ALAN FRAME peers back through the London smog in rose-tinted spectacles
Having just reached the venerable old age of three score years and ten (and feeling none the worse for it since you ask), conversation among peers invariably takes the odd detour into the past. A recent lunch with my favourite Old Etonian Paul Callan was a joy because we talked of Fleet Street in its pomp – or as Ross Benson memorably said: When we were all pissed we sold four million a day, now we are all sober the circulation is down to one and a half.
And it is the past I remember with some clarity, whereas I couldn’t reliably tell you about last week (especially the latter stages of lunch with the OE.) For instance another friend (yes, I have more than one) was talking of her childhood and asked of mine. Summarising, this is what I said:
My childhood was spent in boats bobbing about on a deep blue sea with the sun blazing down on me. The fish teeming those warm waters were simply waiting for our friendly hooks. It was idyllic.
All of which is entirely true…at least up to a point Lord Copper. The conundrum being that although that is exactly how I remember them, those summer holidays were spent in Co Antrim where the average August temperature in these days of global warming is a heady 14c so in the 1950s it must have been thermals and woolly hats all round.
But those long holidays spent with my two spinster great aunts and bachelor great uncle in Belfast were sheer bliss for a small boy. I don’t remember it raining, the sun not shining or being bored. Such is the proof that, as we get older, the memory presents its pictures through an inviting technicolour filter which excludes the harsh reality and monochrome of daily post war life.
In London where I lived with my parents except for the months of July and August, there were thick winter smogs and as a consequence old men with mufflers walked in front of buses carrying lit torches like some ancient unhealthy athlete with a series of knock-off Olympic flames. There was no television, at least not for us, no effective fridge, and bombsites were everywhere, scarring the city with Hitler’s calling cards. But as a product of 1946, just a year after hostilities ended, I knew of no other landscape and I was happy.
When we see pictures of those times on TV they are inevitably in black and white (well, black and grey more like.) In reality of course, there was colour in all our lives. The clothes we wore may not have been sixties’ psychedelia but neither were they without their palette.
I have just watched, entranced, the documentary Keith Richards: Origin of the Species in which the old boy documents his life in wartime of post war London through black and white newsreel footage up to the day, October 17 1961, when he bumped into Mick Jagger (whom he had known at a distance since they were four) and started talking about the Blues (we all know what happened next so the film ended at that point.)
Richards, being an only child as I was until I was nearly eight, remembers his happiest days as being those spent with his grandad Gus. Thus it was with me: In my case it was those long summer breaks in Ireland with my two great aunts, Agnes and Arabella, and great uncle John in the home they shared in north Belfast.
Three jolly and deeply decent Victorians, they had brought up my father from the moment he was born in 1922, a situation brought about because his mother Isabella died in childbirth having him. His grief stricken father Sam, after whom Dad was named, could not look after his new son and so the temporary responsibility fell on the siblings. Except that temporary became permanent because when grandfather remarried and suggested Dad was returned, the answerwas a firm No.
He prospered from his besotted aunts’ stand; being in effect an only child, and a hugely spoiled one at that, he was given the best education that Uncle John’s limited income would buy and from which he prospered. And like me a generation later he spent most high days and holidays in John’s succession of boats and yachts.
In the early ‘60s we moved to Co Antrim to live so my holidays with these wonderful people came to an end, though the boating and fishing trips with Uncle John didn’t. Since then I have been lucky enough to travel to all parts of the world and experienced the scenery, climate, cultures and tastes of all but one of the world’s continents.
But the fact remains that despite all that, I have never had happier holidays than those spent in cold, wet, post war Co Antrim with three people born in the latter part of the 19th century. An era when the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the world’s people, before the motor car and television, before two world wars, the vote for women, before Ireland’s final thrust for freedom, before jazz and film and rock’n’roll, and, according to Philp Larkin, before sex.
Thank God for them. And for nostalgia.