Short Stories

The Silent Generation

I was born in England in 1941, one of the Silent Generation that preceded the Baby Boomers.

Our generation has been subjected to phenomenal change and it hasn’t always been easy to accept and adapt to it.  Life as we know it will continue to change but surely at a slower pace than the last 80 years.

I would have been about 7 or 8 years old before we got electricity into our house and I remember the gas lights with the small fragile mantles.

We didn’t have television but we had a radio that was driven by accumulators – acid batteries.  I would take them every Saturday to the local garage/petrol station around the corner to be swapped with batteries that had been recharged – for a fee of course.  We would listen to the Top Twenty on a Sunday evening, Wilfred Pickles, Workers Playtime, Educating Archie, Mrs Dales Diaries and Journey into Space – among others.

We didn’t have a car.  If we needed to go somewhere, we went by public transport, or we rode our bikes – if we had one, or we walked.

The Internet, personal computers, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so on – not even a dream on the horizon.  Thank God we didn’t have Social Media then as we know it today.

Sportsmen such as footballers and cricketers all had day jobs.  They weren’t professional sportsmen.

We didn’t have a telephone.  If we needed to ring someone, we walked to the nearest telephone box on a street corner and made the call from there. There was often a queue outside the telephone box while one was making a call and it was a bit off-putting trying to hold a conversation when there were people waiting outside, sometimes impatiently.  Then again, another reason people were found waiting outside a telephone box was because they were waiting for a phone call.  Each telephone box had its own unique number and could be phoned into.  So people would arrange to phone each other at an agreed time and then wait outside the box till the phone rang.

Many people lived in two up two down terrace houses, each with a small rear garden and a front garden the size of a postage stamp, many with a small rickety seat built for two by the front door.  On warm summer evenings, the residents of the houses would sit outside gossiping with their neighbours while keeping an eye on the happenings in the street.  ‘It ‘aint fair,’ we would moan, ‘you can’t get away with nothing round here, there’s always some old nosy parker watching us and shouting that they’ll tell our mum and dad.’

On Sunday afternoons while we lazed in front of the fire digesting our dinner and listening to comedy programmes on the radio, we waited for the sound of a hand bell being rung outside in the street. As it began to clang, the ladies in the houses would grab a basin and hurry out to a tiny old man wearing a padded flat cap with a large tray balanced on his head. The tray had straps and when he lifted it down, the straps stayed around his neck making him look like a cinema usherette, but instead of ice cream the tray held winkles. A pint basin-full cost sixpence.  In the summer the winkle man sold muffins instead.  The ice cream man had a bicycle with a box on the front. The ice cream was stored in dry ice to keep it cold. He would ring his bicycle bell and shout as loud as he could and was mobbed when it was hot.

There was a greengrocer who plied his trade from the back of his cream coloured farm cart, his scruffy piebald horse eating from a bag of oats pulled tightly over its face. It often left a nice pile of manure on the road. It was dangerous to go too near the horse’s hooves and cartwheels and we would get shouted at if we forgot, but no-one shouted when a grown up darted around the back of the horse and happily scooped up the steaming heap!

During the war, two big dustbins were put out in our street for leftover cooked and raw food. The scraps would help feed pigs, which in turn would help the war effort. Even when the war had been over for a few years, the bins were still there and the scraps were collected by Charlie Martin for his pigs. Charlie drove a pony and a home-made cart styled after a Roman chariot. His heavily ‘brylcreemed’ black hair was brushed straight back and his face and hands were a deep golden brown from being outside all the time. He always wore a clean shirt but held his grey flannel trousers up with a tie or a piece of rope, and we never saw him in anything but turned down Wellington (gum) boots. Every couple of days he drove into our street at a fast trot and emptied the bins. Although Charlie was friendly and waved to us, we didn’t hang around him because the bins and his cart smelt even in the cold weather.

The Co-op bread man had a huge black horse called Nobby. Nobby was smart. Some days he wouldn’t wait for the bread man who was chatting to the other customers at the end of the street. He would ignore his driver’s shouts to wait, and would trot down to a particular house, step onto the pavement and stand in the tiny front garden resting his nose on the front door until it was opened by the lady of the house. Then they both waited for the sweating bread man to catch up. The lady always pulled a bit of bread from the end of the bloomer loaf she had just bought and fed it to Nobby. She only bought the Co-op’s bread because of the horse.

People in those days loved to have a gamble, usually placing small bets with the local SP bookie or having a go at winning the football pools but thank goodness we were never subjected to the dreadful tirade of betting advertisements that are everywhere today.

I am a proud product of the Silent Generation.  A generation of battlers fighting for survival after a terrible war.  We were on rationing for many years.  I recall as a young boy at primary school receiving a food parcel from Australia brought in by Don Bradman’s Australian cricket team in 1948.

Life wasn’t easy but we survived.  I sometimes wonder how much easier it would have been if we had the technology then that we have today.  But if I could turn the clock back, I wouldn’t change anything.  Life may have been difficult but it was uncomplicated.  We didn’t have McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets and pubs had a strict code regarding children.  The only ads we saw were in the newspapers.  Meals were very simple but Sunday was usually a roast of some sort with potatoes and vegetables plus Yorkshire pudding if it was roast beef.  Monday – naturally – was shepherd’s pie using up the leftovers from Sunday – if there were any.

We grew up in a different world, a world where most people rented their houses; where a man expected to work for the same company for life; a world where homosexuality was a crime punishable by a jail term. Although it was fairly safe to go to a public toilet, I was trapped in one on one occasion by a pervert.  I was also sexually assaulted on another occasion by a staff member at my local YMCA.  We formed a set of values that were relevant to those days.  But times have changed and we have moved on.

Today’s young people have their own set of values and opinions and I accept that they are entitled to that.  After all, it is their time.  We have had our time.  We have had incredible change forced on us as we have grown older.  We have become wiser and we have modified our views.  In some cases, we have had to accept things we don’t really agree with but we know it is all part of progress.

One example is homosexuality and same sex marriage. I accept both but I still have some far reaching feelings about them.  I have come a long way in accepting this and all I ask of today’s generation is to understand and respect the enormous change we have had to go through.

As I approach my 81st birthday, I look back over the years.  And although I had a career in Information Technology, I am constantly finding it harder now to comprehend and come to grips with the new technologies that are constantly emerging.

Although life in 1945 was a lot less traumatic than today, there were times then when we thought that George Bernard Shaw was right – life wasn’t meant to be easy!  After all, didn’t some of our ancestors have it easier with carrier pigeons and smoke signals?