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Reflections on my first thirty years. Part II.



A Fortnightly Serial.



II.The changing context of my first thirty years


The physical world

Ishall leave on one side my first five years in India, partly because they were very different from my later life, partly because I remember hardly anything about them. So let me briefly contrast the physical world of 1947, coming back to the UK from India just after the coldest winter in England in the twentieth century, and the world as I experienced it in a small Yorkshire cottage twenty-five years later in 1971.

Life in the house changed a great deal. One way was in heating. At the start, all the heating I experienced came from open fires, usually burning coal, and, at school, a few tepid radiators. We huddled round fires and leapt out of bed in the morning in the icy. cold. By the end, many houses had their own central heating and gas was becoming common. In our Lakeland home from 1955 we had a magnificent solid-fuel Aga in the kitchen. Portable electric fires still played an important part right to the end, but the iciness I remember in my first eighteen years, particularly with the deliberate policy of open windows and minimal heating at Sedbergh school, was vanishing.

The same fairly rapid improvement came with furnishings. The upright, uncomfortable chairs and sofas, the hard beds and thin bedding, the mostly bare floors, the rough surfaces, gave way through these years to improvements in all of these, and I expect the lighting, curtains and decorations improved greatly too. So an interior of a house was much more luxurious by 1971 than it had been twenty-five years before. Even the toilet paper moved from hard and brittle ‘Bronco’ and its like to softer and cheaper. This was the era of the arrival of disposable nappies, invented in 1948.

The same was true of clothing. Styles, of course, changed immensely, and the fashions of the late 1950’s and 1960’s with the cultural revolution of that time, most famously around design, new fabrics and colours, mini-skirts etc, are immense. The deeper changes was that the new materials for making clothes and shoes and greater affluence meant that by the end I was much more comfortably dressed than I had been at the start.

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Another revolution was in cleaning equipment. At the start, a woman’s life, in particular, was one of considerable drudgery, particularly in cleaning the house and in interminable washing of clothes and bedding. I was reminded of this drudgery when I went to Nepal on fieldwork in 1969 and went back to hand-washing. In the 1950s the huge work-saving developments in hoovers and in clothes washers and dryers, and later in dish-washers (though I don’t think we ever took to them) occurred. For those who could not afford or did not want a clothes washer and tumble dryer, there were laundrettes. Visits to a laundrette with fish and chips afterwards, was a weekly ritual in our family up until the early eighties.

Behind all this were revolutionary developments in the discovery of new materials – formica, polystyrene, and plastics of all kinds. These, with the great improvements in fridges and later in deep freezes, made it possible to store food, keep surfaces clean, and organize daily life much better. The early years in Dorset were dominated by bottling fruit and storing vegetables to preserve them. This all rapidly faded away and became more of a hobby than a necessity.

Which takes us to food. Rationing did not end until July 1954 and even after it ended the school regimes at the Dragon and Sedbergh, institutional cooking, meant that we never suffered real hunger, but were sometimes hungry and often fairly unattracted to the food we were offered and tried to supplement it through ‘tuck’ and other devices. The food was often monotonous and unexciting, concentrating on the old English cuisine of over-cooked, boiled, meats and vegetables, unpleasant puddings and very little spicing.

The situation improved year by year so that by the 1960s at University, the food was reasonable, though I do remember becoming a vegetarian in my second year partly because the food in the first year was boring.

As yet, the year-long inflow of foodstuffs from all over the world, sent by air or in refrigeration, had not occurred, so it was mainly home-grown and with little variation. There was little in the way of food from other societies. Continental food, the pizza or croissant, was largely unknown, let alone Indian, Chinese or Mexican. There were hardly any restaurants from these places even when I arrived in Cambridge in 1971 and the food in College at that time was not very exciting – a world away from the wonderful choices at the cafeteria in King’s nowadays.

Finally, in terms of drink, I hardly touched any alcohol until I went to Oxford. I still remember the shock of my first good wine at the age of nearly nineteen. I suppose I must have sipped ginger wine or sherry, my grandmother’s tipples, at Christmas, and perhaps had a little beer with my father. But I don’t remember it. The pleasures of the glass were ahead of us.

The economic world

AT THE NATIONAL level, these twenty-five years saw an immense change, summarized by Macmillan’s famous pronouncement in 1957 ‘You’ve never had it so good’. In 1947, the country was desperately shrunken by the war effort and the need to repay American war loans. Everyone seemed to be struggling and pictures from that time show real misery, in some ways worse than during the war itself.

Nationally, things seemed to improve at an ever-increasing rate, from the mid 1950s. These boom years before the crash of the early 1970s, were from about 1958 to 1970, or so it feels looking back. It may be that statistics will show something else, but I remember economic optimism. At university, for example, I was not worried about getting a reasonably paid job and living comfortably if I wished to do so at the end of my courses. The world seemed to be expanding, lead by the obvious and amazing affluence of the US, but spreading out all around us in the various technologies and new opportunities, for holidays, for gadgets, for small luxuries which are encountered in the accounts.

This was the national picture, one which enabled me to get an almost free education through twelve years and four degrees at Oxford and London – something unthinkable now – as well as enabling the funding of the new NHS, new and better pay and pensions, new roads and railways. It was not quite as dramatic as what has happened in China in the last 25 years, but it was a surge of wealth which affected us all.

My parents, however, were not able to ride this wave very satisfactorily. Their own parents, my grandparents, were living on fixed pensions and never owned a house or car after they retired. Though a Lieutenant-Colonel, my grandfather lived a life of shabby gentility, and without the cooperation of my parents — and later my uncle and my wife and I — my grandmother would have been nearly destitute.

My own parents’ letters are filled with money worries. It was partly that they were not great money managers. When a windfall came along they tended to spend it all and my father hated to talk or think about money. Yet it was much more a structural matter.

Firstly, the bonanza days of the tea industry were over after the war and their pay in rupees was not great when converted to pounds. Their pay did not really increase in line with inflation, and this applied also to their pensions. They could live grandly in Assam, but when they returned from leave, found themselves struggling, often miserably.

All this was hugely exacerbated by the cost of our education. Fiona and Anne were at less expensive schools and  for shorter periods than I, for my mother, to save money, home-educated Anne. Fiona was at University but less expensively than me. It was my education that really crippled them. My school fees for the Dragon and Sedbergh over ten years devoured a good chunk of the money they could send home (and we all had to be kept in the holidays living with my grandparents). Even at Oxford, for five years they supported me substantially by topping up my grants.

Fortunately they had bought the Lake District house in 1955 and sold it later at a profit and downsized to the Yorkshire cottage and a Hebridean croft. Yet the mortgage of that house, plus our fees and clothing and food, was enough to make them continually worried. They largely shielded me from all this anxiety and it is only now that I know the full extent of their sacrifice for me, starting from when I was very young. They were both enormously generous and caring and did what they could.

So these twenty-five years are nationally the boom time, from austerity to affluence, and it is a time when all this, alongside new technologies, effected a vast revolution in our daily lives, changing the way we felt and thought at all levels.

Communications technology

ONE OF THE most obvious ways in which life changed was in terms of communications, a result of increasing wealth and new inventions. There were the physical communications of locomotion. The trains were nationalized in 1954 and longer distance journeys became cheaper. Cheap bus services sprang up and increasingly we travelled between cities by bus. Preston bus station, for some reason, is etched in my memory and my mother was a great bus traveller, enjoying both the company and the relative cheapness.

We could not really afford taxis, which were considered a huge luxury, and I hardly remember travelling in them except in an emergency. Bicycles were particularly important in the flat south, where I lived until I was twelve, but they were less useful in the hilly north and it was only when I bought a motorbike at sixteen that I was liberated again.

The car revolution was perhaps the biggest change. Our family had cars and jeeps in India from the time my father went to a tea garden in 1945. We never owned a car in England until my parents retired in 1965. The first family car I remember was my uncle Richard’s, pictured with me in the driving seat in about 1954. My parents did hire a car on their leaves, partly because of status, partly because our fairly remote Lakeland home made a car very desirable. Yet those who remember those times will know that cities were largely car-free in the 1950’s, but suddenly the motorways appeared, with the M1 in 1959. Car ownership became widespread, and the modern car-infested world was born.

Cars also made family holidays much easier. We never dreamt of going aboard for family holidays, partly the expenses, but also because Scotland was where we wanted to be – especially my father. We had family, roots and memories there and could go cheaply.

As for air communications, we can see the rapid development of this. I flew out to India in 1953 for a holiday, for example, though stopping frequently. Long-haul flights shrunk the world rapidly and would reduce postal times as well.

Equally important were other communication changes. The radio, or, as we called it, ‘the wireless’, was hugely important to us for the comedy (Ray’s a Laugh, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, The Goon Show), for dramas (Dick Barton Special Agent, etc.) and for music, both popular (the latest Broadway musicals), and from my late teens, for classical music. The importance of the radio never faded, but from the 1960’s in our family it was supplemented by television.

I think the first TV I watched was in a mass audience at the Dragon school for the Coronation of 1953. In the next few years we would go to richer friends’ houses to watch the TV until we bought our own in August 1957. The TV revolution was obviously part of the impetus behind the Pop and Rock revolution of the later 1950’s, as with various hit parades, where the effect was multiplied by the new coffee bars and ‘Juke boxes’.

It was supplemented by the revolution in record players and recording devices. I vividly remember my first vinyl player, ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ with Tab Hunter on the back lawn at Field Head in the version we bought in 1957. In school we had ‘EP’ or extended play recordings at 45 revolutions per minute rather than 78rpm discs, and soon after, long-playing 33rpm discs. There were better amplifiers and, of course, the guitars were far more powerful when they became electric. It was the generation defined by skiffle and the Beatles.

The interpersonal communications also shifted quite rapidly. It is difficult to remember those pre-internet ages and to remember that until the 1960s a family such as ours did not even have a telephone in the house. Even when we moved to Cambridge in 1971 home phones were not commonplace and we did not have one in our fenland home until the 1980s. The first time we had one in our Lakeland home was in 1956. They were considered expensive and we were encouraged to keep our conversations as short as possible and long-distance calls abroad were largely out of the question.

In emergency, the telegram was used and I remember certain key moments or events, birthdays and weddings, were made special by the arrival of a telegram announcing some triumph or disaster. Mostly, however, you wrote and waited for letters — hence the major contents of the volumes I am editing.

And so you had time to read books, or earlier comics. There was a publishing revolution in this period. At the comic book level it was the great hey-day of Beano, Dandy and Eagle. In newspapers, the popular and magazine press. And in books the arrival of very cheap paperbacks, epitomised by Penguin, suddenly made books affordable. We used libraries much more and there was even a mobile library coming to Field head. Yet it was only rally from about the age of sixteen, around 1958, as I had enough pocket money, that I started to amass a few books. By the time I came to Cambridge in 1971, I must have had library of a maximum of a thousand books, probably less. It is now ten times that size.


MANY PEOPLE ARE unaware that the second great medical revolution of modern times occurred precisely in twenty-five years. The first had been the discovery, in the second half of the nineteenth century, of the causes of many of the worst epidemic and endemic disease, facilitated by new microscopes. These included cholera, dysentery, typhoid, bubonic plague and malaria. There was also a huge improvement in midwifery and the immunisation of children.

The second revolution was centred on the discovery of a range of medicines for dealing with many minor illnesses as well as the life-threatening diseases of older age. These centred on the antibiotics, most famously penicillin (discovered in 1928), including the sulphonamides.

The new antibiotics played a significant part in the Second World War (and my life was saved by one of them as a baby in Assam). Yet it was in the twenty-five years after the war that they were rolled out to the mass of the population. This was greatly enhanced in Britain by the huge organizational change embodied in the founding of the National Health Service in 1948. This, coupled with a free dental service, meant that everyone had access to free medical care in the rapidly growing world of new hospitals and more doctors and nurses.

We see the shift from a world where we have two ages – the first age of training, the second of work, and then death, to the three ages, training, work and a long retirement.

The result of this was the first half of a demographic revolution. Up to the end of the war, the British population’s expectation of life for women was about 68 and men was 64. By 1970 it had increased by about six years for each, and since then has increased again by another ten years or more. In other words, we see the shift from a world where we have two ages – the first age of training, the second of work, and then death, to the three ages, training, work and a long retirement. This is now happening all over the world and we are trying to come to terms with it.

My own health experience reflected these major shifts, which were also greatly affected by the improvements in housing, diet, clothing and other things earlier mentioned. I am astonished to see how many minor illnesses I suffered from until about 1955. Many of us had measles, chicken-pox, whooping cough, mumps, scarlet fever, influenza. Our bodies were covered with chilblains, chaps, veruccas, impetigo, boils and other painful things. They were accepted as normal.

Now I see that through the Sedbergh years they became less common and by the end of the 1960’s a school such as the Dragon would have been appalled if its children had suffered the kind of recurrent illnesses we endure.

So we live beyond a medical and demographic watershed, with good dentistry, the expectation of an active life into our eighties, with pain killers and medicines for much minor illness.


AT THE INTERNATIONAL level, obviously the great shift was from the pre-war supremacy of the British to the dominance of the United States as the new top power from 1945. Alongside this, there was the polarization of the world with the Cold War, symbolized by the Berlin Blockade (1948), the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the Cuba missile crisis of 1962 and, at the end, the Vietnam War.

One part of the relative decline of Britain was obviously the end of Empire. I lived my first five years within the largest possession of the largest Empire in history. The year I returned to England in 1947, India gained its independence. From then the dominoes fell quickly, with the Suez crisis ten years later marking the beginning of the final chapter. I am surprised to see that even in the later 1950s at Sedbergh we were being encouraged to think about possible jobs in Africa, but Sedbergh was behind the times. The whole world of colonial training in the schools to which I had gone was over. My parents in Assam were ‘staying on’ and within five years of their retirement in 1965, the Assam Tea Company had been bought by an Indian company.

At the national level the political shifts were equally dramatic. After the end of the war, a new party, Labour, gained power for the first time and brought in a programme of social reforms — the National Health Service, Pensions, minimum wages, Trades Union legislation, nationalization of key institutions such as the railways and coal mines. This has set the tone for the years since.

The outstanding drift of the subsequent twenty-five years seems to have been from a deferential, Tory, male-dominated, middle-aged world with the Queen still highly visible, to a more questioning, rebellious, radical, contested form of politics. The swing reached its height in my years at the London School of Economics in 1966-8, with the anti-Vietnam War movement and the student protests and activism.

In my own personal life I mirror the shift. I remember being passionately behind the Conservative party at the Dragon school in the elections of 1951. By my last year at Sedbergh in 1959 I stood as the Labour candidate in our mock elections. At the LSE, though I did not take part in the demonstrations, I was a member of CND, strongly opposed to the American policy in Vietnam and a supporter of Labour. Even at Oxford from the 1960s, I had belonged to a number of left-of-centre and liberal clubs and even, as a joke, joined the Communist Society (not to be confused with the Party) though I never attended any meetings.


LOOKING BACK, THIS period seems to have been equally a watershed socially. In terms of class relations, it was the last period when there could be said to be a real working-class. The agricultural labourers had evaporated in the later nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century and from 1945, tractors and machinery finally replaced them so that the older world of Lark Rise to Candleford, Akenfield and Thomas Hardy were gone. Yet the coal mines and the factories staggered on, even if competition from abroad and new technologies were already undermining an edifice which would collapse rapidly from the late 1970’s and largely be gone within ten years of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.

Yet though the three-fold structure of working, middle and upper classes remained formally in place, the balances and the degree of mobility between the gradations were constantly changing. New-made money and sports and pop culture success catapulted people up the system and there were vociferous challenges to the continued rule of the old landed elite. There were new educational paths, particularly a period of highly successful grammar schools, which opened up the universities. The youth rebellions of the later 1960s were again the extreme point and culmination of a period when all the certainties of class which my grandparents and parents had known were challenged. It became increasingly difficult to know who was from what class and the possibility for moving up the ladders became greater.

Likewise there were massive changes in gender and sexual relations. With gender, women could now take degrees even at Cambridge and from the 1960s the feminist movement took hold. Women emerged in the cultural, political and business fields prominently for the first time and centuries of assumption of male dominance were challenged. The spread of the contraceptive pill from the early 1960s, the easing of the restrictions on divorce, the abolition of the crime of homosexuality in 1967, the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, were all both signs and causes of a huge shift in society and opinion.

All this went alongside a decline in formal religion where the hold of the Christian church began its rapid decline. Also the ethnic composition of the population began to change with the arrival of Jamaican immigrants on the Windrush in 1948 and increasing immigration from the former British Empire in the East. It started gradually, with a rise from four to six percent in foreign-born residents between 1951 and 1971, but it was shifting.

So we were all having to adapt to very substantial social changes, alongside the material, economic, technological and political. All this was expressed and exacerbated by a revolution in the cultural life of the country between 1947 and 1971, in both the ‘high’ and the ‘popular’ arts.


WE CAN FORMALLY distinguish high or elite culture – opera, drama, poetry, novels – from popular or ‘pop’ culture, particularly rock music. Yet one of the features of this very period is that the earlier line between these were increasingly blurred. For example, the ‘Rock’ poets of the 1960s, or the ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramatists of the later 1950s, let alone comedy and pop music, all crossed the borders.

What is certain, though I had not fully realized it until I studied my life, was what a vast change occurred in the middle of this period, roughly for 1956 to 1960, from ‘Rock Around the Clock’  and ‘Room at the Top’, through to the height of the Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan.

Before 1955, my first eight years in England, I still lived in the age of the catchy melodies of the American musicals, the homely humour of Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, the traditional children’s stories of Wind in the Willows and Arthur Ransome.

From around 1956 onwards, it began to change rapidly. Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, Elvis Presley and rock, later the Beatles, grabbed not only me but also, as the documents show, my parents. American folk music, Joan Baez for example, also conquered us. We had become part of the ‘scene’ and I even started my own skiffle group.

The world of poetry and literature also changed. The likes of the Liverpool ‘beat’ poets Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten in poetry, the dramatist John Osborne and Look Back in Anger, Colin Wilson and ‘The Outsider’ and a little later the French existentialists, Jean Cocteau and new worlds of films from abroad, as well as a new wave of children’s stories with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. All these are markers of the change.

It was expressed in new fashions – Twiggy, Mary Quant, Carnaby Street, the miniskirt and bikini. It was for some, though not for me, expressed in experiments with drugs – LSD and hashish. It was shown in retro-movements, the Teddy Boys, the Rockers and their mopeds.

It is difficult to recapture the sense of liberation and excitement. The old, established, pompous, hierarchical, were ridiculed in television and radio — That Was the Week That Was, Monty Python, the Fringe theatre. New sounds, sights, tastes from around the world and particularly America impinged on us. Even our language changed and we learnt new words – rave, beat, groovy, hip.

So by the time my first learning period finished at the age of thirty I had grown my hair longer and longer and then it began to stabilize. For the tide had reached its furthest height. We little knew, that the hopeful surge would start to recede again from the time of the Oil Crisis of 1973, the Three-Day Week and economic turbulence.

In terms of our experience of cultural communications there would not be another such burst until the spread of the Internet revolution in the period 2000-2009, with new social media and smart phones. The ten years after the millennium has cut us off from the period from 1956 to 2000, in the same way as the 1956-65 revolution separates us from the world of Victorian and Edwardian England.

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012.

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