Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


[111] It Ain’t Half Hot Mum

I have been putting this one off because it could involve a lot of research – but I have to do it. I want to try to explain how much political geography was different in the Fifties and the best way to illustrate it is to say something about how it has changed since then.

By way of background it is worth reiterating that we knew very little about what was actually happening in the World. There was some international radio and we just about had some limited unreliable telephone contact abroad – but there was no Internet and no international television. Even within England we relied on news from newspapers printed overnight after laborious typesetting.


My knowledge of countries overseas came from two sources – a World atlas and stamp collecting. I think that stamp collecting was a more common hobby for boys then. I had a stamp album and I think there was a little shop somewhere. I used to get a small packet of mixed stamps for a few pence.

So I learned the names of lots of foreign countries – in their own languages. I knew that Magyar was Hungary and Osterreich was Austria. And, of course I also learned the units of foreign currency.

Political Geography

The World was very different. Britain still had an Empire which included much of Africa and a lot of other dependent territories such as Aden (now Yemen) and Cyprus. France had dependent territories abroad which also included large parts of Africa. There were other dependent countries belonging to Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

I will do a whistle-stop tour round the World. Please understand that my one-line comments often summarize fifty or sixty years of complex History. They may be wildly inaccurate or just woefully inadequate. And, of course, whole countries will be left out.

South America

I start in an area of little dramatic change. Countries and their borders through this continent remain have unchanged although there have been political revolutions. This is not the place to talk about Evita, well-known now from the musical production and film – or the Falklands.

There has always been the trio of countries on the Northeast coast. British Guiana became an independent Guyana in 1966. Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) is now part of the Netherlands and French Guiana remains part of France. (It’s the way France has always worked. It doesn’t have overseas territories. They have the same internal status as other parts of France.)

I have already mentioned Brazil. Its capital used to be Rio de Janeiro until vast chunks of Amazon rainforest were cut down to make Brasilia.


In the Fifties almost all of Africa was still looked after by European countries. Independent African states emerged from about 1960, more often than not accompanied by minor uprisings or long and bloody civil wars. I can’t begin to consider the reasons but the process has been dramatically badly managed. Here it is in vaguely North-to-South order.

Morocco was under Spanish and French protectorates until 1956; Tunisia was part of France until 1956 and Algeria was part of France until 1962. I remember the Algerian freedom fighters were always in the News until they won their independence.

French West Africa until 1960 included the modern countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Fasso, Benin and Niger. Similarly French Equatorial Africa has become Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Congo and Gabon.

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was effectively a British colony until Egypt persuaded Britain to give independence in 1956. There was then no Aswan Dam and the Nile flooded every year in Egypt. (The emergence of South Sudan as a country is much more recent.)

The Belgian Congo has been independent since 1960. I remember the television news when it went straight into a bloody civil war. It is now Zaire.

Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika were British until given independence in the early Sixties. (Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar to become Tanzania.) Kenya is the only country I can think of that has changed its pronunciation without changing the spelling. The first syllable used to sound like ‘keen.’ Now it is ‘ken.’

North and South Rhodesia, British colonies, are now Zambia and Zimbabwe. I remember the Universal Declaration of Independence of 1965, when the colony tried, without international acceptance, to detach itself from Britain. It was resolved eventually in 1980 when independent Zimbabwe was accepted.

Angola was Portuguese. Its independence in 1975 started a long-drawn-out civil war. Mozambique was very similar!

South-West Africa was a largely uninhabited area administered by South Africa. It has been independent since 1988, now known as Namibia.

Madagascar was also part of France – Independent since 1960.

South Africa was a country dominated by the ruling white people, of mixed British and Dutch (Afrikaans) origins. It became a republic in 1961, still part of the Commonwealth. The black and Asian races that formed the main population had few rights under a system of Apartheid, which defined everyone by their racial origin. Apartheid left the country in isolation internationally with boycotts and sanctions, which worked very slowly. Eventually in the Eighties and Nineties Apartheid was relaxed and the transition to a fairer black politics was more or less peacefully managed.

The countries now known as Lesotho (Basutoland), Swaziland and Botswana were separated from South Africa in the Sixties.

[Language note 1: Europeans largely ignore the problems of different languages. The large numbers of African languages are completely different to the Indo-European languages we know. They use suffixes in a way that we don’t attempt to understand. For example, the main ethnic group of Botswana is the Tswana people, hence the name Botswana for its country. The people as a whole are Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language they speak is Setswana. Similarly Lesotho and Basutoland are cognate words used for the people who speak the Sotho language. We use Swahili for the widespread language properly called Kiswahili. Of course, Lesotho is not pronounced Lesotho – it sounds like Lesootoo. Let’s not worry about that.]

Middle East

It gets more difficult as we move on geographically because we knew virtually nothing about what happened in Asia.

We knew Persia as a country ruled by its king, known to the British as just the Shah of Persia. He had a playboy image and his name came up most often as an owner of racehorses here. He reigned for 26 years before staging his coronation in a lavish ceremony in 1967. He abdicated and fled the country at the end of the Seventies in a state of progressive ill-health and died shortly afterwards. The country almost immediately became the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Aden was a British protectorate. It is now the country of Yemen. (For a time it was split into two. Its Eastern and Western parts were known, confusingly and inaccurately, as North Yemen and South Yemen.)



Israel is another long story. It had been independent since 1948. The Six-Day war of 1967 led to changes that have continued without ever being agreed. Peace talks continue. The map above is for illustration. I am not trying to attempt resolution of the conflict. The Sinai Peninsula is a desert of sand, now returned to Egypt. The Golan Heights are also uninhabited, maintained as a defensive buffer between Israel and Syria. The Gaza Strip and West Bank territories have had various changes of status and are associated with the State of Palestine (not yet a full nation under the United Nations.) The divided city of Jerusalem is an added complication.

Indian Subcontinent

Until 1947 India was part of the British Empire. It was so important that Queen Victoria was styled Empress of India and we always had the letters IND IMP on British coins. At its independence it was split in some haste into two countries in an attempt to partition its religious differences – India and Pakistan. Pakistan was a country of two parts – East and West Pakistan. After another bloody war of liberation, Bangladesh gained its independence in 1974.

[Language note 2: Europeans tend to modify foreign names. Mumbai was known as Bombay until 1995. Kolkota was Calcutta until 2001. Others are not so obvious. Chennai used to be called Madras. Gradually India and other countries are reclaiming their original names.]

The tiny Indian province of Goa in India used to be Portuguese until 1961.

Tibet, to the North of the Himalayas was an independent country until occupied by China in 1950.

Far East

Communist China with a population then of 600 million (when India was just 200 million) was by far the most populated country of the World. But it was so controlled and secretive that we knew nothing about it. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have always been the USA, the UK, France, Russia (USSR in those days) and China. But until 1971 China meant the Republic of China on the island of Formosa, what we now call Taiwan. The Kuomintang (Guomindang) government had fled from Mainland China with the rise of communism but they still claimed to be a government in exile.

[Language Note 3: Romanization of Chinese is another problem. There are different systems and in 1982 the standard changed. We now call the capital city Beijing. It used to be Peking. It hasn’t changed but the way we now pronounce it has changed. I suspect that both versions are equally wrong. Similarly we used to call their leader Mao Tse-Tung. Now he is known as Mao Zedong. Of course most westerners are still unaware of the reversal of name order so that Mao is the part we would call a surname!]

In the mid-Fifties the colonies of French Indo-china became independent as Vietnam (earlier North and South Vietnam,) Laos and Cambodia. There have been continued conflicts in that area. (I know, I am glossing over lots of important history.)

Hong Kong used to British but technically it was just on a 99-year lease. I think we assumed that it would always be British. But we negotiated our exit and in 1997 it became – well, not actually part of China but a sort of complicated semi-autonomous region. Macau (Portuguese) suffered a similar fate.

Countries sometimes change their names. Siam has become now Thailand. Its name internally did not changed. Similarly Burma changed the English transliteration of its name to Myanmar in 1989. The Western world seemed to reject this change for a long time because it was associated with its military dictatorship although it seems to be generally accepted now.

[I suppose that was Language Note 4.]

The Soviet Union

You can read about the Soviet Union, NATO, the Warsaw Pact and the Cold War in Blog [51] about Two-Way Family Favourites.

On the map of Europe the main changes were the division of Germany into East Germany and West Germany and the unification of the Balkan states as the country of Yugoslavia. These areas did not change until 1991.


That has been a quick tour and I have missed out some such as the island archipelagos of the Pacific and the Suez Canal. You can perhaps understand why countries around the World have English, French, Spanish, Portuguese as one their official languages.

But I haven’t quite finished yet.


The European Union did not exist in the early Fifties. I can’t begin to look at its various components, its history or its growing number of constituent states. Even its name has changed many times. It continues to add new official languages as new countries join and it now has 24.

The UK joined in 1973 and held a Referendum in 1975 to confirm the decision. I don’t comment on politics but I have to say that I don’t believe in government by referendum.

Local Government and Devolution

Local Government had largely been unchanged for a century or more. Governments have made up for this since the Sixties with at least two separate complete changes to the counties of England, Wales and Scotland; a shake-up of all local authority structures and devolution for Scotland and Wales.

The Referendum about Europe mentioned above was the first ever UK referendum but we have had a few since then. I am not sure that the electorate ever wanted devolution but, briefly, here are some more ideas the government has put to the people by referendum.

For Scotland, a devolution referendum in 1979 failed to meet the threshold for devolution. Another one in 1997 produced a majority in favour with less than half the electorate saying ‘yes.’ We now have a Scottish Parliament. (A further referendum in 2014 voted against independence.)

The position for Wales is fairly similar. A referendum in 1979 voted against. For Wales the second referendum in 1997 produced less than 51% in favour from a turnout of less than 51%. (Yes, just a tiny bit over a quarter voted in favour.) We now have a Welsh Assembly.

The vast percentage of the UK population (from England) were not consulted about these changes.

(You may just detect some of my views on devolution.)

With little experience of Ireland I can’t begin to comment on the position of Northern Ireland. There were conflicts from the Sixties involving the IRA and British troops and an agreement in 1993, which led to a power sharing Northern Ireland Assembly. The UK constitution is so complex that it is no surprise to see different political structures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – with no England equivalent!


It Ain’t Half Hot Mum

It may be a bit incongruous to end with this Seventies sitcom, based on a British army concert party company in the Indian Subcontinent and Burma. It is not now seen as politically correct and has not been repeated.

But it does to some extent show how the British and other colonial countries saw themselves – as benevolent and paternalistic in a friendly sort of way. I don’t think the native populations saw it in the same way.