I think that I managed to live a sheltered life, without knowing about what may have been going on in the world around me. By modern standards, we were all very young and innocent. How did I manage to grow up in ignorance and innocence, without being introduced to all the sins of the world?
To put things into perspective, we have to remember two general points. Firstly, people under 21 were children and were treated as children. They had some limited rights at eighteen, such as drinking alcohol and getting married, but 21 was the age of majority, the age of voting. By some quirk you could be persuaded to leave home and join the army as young as sixteen. I could never understand that.
Up to the age of 21 you were generally considered to be a child, under the care and control of your parents. School teachers also acted in loco parentis, so that they had as much power over children in the daytime as parents when at home. (If you grew to be over 21 at University, they still kept some control over you in loco parentis. They certainly tried to keep the male and female students apart!)
Secondly, information did not spread openly as it does now.  Secrecy has illustrated how little we knew about life outside of our families. With the general standards of society, originating in the very Christian and moral standards of Victorianism, it was as if people deliberately kept adult topics away from children. Newspapers were generally much more prim and proper and with the advent of television, the BBC (sometimes known as Aunty BBC) was even more prim and proper. There was no blatant sex or sexuality in television, or newspapers, or on the streets.
Reproduction – the ‘Facts of Life’ (or the ‘Birds and the Bees’)
Children were protected from what today we might call ‘adult’ topics, including everything relating to sex. We had no idea of where babies came from or how they were produced. Mum would say that ‘the Stork brought them’ or, ‘they were found under a gooseberry bush.’ (Yes, people really said such things.) As we grew a little older we knew that these ideas were not true, but we also knew that asking again would not get a more accurate or more sensible answer. What surprised me in retrospect was that I presumably never noticed women in the advanced stages of pregnancy.
We knew that there were boys and girls, who would grow into men and women but we didn’t know the difference. (With three brothers and two sisters I had some evidence to go on.) Without knowing anything about physiology, we knew and accepted all the stereotypes of men going to work; women staying at home as housewives; boys playing with toy guns and cars; girls playing with dolls. None of this was ever questioned.
When I was about ten, my younger brother managed to borrow a book from a boy living next door. It had a picture showing a baby growing inside its mother, which was enlightening. The book was soon whisked away, as if it was something evil we should not be seeing. Nothing was said about it. It was our first knowledge of the origins of babies, a somewhat surprising revelation.
I must have been about thirteen, in the Second Year at Ilford County High School, when things became a little clearer. A group of about six of us spent the dinner hour walking round the school playing field. One boy had acquired a book about the facts of life. (I think his father was a doctor. In those days there were introductory books for maturing boys and girls. Not everyone saw these books – I suspect that they were given out occasionally by doctors rather than being available on sale.)
As a general rule most children, like us, grew up in blissful ignorance of the ‘facts of life’. They certainly learnt nothing about sex (or children, or married life, or relationships between men and women) from school and many children learned almost nothing from their parents. As they reached adolescence there was a permeation of knowledge from gossip, from neighbours, from elder siblings and from schoolmates. This probably covered the basic mechanics of sex but little else.
They may have been taken aside for a short, embarrassing chat when they reached 21, (perhaps earlier) or left home, or approached relationships with the other sex, and given a furtive limited explanation of a few things. There were still plenty of men and women who entered marriage without knowing what was expected of them. But at marriage there was the possibility of a talk with parents, religious ministers or doctors, and some educational books were available. I know that my parents would have been far too embarrassed to mention the topic. When I was older there were vague hints that if ever I wanted to know anything, perhaps I could ask my older brother.
It was, of course, generally expected that no sexual conduct should take place before marriage. Of course some did, but only in a furtive, guilty way, and in some cases with dire consequences. There was little in the way of publicly available contraception. (More about relationships in a future blog.)
While it is not true that homosexuality did not exist, that was the impression that was given by the press, radio, television and books. It was simply not mentioned openly. There were references to it in introductory books about sex, where it was generally described it as, at best, a psychological disorder. I remember being told by a friend that I should not use the word ‘queer,’ as it referred to people who were half men, half women. We had no idea what that meant, perhaps it was a vertical bilateral division – like the black and white men from an episode of Star Trek.
(The Star Trek episode was an analogy with racial discrimination. There was a world where one of these two races was dominant – either black on the right or black on the left. The Start Trek crew did not notice the difference at first. The moral was, not surprisingly, that we should not judge people by the colour(s) of their skin.)
There used to be a small number of magazines for women, generally covering the life of a housewife – cooking recipes, knitting patterns, fashion and perhaps a short story. The main ones were Woman, Woman’s Realm and Woman’s Own. One of my mother’s luxuries was Woman, which she read every week.
These magazines always included a page with an Agony Aunt, answering letters about relationship problems, sometimes indirectly alluding to sex. They were as near as we could get to finding out about such things. It was the only page of the magazine that interested me.
Evelyn Home in Woman was Peggy Makins, but this was not revealed until she retired as Evelyn Home and was seen at times on television. She wrote the column from about 1937 to the seventies.
Other well-known names were Claire Rayner (Woman’s Own) and Marjorie Proops, both of whom, like Peggy Makins, branched out into radio and television after retirement.
(In the late sixties, Claire Rayner was one of the first to write an introductory book on sex, primarily aimed at adolescents. They were a little too late for our time.)
Yes, I know, there are still agony aunts, some serious and some amusing parodies.
Going to an all-boys school (of which more later,) I had virtually no social contact with girls after leaving Primary School. (I may have been shyer and more naive than the average adolescent boy of the time.) As for several topics in this post my maturity began with Youth Club at St Andrew’s Church (again, more later,) at the age of about fourteen or fifteen. It was there that I first met and talked to girls – but always in a group with other boys and girls. Sometimes a few of us went to one of our homes where would play cards (Crazy Whist or Black Maria) or play snooker, while listening to records.
At the age of about sixteen there were one or two parties. Alcohol was limited and controlled and parents remained on the premises. I had one such party on my sixteenth birthday.
As I have said, we were young and innocent and at these parties we played a game called ‘spin the bottle’ (not really related to the illustration above.) Wikipedia describes it as an embarrassing kissing game popular among teenagers. That describes it very well. For most of us it was our first experience of (very innocent) kissing.
I will say no more of my experiences with girls after the age of sixteen.
Nudity and Pornography
There was no Internet. Newspapers did not have pictures of topless models. (They couldn’t do pictures except very low resolution dots in black and white.) The BBC kept to middle-class, Christian values. I am not sure how much pornography has been regulated by legislation in the past. There have been changes to the laws and prosecutions which have changed the interpretation of the law. Until 1968 theatre productions were censored by the Lord Chamberlain.
Broadly speaking, in the fifties and early sixties pornography (although it must have existed) was not publicly displayed or on sale. I did not see any provocatively dressed (or undressed) women or pictures of them.
As an adolescent at an all-boys school, our talk outside lessons was not always about our education. Some boys seem to have a constant supply of obscene jokes. One or two occasionally obtained books (not really books, magazines, smaller than A5) of nude ladies (not even nude, topless). They were very tame in comparison with those that more recently have featured on Page Three of the Sun for many years. It was, of course, before the days of cosmetic silicone implants.
Pornography, including what has now become known as glamour photography, was generally seen as illegal and wrong – or perhaps it was just hidden from the young. Changes came from the late sixties with the introduction of magazines such as Playboy, some legal test cases and the later widespread use of the Internet.
Cigarettes were an accepted part of life and smoking was very common everywhere. It was not publicly seen as harmful. Cigarettes were widely advertised in newspapers and shops and on hoardings (and later on television) and were shown with a more positive image.
My father smoked constantly including at home – Players Navy Cut in packets of twenty. The house must have smelled of smoke but there was also the smoke from coal fires. Tobacco smoke was common – people smoked in shops, pubs, trains and busses. (I think smoking was only allowed on the top deck of busses.) Dad knew it was harmful. He used to say that every cigarette was a nail in his coffin. He did manage to give it up some time around 1960.
It was much easier then for children to buy tobacco and cigarettes. They were openly on sale, widely advertised and without health warnings on the packets. I don’t think it was illegal for children to buy them (or to smoke) but in our general ignorance we assumed that it was not permitted. If you were bold enough to ask, you could buy them in shops. (Maybe shopkeepers assumed that you were buying them for your parents or perhaps they didn’t care.) There were packets of ten and five for the cheap brands and some shopkeepers would sell them one at a time to children with their pocket money.
Somewhere around the age of fourteen, with friends (brothers and friends from choir, cubs and scouts, later Youth Club) we experimented a little. I remember at the back of St Andrew’s making ‘cigarettes’ from tea leaves rolled up in paper, and taking occasional puffs from real cigarettes bought by others. (I was not the sort of bold child who would have asked for them in a shop.)
I spent much of a weekend Scout patrol camp (where there were just half a dozen unsupervised boys) smoking inside the tent. But I never inhaled, never saw the attraction, and never did it again. I always say that I gave up smoking before I was fifteen. I think I was lucky with tobacco.
The regulation of cigarettes has changed gradually and in general it has become almost universally socially unacceptable. Pubs are no longer full of smoke. Those who still smoke now know that in other people’s homes they are expected to smoke outside in the garden, if at all. (Many don’t smoke inside their own houses.)
I saw very little consumption of alcohol. In our house it never exceeded a bottle of wine at Christmas and occasionally sherry on Sundays. We were brought up to be honest and law abiding so my first experience of drinking in a pub came soon after my sixteenth birthday. A few school friends met at a pub in Barkingside one evening. We bought rounds of drinks, as was customary and at the end of the evening I had consumed five pints of bitter.
I don’t remember all of the journey home by bus. The next day was my first hangover. I did eventually acquire the taste for beer, in moderation, and other alcoholic drinks but gave up about fifteen years ago.
There have always been illegal drugs. In the fifties, as far as I know, there were heroin and cocaine. With the popularity of cannabis, the sixties was supposedly the age of free drugs (and free sex and lots of other things). Later on, Ecstasy and related drugs appeared, and now the Internet provides ‘legal highs.’ They all passed me by. In my life, have never seen or heard of any illegal drugs or anyone selling drugs. I have never met anyone who admitted to having used illegal drugs at any time. Perhaps I was lucky with drugs. I was always firm in my intention to avoid drugs but never had an opportunity to test my resolve.
There were no Betting Shops until 1960 and when they did come they were not the sort of place for children. I have never dared to enter a Betting Shop (and never wanted to do so.) I was always aware of Dad’s betting on horses but never knew how much money was involved. It seemed to depend far too much on following the horses closely to study form.
In the Upper Sixth form at school we often paid three-card Brag in breaks for small sums of money – only pennies, but a penny then was worth something. It’s like Poker but with three cards instead of five. I would have been about eighteen and may have lost more than I should have done. But at school we didn’t have much money anyway. (There was no freely available credit!) I was never led seriously into gambling.
I can remember as a young child, presumably at Christmas in the context of the Virgin Mary, asking my mother what a ‘virgin’ was. After some thought she said it was someone ‘who was very pure.’ Later, something on television ended with an accusation of rape so I asked Mum what ‘rape’ was. Again she thought and her reply was that it was ‘something that only happened when people were married,’ although it was obvious to me that those concerned in the television programme were not married.
Both answers were given in the same tone that was used to say that children were brought by the Stork. I knew that they were perhaps not the whole truth but I also knew not to ask further.
My ignorance continued in the same way about the four-letter Anglo-Saxon expletives. By the time I reached the age of St Andrew’s Youth Club, I had only ever heard one of them used. I remember someone telling me that I had to be sixteen to find out what it meant. I also remember on two separate occasions having the definition given to me of an expletive that had been looked up in a dictionary. They were words I had never heard used before.
My parents did not swear. The only expletives I ever heard used were ‘bloomin’ and ‘bloody,’ with ‘Bloody Hell’ the most powerful. Sadly television and books now all too frequently use words as expletives, words that I can manage without.
I also grew up in an environment where the Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in vain’ was respected. Until the late nineties I did not hear people saying ‘My God!’ Now we have the strange use of OMG, as if using initials makes it less offensive.
Crime and Violence
It’s hard to say whether violence and crime were less common then but that was the impression we had. I think that where there were violent crimes, they were not publicized so dramatically. I have never seen a crime of violence. I have never seen or heard of anyone carrying a gun or knife – although television and the press sometimes give the impression that violence is everywhere.
So, up until about fifteen, I led a very sheltered life, with some mild introductions to the ways of the world when I started Youth Club. As a postscript, I am sure you will like to know that I grew up into a polite, honest, law abiding, clean living, non-smoking, teetotal citizen! This may be another of my sweeping generalizations but it’s (approximately) true.