A Generation Betwixt And Between

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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “A Generation Betwixt And Between

  1. The fireplace in the main bedroom, lit only when someone was ill; our reliance on coal and the general lack of heating! I remember it well and have written two fifties set stories incorporating the topics. I used to know an old man in Leeds when I first arrived here in the 70s who remembered standing on Meanwood ridge watching the night a ‘doodlebug’ came over. Does that sound right? My mother worked in armaments, straightening gun barrels on Enfield rifles. She said her were used for shooting round bends!

  2. It’s possible a V-1 came over, as I’ve seen one mention of a doodlebug landing near Dewsbury – that’s all I can find, though. I can actually remember the smell and bright red glow of the two-bar electric fire we sometimes put on if things were really bad. I guess the lack of heat makes it understandable that my mother knitted so many sweaters.

  3. I’ve often have similar thoughts Chris, I was born in 52, my dad was to young to have joined up but his 5 brothers and 1 sister all saw service, even my grandad was in the homeguard. They all had stories to tell. I remember as a small child wandering around the bombed out houses and wondering who had lived there, did they survive, strange thoughts for a 7 year old.
    I remember the weight of the blankets on the bed, the smell of paraffin from the small round heater on the landing, having my hair wrapped in rags to make rinklets, listen with mother…..an endless list of the way it was. I do miss the innocence of those years but I’m glad I had them.

  4. Ah yes, Jack Frost patterns on the window panes, coal fires, paraffin heaters, eiderdowns. The only take out meal was fish and chips occasionally.
    My late father was a glider pilot, he never mentioned the war, ever, simply said he intended to never leave Cornwall again.
    The good times and the bad, let’s not forget the dentists’ drill

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