An Epoch In The Making (Part One)

Recently, at the Labour Party Conference, leader, Ed Miliband, appealed to our sense of family and belonging. 'One Nation' was the thrust of his delivery. We must all pull together. Everyone has a part to play. Everyone matters.

It was fine rhetoric, the sentiment full of abstract merit – who could argue with it? - but I'd like him to understand that the world has changed since our common enemy was Hitler (as his Polish Jewish parents knew all too well.) Our enemies are now our own bankers, corporates, politicians, arms dealers, the impulse to acquire that gives no rest, creates goals and horizons that fight each other and makes the poor poorer, the homeless squatters in sheds and run-down garages, the aged deprived of respect, compassion and adequate care.

The truth is that I actually remember 'One Nation', at least its closing chapters. I remember a shared ethical vision where folk were were more conscious of their responsibilities than their rights. Certainly, there has been a welcome sea change in some of our values. We are less inclined to be harshly judgmental. But you have to admire the fortitude of past generations who were not prepared to think of themselves as hard done by in adverse circumstances. There is so much mileage in that sort of pride. It paves the way to a hopeful future and refuses to burden others.

I feel fortunate to have been born in the middle of the last century. The world had suffered two World Wars to end all wars. Surely the human race would not hazard such abominations again.

In November, 1947, our Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, married Prince Philip of Greece. In its way, that wedding was just as heartwarming and symbolic for the nation as any royal event since, as film footage attests. Rueful mutterings about a privileged monarchy would have been unthinkable. They were years of austerity and there was a spirit of determination to cobble together some species of normality from the wreckage. People relied on cinema newsreels, else conjured their pictures from the wireless and purchased illustrated books and magazines with a loyalty and fervour undiminished by the call upon their purse. Every home had them, the same books about the Windsors, about God and the Bible, the same classic staples of children's literature from two centuries or more.

Very early on, I remember poring over the magical coloured photographs of the occasion, the bride in her embroidered, pearl encrusted gown and the figured diaphanous train spread upon the crimson-carpeted steps at Buckingham Palace, the handsome naval officer in full braided regalia at her side. As a bridesmaid myself, aged three, at an aunt's wedding, I was sure the Maid of Honour behind me, whose name was Margaret, was Princess Elizabeth's sister. They told me she wasn't, but I didn't believe them. We all had our dreams and they somehow had more substance than dreams do today. My mother, for instance, wore a hat that was an exact replica of Princess Elizabeth's 'going away' hat. She wore it with a crisp Windsor-checked suit and satin blouse edged with lace. We had prospects better than many, perhaps, but at that point we were poor as church mice and her home-tailoring skills were well-exercised. She was the same height and figure as Princess Elizabeth and throughout her life liked to think of herself as an arbiter of fashion.

Queen Mary (May of Teck) was still alive then. I remember her in long buttoned coats and tall hats, like fabric coronets, in the News Chronicle which was the newspaper favoured by our spinster neighbour, who might take me into her stone-floored parlour and produce her last crimson Empire apple secreted in newspaper from a lugubrious dark sideboard and polish it on her apron before holding it under my nose. She made viscous lemonade cordial in a big stoneware flagon. It made you wince, however palely diluted, despite the patiently amassed sugar coupons that had supplied its manufacture.

We grew our own fruit and vegetables. Bottled fruit, conserves, chutneys and pickled onions lined our larder shelves. We made pies, cakes and soda breads (without yeast) and knew how to stretch our jams with swede or marrow to go further for the winter.

I mention Constance because she figured strongly in my earliest years, imparting all manner of charitable wisdom and instructing me in the domestic arts as well as the world of nature. “Least said, soonest mended,” she would say. “It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” She taught me to identify and love the wild flowers and garden plants I now consider not only as balm for the soul but sources of therapy in a holistic world. In many ways, Constance had had a sad life. She had gone into service at a tender age and found herself in a 'delicate state' of her employer. I'm not clear on the circumstances, which were only whispered years later, but Constance was despatched to a distant mother-and-baby home, a place of censorious discipline, and had to give up her son for adoption soon after his birth. She was covertly scarred by it and wore her shame with an air of meek fortitude, unable to trust the male sex. Yet her strength of character was deeply implicit. She had a kind face with downy skin, like a peach, and silver-threaded brown hair. It was always confined in a bun and wisps would escape and pins slither out when she hoed her patch. I remember how young she looked when she let it all down to wash it at the yellow Belfast sink and lingered afterwards in the sunshine and breeze to let it dry.

Constance kept house for her engineer brother, a saturnine fellow who found children tiresome, until he took up, quite late in life, with a woman two villages away and left to marry and start a family of his own. I can see her now on her knees with his tough denim boiler suit spread over the undulating brick floor of her kitchen, lathering his tough denim boiler suit with Sunlight soap and scraping the slurry off with a blunt knife before it went into the kitchen copper to be boiled in suds created with a bar of soap and a cheese-grater.

Men had fought for their country in trench, jungle and desert, men were the breadwinners, the prime holders of mortgage agreements. Way had to be made for them and their interests served.

But soon came the birth-pangs of the nuclear unit, the breakup of family and community, those naturally supportive structures. After prolonged conflict, the (overwhelming) bias was towards progress and growth on all fronts, a striving for independence, affluence, education, new opportunities, democracy, choice...

Sadly, for Constance and me, my parents who had been saving hard to put down a deposit on a brand new home of their own, decided it was time to move on when I was seven. It was kept a tight secret until the very last minute as my mother laboured under the punishing conviction that disaster lurked around every corner, which might mysteriously reflect upon our moral character. I was forbidden to tell Constance, who knew everyone in the village...

My first home, then, red brick.