Street Life: Wish you were there?

Post-war, it was the likes of George Formby with his ‘little stick of Blackpool rock’, and the Huggett family in ‘Holiday Camp’ (1947 film) that revived appetites for the seaside.

The choice for folk like us was: a holiday camp, a boarding house or caravan. Most of my first holidays were spent at Butlin’s. The camps were to Moston as Narnia was to the real world. Compared to the post war drabness at home, the fresh and brightly painted chalets seemed modern and sophisticated. I slept in a bunk bed and ate three course meals served by a smiling, uniformed waitress – never mind that she dispensed the soup from an earthenware jug rather than a tureen.Without it running away with the spending money, children could swim, play crazy golf or enjoy one of the numerous activities organised to keep them entertained. Also for ‘free’, my parents had the choice of a variety show, or indulging their passion for dancing to an excellent band, in one of the lavish ballrooms.A week before any holiday, our solid dark blue suitcase was dusted off. Its dimensions and wooden banding meant, in a poor light, it could be mistaken for a transatlantic steamer trunk. With two of us sitting on the lid, the case could be persuaded to close on the family’s entire holiday wardrobe. My dad might have been short, but he was strong, and until we got a set of strap-on wheels, he hefted that Leviathan everywhere. Looking like an East End family on the way to pick hops, the rest of us trailed in his wake with our worldly essentials (buckets, spades and comics) poking out of shoulder bags.

For men in particular, holidays meant freedom to wear comfortable clothing of their own (or their wife’s) choosing. My granddad’s normal work attire was trilby, suit and tie. His version of holiday chic was what he called ‘a jockey cap and duster jacket’. Dad favoured coloured shirts, shorts and sandals. If it wasn’t actually raining, I seem to recall spending most days in a pea green, elasticated swimming costume, plus canvas shoes that were permanently full of sand.Travelling to a holiday destination meant a train, coach or (best of all) a ferry. Our most ‘novel’ journey was to Wales during a rail strike. In order that nobody would miss out on their precious week away, every vehicle, no matter its age, was pressed into service. The ancient coach we travelled in was just about adequate on the flat, but when the going got steep, the able bodied had to disembark and walk. In case the bus escaped back downhill if the engine stalled, the men carried large stones to place behind the wheels.Without doubt, my best travel memories were of the Isle of Man ferry. You could sit on deck or lie about in the saloon on a day bed with tasselled, sausage shaped cushions.

Two incidents, the stuff of family legend, occurred on the crossing to the IOM. The first was when a seagull let go its enormous ‘bomb load’ on great grandma Polly’s best black hat. Years later, granddad and I left to check on the lifeboats, prior to going below for an inspection of the engines. After discharging our duties, we returned to find my sister, then aged 4, tucking into an ice cream. It had been bought to stop her screaming, following dad’s attempts to extract her head from one of the port holes without amputating her ears in the process.

From our sea front boarding house in Douglas, we only had to cross the road to get on to the sands. For a couple of pennies, you could travel 1.6 miles on a horse-drawn, ‘toast rack’ tram. We took buses all over the island, but once I mastered reading, the nearby beach shop kept me happily occupied. Some part of each day would find me perusing the extremely saucy and non-PC McGill postcards. For evenings, there was a cinema next door, and a theatre within walking distance.Last year, in the name of security, I was treated to an airport body search. Suddenly it made those uncomplicated childhood holidays look positively idyllic – if you don’t count sunburn, insect bites and sand-filled underwear, that is.

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Street Life: You’ll grow into it…

In common with so many other aspects of our lives, fifties children had no say in what they wore. For much of the year, our parents seemed to prefer us layered like the prize in a game of pass the parcel. Sleeves down to the wrist, necklines up to the chin, and long socks which met the hems of skirts or shorts.

I can only assume that the practice of making children ‘grow into’ their clothes was somehow perceived as character building. In my experience, the moment a garment started to fit, it was handed down to a younger sibling or cousin, to grow into in their turn.

Retro fashion may be ‘in’, but the quantity of unlovely underwear regarded as essential would horrify today’s children.

Back then, leaving the house without a vest was considered tantamount to a death sentence.

For children, vests were sleeveless cotton in summer and itchy wool in winter.

I imagine the loose fitting underpants boys wore were considerably more comfortable than girls’ drawers with that circulation-stopping elastic in the leg.

Liberty bodices kept youngsters of both sexes warm throughout the fifties. The garment was first introduced by the 19th century ‘Rational Clothing Movement’ as an alternative to boned stays (corsets). The innovation had the added benefit of liberating girls from the combinations my grandmother was forced to wear.The mention of liberty bodices will almost certainly evoke a memory of soft, sticky rubber buttons. The wooden rollers on mangles were notorious for destroying rigid buttons, so rubber was a good substitute (in theory).

In the interests of equality, the layer represented by a girl’s full length winceyette underskirt, was matched by the sleeveless pullover boys wore on top of a shirt.

Both sexes wore knee length woollen winter stockings which required garters to keep them up. In summer it was ankle socks (white for girls) worn with crepe sole, T-bar sandals or pumps (known locally as gollies).

As a shy child, the anonymity of a compulsory uniform suited me. From the age of seven I went to school in a navy serge, box pleated gym slip and white cotton blouse. Ties, girdles and stripes at the hem of navy cardigans, varied in colour according to which ‘house’ we belonged to. Our hats were threepenny bit shaped and, like the non-compulsory blazer, were purple.For school, boys usually wore grey or blue shirts and worsted shorts, until they graduated to long trousers in their early teens. I’m reliably informed that in winter, cold, wet legs were rubbed red raw by the coarse fabric of those shorts.

The garment most universally hated by all kids was the full length gabardine mac. It didn’t keep us dry, and certainly wasn’t warm enough in winter.

It’s possible the working classes were introduced to the idea of ‘best’ clothes by the custom of Whit walks. Mine were bought at C & A’s January sales, but it would have been regarded as sacrilegious to put them on before Whit Sunday.

With the exception of woollen bonnets or balaclava helmets, children’s headwear was singularly useless for keeping hair dry or ears warm. It must therefore be assumed that hats were strictly for show, or in my case for ridicule.

‘Where did you get that ‘at’, would have been an appropriate signature tune for me. I can still recall the torture of going to Sunday school in a cherry red monstrosity shaped like a dustbin lid, Or even worse, the pink one resembling an inverted po.Adults, and my mother in particular, failed to appreciate that chucking girls’ hats on to tall hedges was a favourite pastime of local boys. The lace or white cotton gloves we wore for best, didn’t stand up well to scrabbling through privets. But it was either that or go home bare headed to face the wrath of my hat-obsessed parent.

My sister started school in 1957, and her age group were about the first to benefit from the relaxation of the rigid rules about how children should be dressed. She escaped the torment of ‘orrible ‘ats. Sadly it was too late for me, and I bear the mental scars to this day.

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Street Life: Food, Glorious Food!

When the industrial revolution began, men, women and children flooded into Manchester seeking work. They found themselves in one up/one down dwellings or multi tenanted houses where the only cooking facility was a pot set on an open fire.

For centuries it was vegetables, barley, suet pastry, pulses and, above all, bread that filled hungry bellies. Punitive Corn Laws that made wheat bread too expensive for workers forced them to subsist on oatcake or Waterloo porridge (oatmeal, water and salt, with perhaps a bit of cheese, red herring or bacon on a Sunday.

Although potatoes came to Britain in the late 16th century, it was some time before the poor came to rely on them as a staple food. By the time workers’ houses had cooking ranges, potatoes and cheaper cuts of meat were the basis of good plain meals still being eaten in the 1950s. But there were exceptions to every rule.In 1907 my Nana (aged 13) went from Collyhurst to London Road on foot every day. After 10 hours machining football shirts, she came home, collected a basin and set off to buy ‘a tuppeny mix’ (vegetables and potatoes) for her tea. Despite her mother’s poor example, Nana became an excellent cook.Meat and potato pie, like Nana used to make!

Once rationing finished, pre-war favourites like meat and potato pie, soup with bacon ribs or ham shank, neck chops, breast of lamb, fried plaice and pot roasted brisket made a return. At home we had something called ‘fat cake’ which nobody else seems to have heard of. It was a sort of plain scone mixture bound together with melted butter and baked in the oven on greaseproof paper.When we lived with my grandparents, the larder always contained a large jam tart or fruit pie – fresh fruit in summer (winberry was favourite) and raisins or sultanas in winter. Homemade cakes were coconut, fruit or parkin – all delicious, as was Nana’s treacle toffee.

Apart from milk puddings and custard tart, such desserts as we had came out of a tin. Peaches, pineapple chunks or fruit salad was served with evaporated milk or tinned cream (not to be confused with condensed milk). As far as I recall, I never tasted fresh cream until the late 50s, and it was a revelation after the horrible tinned stuff.

I speak from bitter experience when I say that rose coloured spectacles couldn’t make me nostalgic for the tinned Spam or waterlogged vegetables we ate when mum took on the cooking, when we moved to New Moston. She was the sort of cook who put the Christmas sprouts on to simmer in November.Many households relied on ‘the chippy’ for a ready to eat meal. However there were one or two things that could almost be called convenience foods. My granddad’s favourites were black pudding with plenty of fat and the kind of dark tripe that looked like a filthy wash leather. The rest of us contented ourselves with pies, crumpets or pikelets.Black tripe – Grandad’s favourite!

Nowadays it’s almost impossible to imagine how limited the food horizons used to be, especially for the non-meat eaters. Our school cookery lessons only included one vegetarian dish, and that was nut cutlet. Thanks to ingredients unknown 60 years ago, having a vegan or ‘free from’ friend round for tea isn’t the challenge it used to be.

But what I would like to know is why trendy ‘foodies’ have been allowed to claim they invented ‘slow food’? Their gentrification of our traditional dishes has made bacon ribs, oxtail, belly pork and breast of lamb more expensive per pound than a roasting joint.

And while you may find good old sausage and mash on the menu in a gastro pub, it’s more likely to come with a ‘jus’ than simple brown gravy. It seems beer is now obligatory in fish batter and, for all I know, there might be Ovaltine in the soup to give it ‘hipster’ appeal. What’s more, don’t be surprised if your meal arrives on a hub cap with the side order of chips in a plant pot!Next time you pop something in the microwave, spare a thought for those fifties housewives. With the most basic facilities, and only a few shillings left from the week’s housekeeping, they managed to produce tasty meals cooked from scratch, day in, day out.

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