Introduction by Lana Lane
I had no idea that my Grandma had started writing stories about her life in a little red book until a few months ago. We sat having a cup of tea, accompanied by her famous biscuit tin which makes an appearance on every visit. When she tentatively handed it over and told me she had just been jotting a few bits down I wasn’t sure what to expect. My Grandma is an absolute powerhouse and matriarch of our family. She never lifted a finger to me as a child but demanded respect in such a way that one never felt they were being told off. She is 82 but refuses to be classed as a pensioner. She still attends Neil Diamond concerts and smiles with pride that she “was bopping away all night”. When I read these writings it hit me that my Grandma had grown up poor, she had never told me about her childhood, yet here it was all laid out in a little red book.
As I write this we are in unique time in history, the current Covid 19 crisis has shown us that western society is fragile. Nothing emphasized our consumer driven lives more than the empty supermarket shelves we faced. As a society we view our elderly as vulnerable sometimes childlike, and sadly when considering some neo-liberal standpoints, disposable, yet, I have found that when I have offered assistance to elderly neighbours and through long phone calls with Grandma that this generation is the most resilient and prepared in times of crisis. They know how to ration food, they know how fear can feel and have lived through uncertain times. So here is my Grandmas voice of life in the late 1940s.
No 12 Usher Green, end house of a terrace of four. Quite small, back porch with a coal house and toilet. Kitchen with pot sink and drainer, gas cooker and gas boiler. Bathroom off the airing cupboard, hot water tanks. Sitting room with a coal fire within a black range. An oven either side and mantle shelf over. Pantry in one corner and a door in the opposite corner leading to a small entrance and front door, Stairs lead to three bedrooms, two with a small fireplace. They were never used from what I can remember.
Outside, a large garden where Dad grew all sorts of vegetables and fruit. Mr Davies at number 11 always grew lovely flowers and Mr Troop (my godfather) at No 13 always kept chickens so lots of dealing and swapping went on. Dad also had a shed where he kept rabbits to breed, sell and eat.
Years ago winter was much colder and lasted so much longer. Most foods were rationed, and everything was in short supply. Having a good range downstairs meant it was quite warm. Our coal supply was supplemented by coke which Dad and I fetched every Saturday morning from the Gasworks on Newark Road. Dad took me along because it was strictly one bag per person. As we lived near to the woods we had plenty of fallen trees which I helped dad to saw into logs using a large cross cut saw. This certainly helped to keep you warm! Upstairs was very different – on really frosty mornings we had ice on the inside of the windows.
Beyond the garden
From the far end of the garden it was only a step over the wire fence to open fields and woodland. Every chance was taken to get out and explore. Looking into the high hedges and counting how many birds nests were to be found. Collecting blackberries for mum to make into jam and pies, picking Honeysuckle and Wild Roses and making arrangements with them back at home. During the summer the fireplace was always filled with lilac and other flowers. There was always plenty of things to take to school for the nature table. Lovely catkins, Wild Orchids (I never told a soul where they were to be found) tadpoles and frog spawn, Heather, Birdsfoot, Trefoils and Campions (red and white) Rose Bay Willow herb and so on.
Over the fields and through the Fir, Oak, and sweet Chestnut trees to the lake, where Dad would fish for pike and roach whilst we climbed the trees and dared each other to climb the highest. We would also play jumping the sleepers on the railway lines and wave at the drivers as they went by. We were never told to stay away because it wasn’t safe. In later years the fields and most of the wood were cleared away for the Boultham Moor Estate and Tritton Road.
Tritton Road, named after Sir William Tritton, boss of Foster Gwynes, makers of amongst other things thrashing machines and later tanks for World War 2. All the Lane males (and some females) worked at Gwynes. My Grandfather, Uncles, Dad and Brother. My dad was for some time, weekend watchman and, sometimes, we were allowed to visit him at work. To enter the yard we had to step through a small door and then through a larger door. My Dad would usually be in the time office, this was where all the workers “ clocked in” when they arrived. Inside was a large Grandfathers clock and we would open the door and watch it working. Out in the yard we would play on the bogies, my brother and I would pump the handles and woosh around the yard. Inside we would climb around the thrashing machines and explore the workplace. Over the yard a large door led to the staircase and to the very grand office of Sir William. He had a leather chair and huge mahogany desk on which sat apart from the usual pens and letters a brass model of a tank.
Foster Gwynes backed onto Waterloo Street where my Grandad and several Uncles lived. It was also the home of the “Boultham Working Man’s Club”, a grand sounding name but in fact it was just a very large wooden hut with a bar and a large pot-bellied stove. Once my dad was given some pork dripping from a friend. He stopped off for a pint on his way home , stood near this stove and the dripping melted in his pocket – he got a good telling off from my Mum when he got back as the dripping was precious!
My brothers and I attended Skellingthorpe Road School. Our Headmistress was Miss Gibson. She was a lovely lady and knew everything about every pupil. I was married with three small children when I heard she was retiring. I decided to take her a bouquet of flowers. When I knocked on her office door she remembered me straight away and knew my name. When I told her I was married she knew who my husband was as well. I was twenty two and the last time she had seen me I had been eleven. Remarkable!She was later a guest at the opening of Pelham Bridge, along with the Queen.
The Deputy Head was called Mr Meldrum, a real gentleman. Some afternoons he would ask me to read to the class and I noticed that sometimes he would have forty winks whilst I read. I was to learn years later that the reason he was tired was because he had been on Warden Duty all night.
As it was war time everything was in short supply and sometimes we were all given powdered milk and chocolate to take home. Everyone had to take their Gas masks to school with them. We had a great big playing field to play on but we hated it when the siren which was erected above Miss Gibsons office sounded.
During the winter it was hard work to get to and from school walking through the snow when it was deep, but we were allowed to keep our coats on in class to keep warm. We were each given one third of a pint of milk in a small bottle which we put on the heater so we had warm milk for break time.
It was recently reported that children in the UK are now suffering with a lack of vitamin D due to spending only one hour outside. We have a generation of children growing up in a tech dominated world. Ten years olds don’t want toys for Christmas now, they want expensive I-phones. This led me to wonder just how different this world will be when I am 80, (if i live that long). How advanced will our grandchildren’s lives be? I grew up in the 80’s. We had the landline telephone, the telephone on the corner and letters to keep in touch. I grew up in an age free from Social Media, YouTube and Google – we could meet people just once and never see them again, one wrong digit given or turning up to a meeting place late meant we could lose touch with new friends easily.
Now it is difficult not to be in touch, We wake up to our friends, we go to bed with our friends, we even have sex with our friends, without even being physically near them. As much as we are in touch all day every day, somehow, we have become more isolated, Lost in an online world where a thumbs up icon becomes our validation, occurrence of harm. Stranger Danger, risk of being hit by a car and a general anxiety of our children being in danger has stopped them from being able to grow into fully rounded adults. I hear stories of children having their first solo trip out on the day they start secondary school, fearful to catch a bus because they have always been chaperoned by well-meaning parents. My childhood, like my Grandmas, was spent roaming. Gangs of kids heading to the woods, the local lake, or the building sites free from six-foot fencing. Today when children are allowed the same freedom they are viewed very differently. Playing on a building site which yes looking back was probably dangerous, is now viewed as a criminal offence of trespassing. My grandma talks of scrumping for apples – if children were to do this today it would be classed as theft or anti-social behaviour, worthy of an ASBO.
I listen to debates around children’s behaviour, the loud condemnation of youth crime and kids beyond control and I cannot help but think, our kids are not doing anything differently to the children of my Grandmas generation. Instead of childhood adventures we now see children as out of control criminals. This begs the question, in an age where we can flick a switch for all our basic needs, where we have technological slaves such as ALEXA and SIRI, are we truly enjoying our worlds? My grandma talks about poverty, yet she is rich with such memories, the traditions she passes on such as searching hedgerows for free fruit are traditions we may see die out, replaced by a VR game in which we pick pixelated fruits. Free from the air, free from the sun and slowly leaving reality until it too could become something we as Grandmas write in a little red book.
I wake up in the morning, throw on a dressing gown and make my way to the kitchen, at the flick of a switch I have hot water, heating and the makings of a strong cup of coffee. The kids shout through to turn the heating up, burrowed down in thick duvets, clad in fluffy ‘onesies’. After reading the news online, I only have to walk a few steps to enjoy a hot shower, towels warming on the radiator. Breakfast comes from the fridge, packaged to keep fresh. As the household rises the only complaint is where all the socks are. One needs trainer socks, one needs thicker for Doc Martin comfort. They all take turns to brush their teeth, wash and get dressed. Coats hang in the airing cupboard to dry after a washing machine wash.
We are having a day out, where I pay for them to jump on trampolines. I moan about the price of the matching jumping socks needed but I’m happy that I have managed to get them away from their screens for a few hours, even if they sit with headphones and Ipads in the back seat of my car. My son has an imprint of headphones in his hair which won’t comb out, my daughter walks to the venue doing random Tik Tok dance moves. When we meet up with friends, selfies, group photos and check ins are all needed. We all wear coloured wristbands to ensure our safety. Whatever that means. Once food and drinks and pounds for machines in which you can experience a hurricane whilst Dennis thunders outside are all consumed, the adults talk about how they need a food shop, pack ups are needed for the next week, bus fares are needed for the few miles to school, because it’s just not safe for kids to walk.
When I compare how my life looks to my Grandmas, I feel grateful that I have never known the fear of an air raid siren, that I have never felt hunger because of rationed food, yet, I feel that with these experiences my children do not have these deep, rich memories that my Grandma has.
I cannot imagine that any factory would allow children to climb the machines. When I read my Grandmas account I could not help but smile at the idea of Health and Safety. As she says, nobody told them off for playing on the railway sleepers – maybe we have lost the idea of kids just being kids, I can imagine how a headline would read now “ Parent flouts fishing licence rules and allows kids to play with HR2”. We now live with a fear of risk. Lost is the adventure.