Wednesday 15 April 2020

What I Don't Miss About the 50s 11

I certainly don't miss the rigidity and class-ridden aspects of society; just as I also don't miss the corruption and overt criminality of many who abused their public offices.
 (Robert Neuschul)

I don't miss saving shillings and pennies for the gas meter, the milk machine, the public loo, early ticket machines (no change given).

In 2019, dominance, arrogance, aggressiveness, and egocentricity are out. In are: integrity, honesty, and the ability to recognise stress in yourself and your effect on others. The modern NHS is a place where employment practices and bedside manners are much changed from the depictions in the Carry On films and the Doctor at Large films. But then society is unrecognisable. Some may say political correctness has gone mad. But one cannot respect women and have a degree of humanity in our health service without drawing a line. It was really bullying and harassment by any other name. (Helena Sage on

Abrasive” people were said to have “a good heart” or “be really nice deep down”. Somehow this excused their unpleasant, bullying behaviour. And it spread the idea that you could still be thought “nice” while being perfectly foul to everybody in your orbit.

There is a chemist’s shop at Marble Arch that is open [on Sundays], but only for prescribed medications. (David Plante, Becoming a Londoner. No other shops were open on a Sunday.)

Marianne Ihlen was a product of 1940s and 50s Norway, and this general culture of self-effacement: “Don’t stick out, don’t make yourself too different, be like everybody else, and just be nice.” (Daily Telegraph on Leonard Cohen and his girlfriend. They lived on a Greek island – on her alimony.)

It was still assumed that women could have a husband and family OR a profession, but not both.

Animals didn’t have emotions or intelligence – they operated entirely on “instinct”. This meant we could do what we liked with them. Though oddly in the 70s and 80s I was told that humans operated almost entirely on “instinct”, and this was more important and interesting than boring old planning and decision-making, which nobody talked about much. But they must have DONE it. (This mindset is still with us.)

Human emotions, “being upset” – as we were too middle-class to say – were apologised for as “sentimental”.

Someone points out that nobody talked about death, so many didn’t make wills. Also, into the 60s, in some couples the man organised everything – but then he died, and his widow had never written a cheque or read a bank statement. (My mother never knew how much my father earned.)

People called each other “old dear”, affectionately or sarcastically.

You couldn’t use lip balm because “once you start you can’t stop”. Fear of self-medication extended to Bandaids. You weren't supposed to put them on blisters. Grazes didn’t “deserve” a plaster, and anyway fresh air was better for them. (Dressings keep out germs.) There was some reason why you didn’t put antiseptic on grazes, either. It was self-indulgent, or too expensive, or too modern, or vulgar, or something. Agatha Christie writes disparagingly of the "hygienic mother".

Dim, overhead 40-watt bulbs “saved money”.

You were supposed to have a bath in five inches of tepid water because that’s what George VI did during the war. This idea persisted into the 60s, and people still thought that hot baths were somehow “bad for you”. Deodorant was definitely bad for you in the 70s when the feminists thought all toiletries were a capitalist plot. It was obligatory in the 60s, but not talked about. Embarrassment about bodily functions extended to washing.

A doctor in the 50s separated orphaned twins and triplets “for their own good”, because they’d get their foster parents’ full attention. In the 70s, a set of triplets found each other, were overjoyed, moved in together, started a restaurant. Then one took his own life, and the others parted. The doctor still thinks he did the right thing. One of his colleagues studied the separated twins and triplets (nature or nurture?), and never told them they had siblings. The remaining triplets are incredulous over these doctors’ high-handedness.

Adopted children were told nothing about their biological parents, and had no way of contacting them. Again, because this would be “better for them”. Adults weren't quite sure if a child was a tabula rasa (blank slate) or might inherit "bad blood" from low-class or even criminal parents. (This is another idea discussed in the novels of Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham.)

Children were said to be “ex and shoff” – “excited and showing off”. Any exuberant behaviour in small children was “showing off”, or trying to attract attention. It was met with a slow headshake and “There’ll be tears before bedtime”. (It’s now labelled “hyperactivity”, blamed on sugar intake, and medicated. Is this an improvement?)

"If we pretend difference doesn't exist, it'll go away." Left-handers were made to write with their right hand, and forbidden to turn the book.

Parenting” was not a word.

At primary school we made plasticine maps of Australia (the Murray-Darling basin) and learned about the Great Lakes in Canada. We had colouring books with pictures of Drake, Raleigh and that bloke who gave Queen Elizabeth a narwhal’s tusk (Martin Frobisher). They were our heroes, but why? Empire Day had passed by my day, but only just. There were still maps round the walls showing the Empire in red. The school was co-ed up to the age of 7 or 8. Then the boys disappeared to single-sex boarding schools.

Laughing at disasters that happened to other people was routine. When I didn't laugh, I was accused of having no sense of humour. Perhaps they were trying to train me not to mind being laughed at, by forcing me to laugh at other unfortunates. But if the victims didn’t mind – and we were told not to – what was the point of laughing at them?

An older colleague agreed that in the 50s “introspection” was “self-indulgent” or “morbid”. You couldn’t organise your thoughts because you weren’t supposed to have any. You couldn’t talk about your feelings even to yourself. You were supposed to put on a bright smile and get on with it. You felt guilty about “inner speaking”. So you couldn’t take an audit, ask yourself “Am I happy? If not why not?” You weren’t supposed to research direct, practical solutions to problems. It was the “don’t think about it and it will go away” principle. (This attitude hung around.)

And if we don’t say the word, it doesn’t exist. We won’t say the word “shy”, because as long as children don't think they're shy, they won't be. (I worked this out aged 4. I'm still shy.)

Bullies’ victims “minded” because they were “hypersensitive”. Solution: “grow a thicker skin”. It was  never "stopping the bullies". The victim’s only ploy was to claim that being sensitive enabled them to appreciate art and sunsets, because they had “one skin too few”. This sickly pose impressed nobody.

What's really changed is that we don't tolerate unhappiness like we used to. In the good old days if children were unhappy that was just tough. They'd grow out of it. Or "we always lose a few". "Not everyone is meant to be happy." And there was always some reason why it was OK for you to be unhappy. And some reason why you shouldn’t try to be happy. (Depressingly, this one lingers on. But we have reclassified unhappiness in children as "mental illness". And if you "aren't meant" to be happy, who has decided this? Who doesn't mean you to be happy?)

50s FOOD
One should always be a little bit hungry and a little bit cold. (Margaret Thatcher)

Our parents restricted sweet food because they thought they could train us not to like it. Liking sweet things was called “having a sweet tooth”. We only allowed vanilla ice cream in a block, and when yoghourt came in we were only allowed the unflavoured variety – without sugar.

We never had snacks, only dreary mealtimes. We were amazed that our cousins drank lemonade or orangeade with every meal, instead of just at birthday parties. We just had tepid water that tasted of chlorine – and even that was begrudged, as adults thought it would stop us eating the vile food. Meals appeared at set times, and you had to finish everything on your plate. I wasn’t aware of feeling hungry. Eating was a chore. Food was almost a punishment, not a pleasure. Children weren’t supposed to like or dislike any food, and certainly weren't allowed to choose what they ate, while adults went on about delicious gourmet foreign dishes.

There were a few 50s treats that have vanished: lardy cake, Sally Lunn buns, cinnamon toast, dripping toast, cod’s roe on toast.

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. I remember that pharmacy at Marble Arch! I do miss how quiet Sundays were, but that did come at a price.

  2. Cod's roe on toast is still good if you can get it.