With apologies to Marcel Proust for stealing his title, I confess to a lot of time spent in remembrance of things past. Not just lately, but for much of my life. Even as a man in my twenties, I constantly reflected on my childhood, and my early school years, developing a habit of looking back that I never lost. I was caught up in a chain of nostalgia, from which I found it difficult to escape. When I got to secondary school, I pined for my primary school, and less pressure. Once I left school and started work, I really regretted leaving education, and thought about those last few years at school with great fondness. Every job seemed better than the one that followed it, and I managed to conveniently forget my reasons for wanting to move on in the first place.
During a convivial dinner party that we were hosting during the late 1970s, I was asked by a guest, “If you could choose to live anywhere, where would that be?” I replied without hesitation, “In my past, I was happy there.” This was a thoughtless remark, most unflattering to my wife at the time of course, and left an uncomfortable atmosphere at the table. After many moves, broken marriages, and failed relationships, I still carried this obsession with me, like an unwanted blemish. I convinced myself repeatedly that things were better ‘then’, whenever that was. I had taken the natural tendency for fond reminiscence, and turned it into a philosophy.
I have now moved away from London, retired from work, and married for the third time. It has taken over sixty years for me to shake off this unhealthy desire to spend my life looking back, and to take off the rose-tinted glasses that I habitually wore when doing so. I cannot deny that a part of me still looks back. The difference is that I now do so with a much more considered and realistic eye. Standing back from the personal recollections, I can see things as an observer might, and realise that it was all far from rosy. It is so simple to remember good things, and put away the less attractive aspects of a past life into a sealed compartment in your mind. Time to open it up; it is long overdue.
Primary school was not great. Inkwells, strict teachers, rote learning, and hard discipline, including being caned. Being made to stand in a corner, cleaning blackboards, or awaiting the pleasure of the head teacher, nervously perched on a chair outside their office. Gangs in the playground; choose the wrong side, and suffer for it. Do well in lessons, and though you may receive the praise of teacher, you are derided by your less academic class-mates. Secondary school was a great improvement, I was very lucky there. But it wasn’t for everyone. Be a little educationally backward, have unfortunate physical features, or fail to be accepted in a group, and you had a lonely and depressing life. Run the gauntlet of the kids from the ‘tough’ schools on the way home; get your uniform torn, or your cap and bag thrown over the railway line. The bad parts often overshadowed the good. Less pleasurable memories, easy to discard.
And it was always cold in winter. Homes heated by one coal fire, sometimes supplemented by smelly paraffin heaters. Pipes frozen, hot water scarce, and legs and fingers freezing in clothing inadequate for protection. The air quality was so poor, that we often had to wear smog masks for the short trips to and from school. One outside toilet provided for two families sharing a house. Using this in all weathers, perched on a high seat, terrified of the huge spiders, trying to go as fast as possible. Baths once a week, in water shared by your parents; and later, shivering in bed, yearning for sleep to make you forget the cold. Life for the working classes was predestined. Years of hard labour, followed by an early death for most of the men. They sought refuge from hardship in cigarettes and alcohol, and unbridled pleasure at the weekends. There were lots of widows then; not so many now, at least at a young age. Home ownership was unknown, and there was little chance to escape the financial chains of your class, outside of crime. There was a general acceptance of your lot in life, and a degree of resolution that stifled hope.
Despite living in London in the so-called ‘swinging sixties’, things had not really changed a great deal since the end of the war. Except for the cinema, entertainment was mostly left to you to make it yourself. There were only two channels on the television, if you could afford one, and the only games were on flat boards, using cards and counters. There were some sports clubs and youth clubs, the Cubs and Scouts, Brownies and Guides; but they were regimented, and felt like being at school. Unlike many families, we had a car, so got to go on trips out, and an annual holiday, but it wasn’t for everyone. Work was available, and it paid just enough to keep you where you should be, without too many grand aspirations. Politicians paid little regard to the needs of the ordinary people, and the Police could do anything they wanted to you, and frequently did. Even Doctors talked to you as if you were a servant, and made you feel grateful that they had taken their valuable time to inspect your ailment. If you made it to hospital, it was one step above being in a prison. No sitting on the bed. ‘In or out but never on.’ Lights out at an early hour, no talking, and patrolling night nurses making sure that you were not disruptive.
Then came the 1970s. Workers found their voice at last, and things slowly started to change. We had moved to a house with central heating, and unlimited hot water. Colour TV arrived, and with it, a new channel. Foreign holidays became the norm, for ordinary people, on better salaries. Home ownership increased, and the middle class merged with the working class, into something that has never had a satisfactory name. This wasn’t all ideal of course. It bred conservatism, and greed for profit. There was confrontation, and the inevitable strikes. It left a legacy of fewer council homes, diminishing employment prospects, and disaffected youth. But it was still a lot better than what preceded it, take it from me. Without the romance of revolution and dissent, and that ubiquitous rose-tinted eye-wear, the reality is that the past was hard. By comparison. life is a lot easier now.
I will still reflect of course. I will often think that this or that, was better ‘then’. That is my nature. The reality is that my life was never better than it is now. I have a devoted and loving wife, a nice home in the countryside, and no work responsibilities. I live in peace and quiet for the first time in my life, and I can anticipate that my last years will be more peaceful and happier than I could ever have expected. I doubt that I will ever look back to a better time than this.