankets on your bed, but not the fourth that would have made you really warm. You couldn’t have more than one pillow, or a soft mattress. You could never sleep as much as you wanted to. You left the bedroom window open even in winter. And of course bedrooms were unheated. The point of heating was to “take the chill off”, not to warm the room.

Bathwater should be just a bit less hot than you’d like, and the bath not quite as full, and you shouldn’t stay in it as long as you wanted. You rinsed hair and face with cold water. And of course the frigid English sea was preferable to the tepid Mediterranean or a heated swimming pool.

You couldn’t protect yourself from the cold, or warm yourself if you were frozen, or cool yourself down on a hot day. You couldn’t warm your hands/feet in case you got chilblains. (When central heating arrived, chilblains disappeared, along with chapped lips and hands.) Wearing a hat and sunglasses, or fanning yourself, or even batting away a wasp, were frowned on – you might “draw attention to yourself”, and “people might stare”. If condensation appeared on the inside of windows (because it was warmer inside than out), you opened a window, because it was a sign of bad air, or depleted oxygen, or something.

It was years before I realised I could buy my own electric fan, or a second-hand telly, or a heater for the bedroom.

You weren’t supposed to “give in” to hunger, tiredness, heat, cold, illness, pain – even the need to go to the loo. Churches didn’t have toilets. You had to “hold it in” or “go before you came”. People prided themselves on their skill in this area. To be fair, there were more public loos. But we were told that the more often we went to the loo, the more often we would want to go, and we should train ourselves by putting it off for an hour (just the way to get cystitis).

Outings were exhausting because you couldn’t sit down anywhere (cold stone walls would give you piles). You couldn’t get a drink of water, or a cup of tea (because all the cafés might be common and besides think of the cost). There was no bottled water, and soft drinks were common (and do you think I’m made of money?). And one does not eat in the street. We went on a lot of picnics, far from people and shops. Toilet arrangements were “find a bush”.

And of course “the pictures are better on radio”. Television was just too much fun. Many parents banned comics. (Ours allowed them, hurrah! But we didn’t have a TV for ages.)

At school, we weren’t allowed to have an opinion about history, or to feel sympathy for peasants whose land was enclosed, or children who worked down mines. We couldn’t take sides, or judge the past, or decide any part of it was good or bad. (We might have started judging the present, and that would never do.)

Humour consisted of a knee-jerk sarcasm, or laughing at others’ embarrassment. There was a constant background grumpiness, while children were never allowed to be "sulky" or complain (“make a fuss”, sound "aggrieved"). Some adults got away with being perfect miseries – never cracking a smile and putting a negative spin on everything. No wonder we were told to smile, smile, smile!

We were told that a soft answer turneth away wrath and we should just ignore bullies, while adults and teachers shouted at us. Successful people were loud, bossy and domineering, and their families and staff enabled this.

Society’s rigid hierarchy mapped onto families. Parents bullied children because it was “good for them”. They were doing their children a favour by toughening them up and “preparing them for life”.

You didn’t interfere because “it would only make things worse”. Adults didn’t intervene when children bullied each other. So nobody would protect us – instead they gaslighted: “They only tease you because they like you”. (We are slowly waking up to the idea that we should stop SIBLINGS bullying each other.)

We were always being forced to do things which frightened us, or which we hated. Result: we were unhappy and frightened a lot of the time. We became passive, because nothing we did made a difference. We tried not to think about the horrid, frightening things when they weren’t happening, so we never learned how to look for a solution. Also we didn’t know how, because we were never given responsibility for any aspect of our lives. And then when we left home we were supposed to take responsibility for it ALL, without any previous discussion or instructions. Were we supposed to learn responsibility at boarding school? You went there to “get the corners knocked off you” – and become as much like other people as possible. Or was that “hopeless and resigned”?

We had to stay where we were put and take what we were given, and if you don’t like it you MAKE yourself like it. You just didn’t do not liking things. It was never a cue for anybody to act, it was always up to you to change your attitude. Learn to like it! There’s no such word as can’t! But somehow it was OK for adults to know what they liked, and get it, and have it, and do it.

We were often told “You mustn’t mind X”. “But I do!” “Well, you must learn not to mind.” You particularly mustn’t mind when adults ridicule and bully you. You must “rise above it” and not “take it to heart”, because adults can’t possibly tell off other adults, or stop tormenting children.

Children couldn’t even have an inner life! They weren’t even allowed to have a self! Instead, we had to be cheerful, outgoing, unthinking, occupied. We couldn’t think about who we were or what we were like. That was self-indulgence or “morbid introspection”. We weren’t allowed to consider whether we were happy or unhappy. If we reflected on what was happening we might have asked awkward questions: “Why do we have to be sent away to school? Why can’t I be happy now?”

We couldn’t even have the thought: “Where am I? What’s happening? Do I like this? Could I be somewhere else doing something else? How do other people live?” Children had no autonomy, and being happy just wasn’t on the table. And we had no opportunity of seeing how other people lived.

If you can’t think about your problems you can’t solve them. But nobody talked in terms of problems and solutions. You had to pretend not to have any problems, and everybody else joined in the pretence, while keeping quiet about their own problems. You just had to not think about it – or was that “shut up and go away”? Information was withheld, and alternatives were never spoken of.

So how did you plan your life? You didn’t. Somebody else planned it for you.

And don’t think about what other people are thinking about you. They aren’t thinking about you. What was the idea? If you believed that you wouldn’t be able to function in society. Or you might decide you were invisible and be totally outrageous.

Nobody listened to children (“I don’t want to hear excuses!” “That’s just tale-bearing!”) But if adults were rude to us excuses were made (“bark worse than bite”). People were routinely rude and unpleasant in public, in shops, to “inferiors”, to subordinates, to the young. Give them their due, shop staff were pretty unsmiling, rude and unpleasant, too – to children and young people.

Fathers rarely looked after their young children (bathing, putting to bed). Parents didn’t do activities WITH children, who struggled with tasks beyond their capability, without help. Score along dotted line, insert Tab A in Slot B. “One emerges feeling humiliated and deeply disappointed.” (SL)

We couldn’t swim for an hour after eating. The nuns forbade us to roll up our sleeves or put our hands on our hips. When we drew, we weren’t allowed to rub out. There was always something! Adults got the same treatment from The Powers That Be: “You WILL like the New English Bible, the new county names, atonal music. It’s what you’re getting! You’ll just have to like it or lump it!” (Funny how all those things vanished.) And there was always some jobsworth saying you couldn’t have what you wanted because “there’s no call for it”.

The treatment bred a generation who enjoyed putting others down while nobody was allowed to notice. We were fed “the greatest of these is charity”, but were not shown how to be kind to each other. It was an unkind world. (I get bullied online if I suggest to those of my vintage that we should be kind to children – which they wilfully interpret as “giving in to their every whim”.)

Allegedly, children were tough, and forgot. They weren’t really people. Childhood was just a holding pen.

More here, and links to the rest.

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