Preview: A Child of the 1950s

Chapter 1:  First memories

Childhood was ordinary, yet it was different, certainly different from now.  I do not remember being born but I have now learned that that is not unusual.  I have never met anyone who did remember their birth but then I have not enquired of everyone I have met and I have not met everybody.  

Mum told me about my birth later - well, not in detail, thank goodness - but I did find out that, unlike my brother who is five years older, I was cheap.  So I had one over him straight away.   Apparently, it was all to do with something called the National Health Service, she told me when I was old enough to understand.  But I now know that I was born in August 1948 and, in the weeks before I was born, Mum was able to transfer me from the booking at a private maternity home to a National Health Service unit, where people could deliver babies free of charge.  These days, the NHS maternity service would have to be open to everybody to avoid discrimination but back then it catered only for women and moreover only ones who were pregnant.  It seems that the NHS began in July that year so my decision not to come early was a financial blessing.  I have tried to be helpful ever since.

Notwithstanding that the Health Service is funded by taxation, in other words paid for by the people, the popular maxim nowadays is that the NHS is free at the point of delivery.  I do not know if I and other babies delivered in NHS units in the early months of the NHS are responsible for that phrase but it is nice to think so.  Certainly, it seems that I was free at the point of delivery.

My home was in North Manchester, not one of the most salubrious neighbourhoods, but not poverty-stricken either.  The area was called Higher Blackley, which I learned from my mother at an early age was to be strongly distinguished form Blackley (or Lower Blackley, as we called it) because that was distinctly inferior, housing the factory of the Imperial Chemical Industry (ICI)  and some strange people as well.  Almost certainly not true, on reflection, but it gave the inhabitants of our middle-of-the-road neighbourhood some sense of worth and self-importance.  What I can now relate to you in the rest of this tale is not of a child growing up in the gutter, playing games with rats and cockroaches, nor of one whose clothes would be laid out in the morning by a page and breakfast would be delivered to a young child in the nursery on a silver platter, supervised by a governess.  My life was ordinary but different and challenging aplenty.

1948 was just three years after the end of the Second World War.   In the early years of the war, there was a marked increase in the number of weddings, possibly because couples were unsure of what the future would hold and were keen to formalise their unions.  I do not know if that was a factor in my parents’ minds but they married at the beginning of  September 1939.  Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 after that country’s invasion of Poland two days earlier.   The National Service (Armed Forces) Act came into force five hours later and required that all men aged between eighteen and forty-one were required to sign up for military service.   Not long afterwards, Dad was whisked away from home and his new marriage to join the war effort.  Apart from some periods of leave, one of which culminated in the birth of my brother in 1943, he only came home from his military service in 1946, fortunately then permanently, to a life that he had barely known for the previous six years when he had been away.  During that time, Mum was alone except for the comfort of her mother and sister who lived nearby.  But, for most of the time, she lived in the rented house, coping on her own, interrupted occasionally by the sound of aircraft flying overhead and, at times, bombs dropping within earshot or at least the fear of it.  On his return, they had just about two years to adjust not only to knowing each other again as they did before but also to a new world interrupted by a child, my brother, that my father had barely met before a second arrived, namely me.

I imagine that the first few years of my life were ok.  I certainly don’t remember anything nasty.  In fact, I don’t remember any of it at all but I have also since learned that that also is not unusual.  It is to do with something called infantile amnesia, it seems, which I think means that young children’s memories are not developed enough to remember what has happened.  You could say that, in other words, they do not have any memory at all although, since they learn to talk they must have some sort of memory, at least memory for words.  This goes on until about age five, which was good news for my brother, born in 1943, because he would not have any lasting memories of the anxieties of war, as, of course, neither did I. 

Anyway, enough of the speculation.  What I can say with more certainty is that the first thing I recall is being in hospital at age four.  Later Mum told me that at some point earlier I had gone deaf although I never heard anybody telling me so.  I do recall standing in some important doctor’s office with him whispering things into my ear but I could not hear anything that he was saying.  He asked me to repeat what he had said but, even if I had heard, would I have understood it?   He was a doctor, so probably said things that were incomprehensible most of the time.  I felt like asking him to speak up a bit but he seemed too old and important for me to say that.  I was just a child, after all.   Somehow, after that, I ended up in hospital and Mum seemed to think that was ok so I went along with it.  Even though I recall the build up quite well, nothing else is ingrained in my memory until a time I was lying in a bed in what seemed like some big room that had a lot of other beds with kids in them.  I later learned that my loss of memory was to do with something that Mum called an anaesthetic that put me to sleep while another important doctor - actually it could have been the same one for all I knew - removed a part of my body, tonsils they called it. 

The first thing I remember is trying to go to sleep in this big room after the operation whilst ignoring all the hundred other kids that were crying; on reflection, I now suspect it might have been one or possibly two but it seemed like hundreds at the time.  Anyway, whether one or a hundred it was enough to keep me awake and I didn’t like that.  At home, I would get to sleep pretty quickly, especially since Mum usually sang me a lullaby.

Sleep my little one sleep

Fond vigil I keep

Lie warm in thy nest

Thy moonbeams caress

When the morn tints the sky

God will bid thee arise

When the morn tints the sky

God will bid thee arise

Holy Angels abide

All night by thy side

In dreams they unfurl

Heavens portals of gold

When the morn tints the sky

God will bid thee arise

When the morn tints the sky

God will bid thee arise

Sadly, I cannot write down the music that the words were sung to but that was nice too.  But importantly, no-one in that big room in the hospital sang me that lullaby or any other for that matter.  So I was alone despite being with a lot of people.  My pillow was my friend.

I do not remember being cold but some kind nurse must have decided I was because I can still feel her tucking my leg back into bed and covering it with the sheets and blankets.  I did not want to upset her so I pretended to be asleep until she had gone away when I could put my leg back out into the fresh air.  I suppose from what I know now the air might not have been that fresh in that room but anyway it was at least cool.  I think I went back to sleep, notwithstanding the lack of lullaby.  No doubt, my friend the pillow helped.

Each morning all the children had to go to the sink at the end of the room - a ward, I learned it was called - and rinse out our throats with some nasty-tasting purple liquid.  I didn’t know why we had to do it but I went along with it.  The nurse was bossy and, as I said, I was just a child.

Eventually, they let me go home and I no longer had to swill out my mouth with that purple stuff.  Mum and Dad didn’t have a car so I was transported in some big, white hospital van, which I discovered was called an ambulance.  They gave me an orange and I ran up the garden path with it in my hand to the front door where Mum was waiting.  The whole experience didn’t seem that dramatic at the time but I remember it well now so I suppose it was important.  And they told me that taking out my tonsils would stop me running into trouble later on although how that worked I had no idea.  I certainly seemed to run into trouble in many ways so maybe they were wrong after all.  Anyway, it was done; my tonsils had left their natural home in my body to somewhere else; and that was that.  Mum assured me that they would be happy enough in their new home.

Mum also told me that having tonsils removed was not that unusual - it wasn’t just me.  In fact, apparently most children had that part of their anatomy removed, which led me to wonder why we were born with them in the first place.  What was the point of having something in the body at birth, only to have it taken away a few years later?   But then I also learned that the operation was necessary because the tonsils were badly infected as a result of a lot of colds that I had caught from other people - so, at least, it was not all my fault.  I did not understand why having infected tonsils would make you go deaf because I thought that you heard through your ears but I never stopped learning.  And I am pleased to report that having my tonsils removed did not make me even more deaf, quite the reverse, so maybe the connection between tonsils and hearing was wrong after all.  (In case you are genuinely interested, apparently the connection is that the infection spreads from the tonsils to the ears.)  

It was only later that I learned about the epidemic of polio that swept the country through the 1950s, causing widespread paralysis of children and the institution of “iron lungs” to assist paralysed respiration throughout the country’s hospital wards.  Mum and Dad must have been terrified, not least because a child just two or three streets away contracted the disease.  But they kept those fears from me.  Against that history, having an operation to remove tonsils seems rather innocent but I did not know that at the time.  And I recovered enough to be able to tell the story, sadly unlike many polio victims.

    C    © Harvey Sagar 2013