An Epoch In The Making (Part Two)


Follows from Part One...

To be honest - even though it meant losing daily contact with Constance - I was sort of excited to be embarking on a new adventure in another part of the county. We were leaving behind the rented cottage full of strange shadows and atmospheres, dominated at the front by a mighty kiln-red brick wall. That had a subliminal effect as powerful as anything in Cold War Berlin. But my lips were sealed, on pain of reprisals, until the day I was briefed to break the news at the eleventh hour, the afternoon before we moved out. I weep now at how cruel that was, that Constance's feelings were not consulted, that the idea creeping in of keeping yourself to yourself, and minding your own business, was deemed a virtue. Independence was running to extremes, creating a paradox that offloaded any but a merely courteous consideration of others.

It was during the autumn that the axe fell. Constance had climbed a ladder to pick apples. She steadied herself among the rustling branches, looked at me sideways and said something wry. Clearly, she thought it was a made-up tale. A tease. Or romancing, as my mother used to say when people spoke truths she didn't want to hear. Constance stepped carefully down, went into her house and closed the door, the galvanised bucket of good apples salvaged against the half-rotten windfalls. How was I to understand that somehow carefree innocence was lost for ever. I was too young to understand that I was the second child she had lost.

I hardly ever saw Constance after that. She came to visit us, a journey involving three buses which took about an hour and a half in all. There were cards and periodic letters, but it just wasn't the same, and though she was still kind, there was something a little stiff and guarded in her manner. She had been betrayed. However, by chance, or the workings of karma, I caught up with her many years later and was able to whisper my last goodbyes as she lay dying in a cottage hospital, her eyes as bright as a field mouse to the last. She would never know how greatly she impacted my life and how much I now feel I owe her.

We moved to the fine new house. What luxury to choose the colour of my bedroom before we moved in. Did I want blossom pink? Or fondant green? But even there, we had no central heating. I remember my mother rootling about up the chimney for the lever above the open fire upon which fumy coke (then, not illegal) was burned (unless we had guests when it was coal or logs) or, in summer, by an immersion heater in the airing cupboard, the fire dangerously drawn to leaping flames by yesterday's broadsheet, my father's Daily Telegraph. Frost still wove patterns all over the panes in winter. There was no dispersing to private rooms. Families huddled together in the living room for warmth where sewing, reading, drinking tea, chatting, knitting, hobbies and homework, all went on in the same space.

People were intensely conscious of our national life.They would sit on the edge of their faded tapestried chairs listening to the News in times of crisis or particular interest. The Suez Crisis, stories of Burgess, Maclean and Philby, who had had betrayed their country in a pact with the devil. The sacrifices of war were still fresh in the memory and these conspiritors were uniformly reviled.

Public sympathy was strong for Princess Margaret who sacrificed her future with the divorced equerry, Peter Townsend, on the altar of Christian tradition and national stability. Whatever our private convictions, the Mosaic Code and the Gospels were the yardsticks by which our laws and ethics were measured.

Almost everything shut down on Sundays and whether people attended church or not, the day was spent in a leisurely fashion, in the company of those who mattered most. On Christmas Day, we sat down as one nation to our dinner at 1.00pm so that we'd finish in time for the Queen's Speech at 3.00 on the radio, or television. Most homes had acquired a 'box' at the time of the Coronation. It sat, Buddha-like, in the corner of the room, contemplating the virtual mythology it was about to bind in with our history as lived. It gave out pronouncements and new perspectives on the world, nothing recorded, everything live. Some models were awesome items of interior architecture, glossy as conkers, with 'roll-top' doors, plus radio and record-playing facilities in a heavy drawer underneath. Technology might have been ground-breaking, but it didn't bend our ideas of aesthetics. We knew what we wanted of manufacturers.

Our mothers took a pride in homemaking. Those who had part-time jobs - and many were professionals - saw them as subservient to domestic interests and harmony at home. Paternalism still held sway and the authority of the chief breadwinner was not to be challenged. There were no high-flyers in those days and the term 'glass ceiling' had yet to be coined. Women had proved their mettle during the Wars, but the Government in its wisdom saw family as the foundation and building-blocks of a strong society and was keen to create a climate in which it could thrive, albeit that neighbourhood networks were breaking up in a bid for rapid prosperity.

Frankly, by the late sixties, the women of the rising generation did not know whether they were supposed to be virgins or sirens, a dichotomy well-exploited by the makers of the new wave of anxiolytics, who were in the vanguard of perception-altering and biologically-altering substances that would pave the way to New Jerusalem. They were readily available via the National Health Service, by then, well-established. The term 'hang-up' came into currency. A passage from one of my novels (which awaits editing) references this, although the major cause of anxiety in this case was a by-product of the general repression concerning sexuality.

'So, after a baptism of horror into wedded life, they slipped into a tacit collusion of celibacy which, in some respects, served to ease matters rather than the reverse. While Annabel assumed that this would change as they grew more used to each other, Godfrey could only offer the future a blank stare. Conversely, he flaunted Annabel like a jewel, commanded centre stage with all the aplomb of Olivier purveying the soul of romance. Perplexingly for her, while this was going on, his colleagues were making shameless advances the moment his back was turned. What sort of woman did they think she was? Clearly, she was giving the wrong signals and must adopt a more guarded manner, though nothing could have been further from her mind than a dalliance. While he was showing off in public, far from feeling valued, Annabel's self-esteem began to crumble: her womanhood was cheapened. Yet there was something intensely familiar about the dual role and she did not question it. It felt right, veering safely away from the grain of her personality.

Godfrey didn't see anything amiss and glibly put everything down to women’s problems and inherited angst. He said that a number of fellows he knew had wives on Librium and that he had read somewhere it was the upshot of the explosive new era. Nice young women who hadn’t been brought up to 'swing' were expected to turn into free-thinking, free-wheeling, Pill-popping Mata Haris overnight. This article maintained that students and educators could not gorge themselves silly on Freud, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson without expecting an epidemic of terminal indigestion.' be continued in Part Three