Memories of '52
The nineteen fifties were everything from wonderful to ghastly, according to whom you speak and what age group they fall into. At the time many were carrying the heaviest of loads, that of grief and the traumatic loss of everything they had owned to the air raids. To these people the fifties must have come as an oasis in a century thus far dedicated to wars and the Great Depression. As a London child born in 1946 I think my experience of things was the way most children who have reached an age of full consciousness experience them: as they actually were, without recourse to memory or understanding of how things ought to be.
Fashions of the day, just so long as you saw them in the glossies, were positively Hollywood; all that New Look and Max Factor and strangely pointed bosoms but on the high street they were some of the most hideous concoctions of Make do and Mend, trimmed lavishly with unavailability and a yard or two of hardship. A gash of lipstick in a sudden shade of 'Unsubtle Red' and one was considered as dressed as you were going to be. True, there were a few well dressed and even glamorous ladies to be seen but they were rare in my experience and stood out strikingly against their drab sisters and were in truth evidence of a continuing class divide. Nowadays it is understood to be simply a matter of choice whether one chooses to be drab or otherwise, not so back then when it was every woman's hope to be upwardly mobile in the wardrobe department.
The other bone of contention, especially with us children was the food. Few people under the age of 60 would recognise the diet of the early fifties. You had to be jolly hungry to eat snook fish cakes and what I was certain was stewed bicycle saddle, although I was reliable informed by my mother that t'was stuffed heart. Yuk. I could have cheerfully have stuffed it anywhere but in my mouth. By the time I had finished chewing it I had no energy left to argue against its guaranteed reappearance the following week and jaw ache that lasted an hour; to think that except for sugar, rationing had actually ceased - but poverty hadn't. It certainly did seem to me that unless a meal was possessed of a grey hue it wasn't going to be good for you and it would be the late fifties before we had been convinced that colourful appetizing looking grub wasn't immoral or worse - that foreign muck!
It was to this backdrop that The Coronation came as a much needed release from the visionless rigour and the constant feeling that you were being punished for something you hadn't done; and with it the gift of sugar from the government. It finally came off the rationing in celebration or our nation's great moment in the sun although at the time the sun was hiding behind copious rain clouds. It has to be said, even in these politically correct times, that the sheer joy and pride felt at the getting out our nations jewels and the golden coach, along with the pomp and circumstance so long missing from our lives, was the ultimate 'cock-of-the-snoop' to that nation across the sea who, twice in fifty years, had tried to destroy us. I remember old men, and not so old, in the crowds wiping their eyes at the absolute grandeur and pride of it all, as their be-medalled chests swelled beneath shabby coats in the full and certain knowledge that their sacrifices of blood, sweat and tears had paid off and we still had 'the goods' and that given time, without any further interruptions, all would come right gain and better than ever it had been.
Televisions were few and far between, being a luxury too far in the opinion of most; something that would not be commonplace for probably twenty years or so. With the advent of the Coronation everyone's opinion changed overnight and those who could find the necessary bought, and those who couldn't hired, and those that could do neither invited themselves to the house of someone who could. I remember travelling to my Godmother's home in New Malden to huddle around something in the corner of the room, smaller than the average goldfish bowl, along with half the street, to watch this piece of history in glorious black and white. An abiding memory of that day was the pouring rain and the people of London who had camped out in it all night in the days before anoraks or polar fleece; and Saloti Queen of Tonga. This lady, who was little short of seven feet tall and used only to the everlasting sunshine of a paradise island, sat bolt upright in her Landau with no umbrella and the carriage hoods remaining resolutely down. The reason she gave for this hardy manner was that the people of London had waited for hours in this weather to see 'them' not their umbrellas; if they could bear it so could she. I have never forgotten the dignity of that foreign queen and she must surely have been seriously wet and cold by the time she reached Westminster Abbey.
We children buried our faces in the luxurious sugar that covered little cakes sprinkled with red, white and blue and forgot about snook and stewed bicycle saddle but never forgot the beautiful young woman in her 'robe of cloth of gold' who had been born to be a county girl but, instead, was called by her country.
She will remain a hard act to follow for a very long time, and those who are destined to follow are only too well aware of it.