by David Jones
Have you ever tried to persuade your Christmas dinner to come down from a tree? It’s not easy, I can tell you. But more of that later.
Alan Watkins’ splendid Codgers’ Club piece last month about growing up as a kid and the complete absence of the health and safety police struck a chord with me.
Strange, isn’t it, that as Codgerdom arrives, it’s easier to remember events more than half a century ago than to recall what happened last Wednesday.
Having fun required a great deal of creativity when you were growing up, as I did, in the early to mid-Fifties. Britain was a drab place then, still in the grip of post-war austerity.
Hard to believe now, but many people were still wearing the suits and coats they had worn during the war years. Of course, I didn’t know that then, aged only 10 or so, but later I realised that domestic life in Britain had barely changed at all between 1939 and 1955.
We lived in what could be described, in estate agent’s parlance, as a semi-rural location. Our small, old-fashioned bungalow had a large, rambling garden, about the size of half a football pitch.
My dad worked, just like everyone else, but we also had a smallholding. My parents kept chickens, rabbits and half a dozen geese in that large garden. It was wise not to upset the geese. They would advance, like a line of infantry, necks extended and hissing furiously. They were scary.
To the left at the bottom of our garden was a cornfield, swarming with rabbits. My father owned a shotgun and occasionally he would bag a couple for Sunday lunch. I had an air rifle but never managed to shoot anything. To the right was a meadow, with a grassy path leading down to a couple of unmade roads.
Like Codger Watkins, we made our own fun. Bike rides, daring each other to run through a field with a bull in it and endless fun with fireworks in the run-up to Bonfire Night.
Penny bangers which exploded with a thunderous crack and jumping jacks which would leap about unpredictably were affordable even on limited pocket money. Oh, and I’d also better mention the catapult I made to fire at old tin cans, using stones picked up from the beach as ammunition.
We had a huge poplar in our garden and I built a crude tree house in one of the massive forks in the branches. It was a 20ft climb to reach the platform. I never once put a foot wrong. We walked to school and back, on our own. There were no parental obsessions about paedophiles lurking round every corner.
It was a different, safer era, not least because there were far fewer cars on the roads. The real dangers for today’s kids are nearly always created by someone other than themselves.
At this point, I know that this Codger’s contribution is beginning to sound like an episode of the Darling Buds of May. It wasn’t idyllic as in the fictional world of Ma and Pa Larkin, but it was a pleasure growing up where there were more fields than houses.
Like all good things, it eventually had to come to an end. We grew up and our parents moved to a more urban location. Today, all the fields around our old bungalow are now housing estates and even our large garden has three or four houses on it.
But back to that Christmas dinner in the tree. One year, my parents bought a young turkey in Maidstone Market – not a frozen one but a turkey very much alive and kicking.
It used to run around with the chickens. It was one of my jobs to feed it and it grew rapidly. Every evening, as dusk approached, it would fly up into a tree and refuse to come down, despite my best efforts to persuade it to rejoin the chickens by doing a passable impression of a turkey calling to its mate.
There were no credit cards then and if your parents didn’t have the money, it didn’t get bought. There were no supermarkets either, shelves bursting with festive goodies – just butcher’s shops, greengrocers, corner stores and the occasional toy shop.
Britain today is a land of plenty compared to those grey days of the Fifties. The range of festive food, toys, and Christmas decorations now available and affordable to some degree by virtually everyone would have seemed like a fairytale paradise to a kid growing up in the Fifties.
This Christmas, however much you might moan about your stretched family finances, however hard-up you claim to be, I can guarantee that your home will be stuffed with more festive treats than any average youngster in the Fifties could ever have imagined.
It was in 1957 that the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously, or perhaps infamously, remarked: “You’ve never had it so good.”
For most families then, that was sheer nonsense. More recently, Lord Young, David Cameron’s adviser, was sacked for using almost identical words. But in my view, Lord Young got it right.
Today, most families have a far better standard of living than could ever have been dreamed of 50 years ago, despite the problems caused by recession.
That said, did we enjoy ourselves just as much on Christmas Day 1957, when the food and the presents were far less lavish, when life was far less complicated, and the festive fun simple?
The answer to that is a resounding “yes”.