The War and class

The world of my childhood was on my mind this Christmas. We were with my mother in the house in which I was born and photographs of my father as a young man were everywhere. I am also reading Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish, a memoir and meditation on old age and spent some time talking to an old family friend who straddles the generations between me and my parents. I was born only twelve years after the war ended – a blink in terms of a lifetime and less than it is now between us and 9/11. The war was the central, massive and dominating event in my parents’ lives – and certainly of my childhood. I am a soixant-huitard – an adult of the sixties – but also a child of the war that touched indirectly everything of that time.

The early sixties were still grey and frugal. It had much more in common with the austerity of the immediate post-war period than the hippy hedonism of the early seventies. The village in which I was bought up in rural Leicestershire was approached by three gated roads and electricity had only arrived there eight years before I was born. Almost everyone was employed in agriculture and the number of elderly spinsters was remarkable: they had lost their prospective husbands in the First World War. As we drove to school in the morning, listening to the Light Programe on the wireless, our neighbour would be walking with a bale of hay on a pitchfork over his shoulder to feed his sheep. He had neither a car nor a tractor. War comics – trash mags – were my preferred reading. Every adult had been involved, if only as a child, in one or both wars and their language and attitudes were shaped by it. Military rank and record were the measure of status: a ‘good war’ was a guarantee of respect and its antithesis, ‘a bad war’, whispered behind hands and an invisible mark of Cain.

Class-consciousness was woven into the fabric of life at that time in a way that my children literally cannot comprehend: they don’t have the antennae that, if we weren’t born with, we imbibed with our mothers’ milk. Everyone was put in a box by dress and speech. A misplaced vowel or the wrong tie condemned as ‘non U’ or ‘common’ in a way that could never be understood now by anyone under forty (well, almost anyone – there are pockets left, but only pockets). It was a caste system where everyone had their place and if they forgot it they were reminded by slights and put-downs. It was another country – one where homosexuality was illegal. Whatever was good about that time – and there were many things – obsession with class was a real cancer that had no good side. It twisted peoples’ lives both for those on the way down in their genteel poverty, and those on their way up who found their way up blocked by all sorts of glass ceilings. There are still, of course, terrible inequalities and a widening gulf between those with money and education and those without. But it’s not the same thing.


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