Austerity?

What is meant by austerity? I am sure my early childhood was not unusual. There were many families in the same, perhaps even worse predicament. A description of austerity then, with details would be very different from today. To my knowledge, there was never electricity in my first family home and that precludes installation of things like televisions, telephones, microwaves. The occasional introduction of a flashlight (torch) as a Christmas present for me was about as near as we would get to electricity and the quality of the battery left much to be desired. Of course when the battery failed, there was no money for replacements so that was the end of the torch. The final act was to try it again some time later to find that it still did not work and the battery and much of the interior of the torch was reduced to a sticky acidic mush. So if there is no television, there is no games console.

The only time we saw professional sport required a visit to the actual live match. Big matches, whatever the sport, would get limited coverage on the Pathe News at the cinema so the general public were aware of international matches and FA Cup Finals and that was how we would be dissolved into a state of awe by 10 seconds of poorly focussed, black and white magic from Stan Matthews or the legendary cricketers such as Don Bradman or particularly, in my case, as a Yorkshireman, Len Hutton. Yes, the ‘action replay’ would appear about two weeks later on the big screen.

Since Christmas got a mention, lets consider a typical seasonal celebration. Turkey was not an option. Even chicken was too expensive for most folks. To be fair, beef seemed to be, from my experience the normal meat for the weekend so pork made the table for Christmas. Most foods were still rationed. Bread was rationed until 1948 and sugar, meat and other products did not become free from rationing until well into the 1950’s. Little prospect of prawn cocktail starters, Turkey with the trimmings and as for Black Forest Gateau after six years of war with the Germans? Let’s not go there!

Christmas presents were, of course, limited by the family budget. The stocking would be hung on the mantel shelf and in the morning would appear magically bulging with an apple, an orange (probably a satsuma or clementine), a few nuts (requiring cracking open with the flat iron) and a brand new penny. There would be one ‘major’ present. I can only remember one of these major present. It was a train set. It had a circular track roughly eighteen inches (half a metre) in diameter and the train pulled a coal tender and a single carriage. The power source was clockwork. It ran for about three circuits of the track before the power was all consumed and the train stopped for refuelling (rewinding). I loved it! There was however an incident involving the train that left me in tears. My dad had a good friend who was doing the refuelling one day and he decided to add some reality to the proceedings. He placed a burning cigarette in the funnel of the train and set it off round the track, apparently with steam issuing from said funnel. I was young, naive and inexperienced. I reached out to touch the smoke and, of course, burnt my hand before I could be restrained. That was the end of reality although there was some authenticity in the train clattering along a metal track on the cold stone flags of our room!

Even if we were going to get more or bigger presents we would not really have an idea what to ask for! The lack of television meant that there was little visible advertising of products other than in the relevant shops, on advertising hoardings or at the cinema.

There was not an overabundance of money available even for the basic things in life so advertising tended to be limited to those things that, at the time might have been essential or at the very least adding gravy to the kitchen table. So we would see pictures of a couple of kids with an apparently desirable aroma wafting past their nostrils under a caption of ‘Aah Bisto’.  Oxo cubes were advertised as a meal, not just additional seasoning.

Cigarettes of course were essentials and they were advertised everywhere. Well everyone smoked didn’t they? So the brands were at war. I remember Craven A, Senior Service, Woodbine, Capstan Full Strength among others and the associated images endure!   At the cinema, the same products were advertised of course and there have been many critics over the years of the way that smoking was glamourised. In fact an enduring feature of any trip to the cinema in those days was the fog through which we observed our heroes.

Unless we were in a shop that sold them, we did not see the top rated toys of the time. Meccano Construction sets or Hornby train sets were saved for the rare occasion when, as a treat, we were taken into the large toy departments of the big shops in Leeds City Centre. In some ways, although it was well intentioned, in reality it was quite cruel. It is reminiscent of the old television show when the losing ‘finalist’ is  finally ground into the earth with the immortal words ‘Let’s see what you could have won!’. We were looking at extravagant displays featuring huge construction sites littered with wonderful creations made from lengths of steel held together with screws and operated by clockwork (later electric) motors. An array of Hornby electric trains, passenger and goods would clatter round a track many feet long with all sorts of junctions, rail-side furniture such as signal boxes and level crossings. At no time was there the suggestion “choose which one you want”! In any case I was five years old before I lived in a house that gave us access to the wonders of electricity.

Birthdays were the same but ‘less extravagant’! I have a vague recollection of receiving a toy car for one birthday but as my birthday is in August and we were on holiday with family in Blackpool. I think the car was bought by Grandma and Grandad who I am sure would have been imbued with the spirit of the holiday as motivation to treat me!

I repeat, I am in no way complaining, I was no different from most of my peers. We did not know what we were missing. Sweets were on ration so the odd occasion when we did get them, it was a real treat.

I am told that I was such an undemanding child that the first time I asked for an ice cream, my parents were so taken aback that my dad ran around the streets of Hunslet searching for the purveyor who pedalled around on a tricycle that had a cold storage box fitted between the front pair of wheels. I am sure that I would have been at least as surprised to get what I asked for as my parents were to be asked!

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