I was just months old when my parents split up, and for the next five years we lived in my gran’s rented two-up-two-down terrace. Mum worked nights and I was looked after by gran and her sister, “Bab”. Both were elderly widows, long past the storms of life. We were surrounded all day by their old furniture and possessions and a sense of things having petered out.
We didn’t really have visitors, unless you counted the chimney sweep, and the telly, in the front parlour we rarely entered, wasn’t often on. The record player was a broken electric preWar thing which would only do 78s. I don’t remember any actual records. My bath was made of tin and sat in front of the fire.
To all intents and purposes, then, I spent my formative years in preWar provincial England. Not with the people who should have been there, because by now they were all in the same two places: the cemetery, or the pair of dusty photograph albums with their pictures of huge, laughing family Christmases.
Mum remarried in 1974, and we rejoined the world, bought our car and stereo and wall-to-wall carpets and a dog. The seventies were a great time for then-and-now books, which juxtaposed your high street in 1901 (smart people, neat shops, no cars) with the present day (Wimpy, C&A, flared jeans, anonymous litter and Morris Marinas parked halfway across the pavement). Of course, the compilers of these volumes always intend you to prefer the past.
But I preferred the “before” photograph to the “after” because it contained the world I was familiar with. It looked right, and the newer picture looked wrong. More than just wrong: the present day looked weaker. The past had the prevailing imperative, it existed more strongly, as if only the exercise of a little willpower would bring it all springing back. The people in the old photographs wore serious, capable expressions; they knew what they were doing. The modern people looked lost.
That’s what I used to see. I don’t see it now.
Here’s everybody again: there were six sisters, and by the time I came along, gran and Babs were the sole survivors and Mum the only child. There are two of these picnics in the album. When I was a boy, this was pure Merchant Ivory. Now I just see some nervous girls having a giggle. Careful with your special clothes, do your best to ape your betters, worry if its too late for a husband to come along. (It was).
It looks boring. Two of the sisters actually appear in one of the then-and-now books. They’re walking their shopping across a great open tarmac space in town. No one else is around. They aren’t talking. In fact, they look a bit tired. The telephone exchange was built on top of the whole scene a year or two later.
More or less everything I see in those albums now makes me glad that I’m here now and not then. Provincial England was and is the world capital of longeurs. I’ve had what they didn’t have: the choice to stay or the choice to leave. I finished my last exam at school, cycled home, packed my rucksack and panniers, and was on a train to London before the evening news.
Babs failed the grammar school scholarship and went straight into a job sewing at Rose’s department store in Silver Street. She hated it from the off and stayed fifty years. In retirement, her house shared one wall with a clothes factory. Every day until her death was filled with the restful hum of fifty industrial sewing machines. I’m neighbour to Waitrose and Fettes College.
Just because I’ve changed my mind doesn’t mean that there isn’t still huge nostalgia for the Britain that existed before 1939, or, in the more extreme cases, 1914, although I’m about to argue that it isn’t as strong as it was. And I’d still love to have an all-lines rail season ticket for a couple of Edwardian weeks, just to take a look around. But all the nostalgia’s missing the vital ingredient, the one thing that would hit you first if you ever did make it back. Boredom.
TV’s Ashes to Ashes tried to recreate a period I know well, having lived through it, the 1980s. They don’t try too hard, of course – it’s entertainment, not documentary. But it does go along with the nostalgic trope, that there are certain things that make an era what it is. In Ashes to Ashes, people are doing “eighties stuff” all the time: listening to the music, driving the cars, meeting the Yuppies, bashing the unions, wearing the shoulders and the grey shoes.
It would kill it as a programme to put in what the eighties was actually like i.e. a long wait for the traffic lights to change, rain on your windscreen and your ashtray open.
Or sitting at the bad bus stop in bland sunshine near the modern church, waiting for one of the Routemaster’s failing replacements to wheeze and wobble up the hill towards you.
While you wait, you aren’t thinking how incredibly eighties it all is. Not unless your name is Peter York.
Boredom and longeur: the dark matter of history, so hard to capture and communicate while still making up the bulk of all experience.
For Babs and her sisters, the interwar period wasn’t necessarily the Hard Times of legend: Bedford was in that part of the south that had growth and new opportunities in the ’20s and ’30s. The Jarrow Marchers came through and were photographed as curiosities. They’d have been clear, too, of their cramped – and I suspect violent – childhoods.
Thankyou Philip: “Nothing, like something, happens everywhere.” That mild and slight abrasion of everyday boredom is precisely that part of the psychological experience of living that is hardest to get back to. It’s difficult even to want to. Why watch my ancestors walk across tarmac when I can catch a steam express train to London and see Chapman’s Arsenal from an open terrace? Or sail to New York? Or fight in Spain?
This is beginning to change. Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat is a long and detailed account of how the sixties failed to take place until the seventies. Books like his have a place now.
Part of this is down to recent history. In the early ’80s, Dad drove us all over France and Germany. The streets were so clean, the roads so smooth, the food so much better than home. This summer, I took the train to Berlin from the new St Pancras, and spent most of my time on the journey and whilst there thinking how well run London was, and how good its galleries are, and its food. I’m having many of those same thoughts in Edinburgh. I miss Black and Blue badly. And the South Bank, and the BFI. And village pubs in Surrey, Bucks and Herts.
England, I propose, is more comfortable and confident now, even with recession looming, than it has been at any time since before the First World War. This isn’t likely to be a popular opinion with bloggers, who tend to see the glass as half empty (and the half that’s been drunk was flat, and not what they ordered in the first place). So I’ll go on alone to say that there’s less need than there was to think about national decline or better days.
Or less need, as in my case, to see in things in photographs that aren’t there, and to miss the things that are.