The Past is a Foreign Country

When I think back to my childhood and compare it to life today I can’t imagine how any of us thrived.   How the world has changed – Not so long ago I was sitting in my office listening to Radio 4 discussing periods, vulvas and vaginas!   I very much doubt that my parents ever discussed these things even between themselves and they certainly would never have expected to hear those words coming out of the ‘wireless’!   My father probably thought a Vulva was a Swedish car (Oh, come on!   Of course he didn’t, but you have to love the old jokes!)

According to Radio 4 people are talking more about vulvas these days – not people I know.   Why would people want to talk about this?   Are bottoms going to be the next thing – hang on a second we’re onto bowel movements.   My word, is nothing sacred?  When I was growing up these things just weren’t discussed.   My brother and I used to giggle uncontrollably about bottoms and Nanny used to say, ‘There’s nothing funny about bottoms – everyone’s got one’.   Apparently now although we all have the same parts we have to put photos up on Facebook – this is true – there is a Facebook page devoted to the vulva!   In my view they’re called private parts for a reason!    I’ve managed 76 years without looking at this subject too closely and I think I’ll keep it that way.  

And the other day it was all about pornography and masturbation.   When I was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth there was a lot more innocence about.   Of course things went on – but mostly in private.   I remember my maiden aunt (and I’m pretty sure she was a maiden in the true sense of the word) asking my father what f*** was?   She had seen it in a book with the asterisks and had no idea what it was and when my father told her the word she had no idea what it meant!   Imagine someone who had never heard that word today when it is the only adjective that some people know.

There are, of course, loads of things about modern world that are miles better.   Communication for one – keeping in touch has never been easier.   My grandchildren aged eleven and twelve have a lot of independence because of their mobile ‘phones.  They understand and use HouseParty, Zoom, Skype.    When I was young a telephone call was a big deal, in order to speak to my grandparents in Scotland at Christmas we had to book a trunk call in August!  And after all that we spent the allotted three minutes of comparing the weather in Scotland and Kent.

We had a cook – almost everyone I knew had a cook, but the tyranny of cook ruled our lives.   Breakfast was at 8.00 am – coming down after 9.00 meant no breakfast – there was no question of popping into the kitchen and making a cup of coffee!   Lunch was a 1.00, tea at 4.00 and dinner at 8.00.   And as for asking someone to lunch on the spur of the moment – we practically had to give cook a month’s notice.   And post-war food was predictably boring – avocados were an unheard of luxury only available in London restaurants.   We had a roast on Sunday with over cooked, home grown vegetables.   Rissoles made from the leftover joint, on Monday, chops on Tuesday, and so on until fish on Friday.  Puddings were either stewed fruit or rice pudding.   Half the house seemed to be taken up with bottles of preserved fruit and tomatoes.   Salad as a meal was a couple of slices of ham, a sliced hard boiled egg, bit of lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with salad cream.   But we did have fun as children running wild in the farm doing things that would give health and safety a heart attack but there were no video games or computers and the television was a small screen scarcely bigger than a cigarette packet encased in a large piece of brown furniture.   About ten minutes before the programme was about to start the doors were opened and the television was turned on to ‘warm up’.   We would sit gazing at this tiny black and white rectangle and once the programme was over it would be turned off and the doors shut again.

Everything is much more relaxed now – my grandchildren will come and talk to me while I’m having a bath, something I would never have dreamt of doing with my own grandparents, indeed I very much doubt that they had ever seen each other in the bath.   That seems to be a lovely thing – my grandchildren confide in me about all sorts of things.   On the other hand informality can be a bit disconcerting.   People I’ve never met regularly ring me up and call me by my first name and it sounds a bit pompous to ask them to all me Mrs Sykes so I let it go, but it still sounds strange.

Language is another thing that is complicated – words change their meaning, sometimes as if they were out to trap you.   When I was young there was a colour brown that you could ask for quite happily in John Lewis – yes, we did have a colour called N***** brown!  We didn’t think anything of it – I never related it to race – I didn’t know any people of another race.   I was brought up on a farm in the depths of rural England and we had a neighbour who had married a French woman – that was as exotic as it got.   At some point we started to talk about coloured people – this was meant to be polite – now they are black or people of colour, a subtle difference.   We talked about Mongols and Spastics – we didn’t mean to be offensive, they were the words in in common parlance and we didn’t know any better.   People with mental health issues were loonies.   If someone was gay (or queer as we called them) you spoke about it in hushed tones – not only was it illegal but you assumed that people were ashamed of it.   Now everyone can be who they want to be, hopefully without fear of being bullied.  I do, however, miss the word gay in its original sense.   A gay party used to be light hearted fun.  

Illegitimate children were another source of deep shame – and were usually either adopted or brought up by their grandparents believing their mother was their aunt.   And other words suddenly change – the other day I heard someone saying that a friend wearing a blue scarf made her eyes ‘pop’ – apparently this is a good thing not as when I was young an indication of a thyroid condition.  

So in order to survive old age and indeed to enjoy it we have to embrace the best of the modern world and not look back too much to bemoan the alterations – we can be as nostalgic as we like but not all changes are for the worse.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s a case of Plus ca change plus ce n’est PAS la meme chose. The changes are dramatic and take a lot of comprehending and absorbing – even the likeable ones. Let’s hope that the good changes which Corona is making will endure.


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