I’m currently at work on a book set during the Second World War at it’s bought home to me just how tangible that was when I was a child. Born in the mid 50s, the war – it was always The War, as if there could have been no other – was the defining event of my parents’ generation, understandably. It had been a global conflict, one that involved both sexes as women worked or served in the forces. In terms of damage, Leeds escaped relatively lightly, with just nine raids and a few dozen dead. We were lucky.
But the sense of the war was quite tangible to me. There was an air raid shelter at the bottom of our garden. Not the hump-backed Anderson shelter, but one dun into the earth, brick walls and a concrete roof that must have been a foot thick. Steps down, a trench running to the other fence, it had a corridor and a single dark room. It scared the hell out of me; my father used to throw the grass clippings in there.
It simply reinforced what was in the comics boys read. Not just the obvious war one like Commando (which appeared monthly, I think). It was there in the weeklies, too, our brave boys against them. The Jerries. The Nips. For someone born nine years after the Second World War ended, it seemed as if the idea of it would never vanished. Men still talk about the war they had, and ‘a good war’ was a fairly common phrase. We played with toy guns. We played war (although, to be fair, we also played Cowboys and Indians, Robin Hood, Crusades – but all imply that good guy/bad guy dynamic).
People say that the Baby Boomers were the luckiest generation. Maybe that’s true. In Britain, at least, my generation never had to go and fight somewhere. We had the benefits of the Welfare State and the opportunity of greater education than any before us.
Sometimes, though, it feels as if we were luckier in other ways. We’re the generation caught betwixt and between the way England was and the brave new world it’s still trying to be. I spent a fair bit of my childhood in a 1930s semi-detached house. Very comfortable, yes. But the only possible heat upstairs was a fireplace in my parent’s bedroom, and that was only lit when someone was ill. In a middle-class house I scraped frost off the inside of my bedroom window on a winter’s morning. Fireplace in the dining room that also served to heat the back burner in the kitchen, which probably hadn’t been updated since the house was built. One more fireplace in the front room. Lit for company or on Sundays when my father went in there to write.
That wasn’t deprivation. It was perfectly normal, and better than the housing many families had. It’s only looking back that England seems like a country on the brink of poverty them. So much hadn’t changed over the decades that went before. Until the heights of secondary education, boys had to wear shorts to school, and the winter of 62’3 was one of the coldest on record. We did it; there was no choice. It didn’t make us harder or tougher. It was simply how things were.
There are plenty of other examples. This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, though, rather a realisation that when I write about Leeds in the 1940s, or in the 1890s for the Tom Harper books, they’re not as far away from my own young years as they probably should be. We moved on, and I’m very glad we did.
Yet at the same I’m somehow glad to be part of the bridge between then and now. It gives me an understanding of the past I might not have managed in the same way otherwise. That’s the real luck of it all. At least to me.