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52 from ’52

Sorting through some old posts I wrote on Livejournal, I came across this, which I wrote on my 52nd birthday in 2004. In the light of Adam’s posts about 1979, it seemed worth reposting it here:

There was still rationing back then. Though fortunately sweets rationing ended before I was old enough to be aware of it. The war was still fresh in our minds – and despite Korea which was presumably still going on, nobody ever had to ask ‘which war?’. All through my childhood every comic I read had at least one wartime adventure strip, ‘Commando’ comics were huge sellers with bloodthirsty schoolboys, most of the films we saw were war films. I remember the day, in 1956 or 7, when we got our very first television set – a big darkwood beast with a small black and white screen which sat in a corner of the room that was ever afterwards the home of successive TV sets – and even the television comedies we watched were about National Service: The Army Game? Despite all that plethora of martial imagery which was fed to us every day, I was too young to notice Korea, Suez and Malaysia and the Mau Maus passed me by unheeded, and the first war I was actually aware of was probably the Six Day War in 1967, closely followed by Vietnam. Yet I was brought up in a dormitory town on the outskirts of Manchester, and everywhere throughout my childhood there were rows of houses with unexplained gaps, mysterious holes in the ground, bits of out-of-place waste ground. It was years before I realised this was all bomb damage; but then bits of Manchester, particularly the run-down areas between the city centre and my hometown of Middleton, still look as if they are recovering from bomb damage.

Nearness to war was just part of everyday experience back then, the landscapes you moved through, the air you breathed, you never questioned it. Just as I never really questioned the clothes I wore most days throughout the 50s: thick, charcoal-grey shorts that bagged around the knees; grey shirt with a green and red striped tie; green blazer; grey knee-length socks and black shoes; and of course the cap which was the only part of this school uniform that was really hated. Oddly the uniform I wore to my junior school was almost identical to the uniform I wore when I went to grammar school in 1963 (ah, the year they invented sex, the year of the Beatles’ first LP – I was aware of one through watching ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, but totally ignorant of the other). But at grammar school I was allowed – after a long battle – to wear long trousers right from the start. Not all of my classmates were so lucky. The junior school was just around the corner from home, but grammar school was right across the other side of town and I had to take a 15 minute bus ride and then a 10 minute walk. The beginnings of independence. But we still had to wear (or at least carry, stuffed in our blazer pockets) that bloody awful cap. On the afternoon in 1971 when I walked out of the school gates for the very last time, the first thing I did was rip that cap from my head and tear it into tiny strips.

The clothes we wore… My teenage years were the years of the hippies, remember, though they were happening far away to other people, something glimpsed on the box alongside the Black and White Minstrels and Billy Cotton’s Bandshow and the original production of The Forsyte Saga. There was a time, somewhere in the mid-60s, when I acquired a lime-green car coat with a thick fleece lining that I was so proud of for a few months, though in retrospect it probably made me look exactly like an under-aged secondhand car dealer. And there were times when I wore hipsters, and flares, and floral shirts with floral ties, and collarless shirts, and, around the time I started at University, a blue and white striped cheesecloth shirt that I loved to distraction.

And we had Harold Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives, and Profumo, and 13 years of Tory misrule, and the white heat of the technological revolution, and the pound in your pocket. They lowered the voting age to 18 just in time for me to vote Tory in 1970, a mistake I have never repeated. Labour won our constituency anyway, but Ted Heath got in.

What else do I remember? A family holiday in Torquay where, in a rack outside a tatty seaside gift shop, I discovered a black Panther paperback of a book called Foundation. I read it sitting on the beach, and the very next day went back and bought Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. And then, when I went to university at Coleraine, discovering in the little newsagents across the road from my digs in Portstewart a huge pile of old Roberts & Vintner paperbacks. (I’ve sometimes wondered since if that cache of sf paperbacks had anything to do with another Portstewart resident I wouldn’t meet for several years, James White?) And then, when I went on to Warwick University for a postgraduate year, coming across a scrubby little shop in an insalubrious back street of Birmingham called Andromeda. And, coincidentally, discovering that there was to be a science fiction convention in Coventry that Easter. That was 1975, not far short of 30 years ago.

When I was young my father pointed out that I would be 48 in 2000, and it seemed so far away that I imagined it would never come. Strangely, it did. I don’t think I’ve ever got used to that.

2 thoughts on “52 from ’52

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Paul. The older I get, the more convinced I become that history’s the most important thing, if not the only thing. It’s literally all we have!

    I will be 48 in 2024. I intend to celebrate it in the backseat of one of those flying, talking cars PKD was always predicting…

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