Do you remember playing in East End streets free of traffic? The days when children could play out on their local road free from fears of muggers or sexual molestation? If you do you’re probably recalling a 1960s’ childhood … or you think you are.
Simon Webb’s fascinating new book* opens with the declaration that “this book is not intended to be…an exercise in demythologising or debunking, rather [to] give a more rounded and balanced portrait of children’s lives in the East End of half a century ago”. In fact, it’s all of those things, and is the more entertaining for doing just that, as the author painstakingly takes apart some of the myths clouding our received version of history. His tools? Commonsense, his own memories and (not always the case in local history books) some solid research and hard facts.
We begin in a world which, although only 50 years away, is almost totally unrecognisable. To quote the famous opening lines of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” And how different it was – trolleybuses, steam trains and black and white telly (if you had one). A land where everybody smoked all the time, be it on the tube or in a hospital ward. A land where murderers were hanged, black faces were rare and few of us had phones let alone mobile ones (so used phone boxes instead).
Foreign then, but not necessarily better. Webb admits to finding “the mythology of childhood in the East End…at odds with my own recollections”, and diving into the records he establishes that his memory is the more reliable guide. Take those safe and traffic-free streets for instance. Although there were far fewer vehicles on the roads in 1961, ten times as many children were killed in traffic accidents than in 2010. We should also remember that cars were built like tin cans and seatbelts were a rarity.
And if you lived in a working class area, you were far MORE likely to die in an accident. The children of manual workers were much more liable to die from house fires or car crashes, and the child mortality rate was even more shocking. A decade or so into the new NHS, which should have evened things up between rich and poor, and the percentage of babies dying before their first birthday in East London compared with figures in the developing world today.
Then there are those innocent childhood games. Hopscotch always get a mention in memoirs of sun-soaked cockney childhood, but Simon moves briskly on to Last One Across, where boys would race across a busy road or railway line, ideally (though not unfailingly) beating the onrushing truck or train. Today those kids would be getting their adrenaline rush at Alton Towers or Thorpe Park – just as thrilling but unlikely to be fatal.
East End boys of the early 1960s might well have recognised some of their pastimes in the pages of the Just William books (popular for more than 40 years at this point). Simon remembers airguns and catapults being routinely carried; and almost as routinely, there were trips to hospital, lost eyes and permanent scarring. Then there was a boy at Simon’s school – who built a bomb from bangers one November. Returning to investigate why his bomb had failed to explode, he arrived just as it did so – removing his hand.
With leaky gas fires, yet-to-be-eradicated diseases and a meagre diet, it seems things weren’t much safer at home. We should mention those lead toys which slipped so easily into infants’ mouths. But lest we give the impression that the East End of the early sixties was a sepia-tinted death trap both indoors and out, Simon reminds us that there was much about this simpler and less organised age to admire. Children’s services may not have existed in any coherent form, but it was a given that – on your estate or street – all the children were ‘parented’ (or at least watched over) by all the adults.
And while modern families have an enormous wealth of consumer goods, the difficulty of affording luxuries in the sixties (let alone the lack of any luxuries to be had) meant they were all the more prized. The received mythology is that we all saved industriously in the sixties, living within our means, while drowning in credit. The truth is that today we’re likely to buy that iPod or digital camera outright; half a century ago we were buying our pushbikes and record players on hire purchase, ‘the never never’. God help the clumsy child who broke the radio that still wasn’t paid for. The television, meanwhile, would likely be rented.
In a pervese way, it’s reassuring to remind ourselves that people have always thought that things were getting worse. The 1960s had its moral panics about children’s reading matter. The Children and Young People (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 had tried to stem the flood of lurid and disturbing comics, but go into any East End newsagent and you would find racked Sinister Tales, Creepy Worlds and Tales from the Crypt. And there have always been hysterical crusades about pop musicians and their lyrics, from Elvis through the Rolling Stones and on. To quote another wise head who had seen it all before: “Never ask: ‘Oh why were things so much better in the old days?’ It’s not an intelligent question!” That’s Ecclesiastes, from the second century BC. Rose-tinted spectacles, it seems, have always been around.
*A 1960s East End Childhood by Simon Webb. Published by The History Press, www.thehistorypress.co.uk. £7.99.