Anna Dusseau | 24th April 2020
Grandpa Bob isn’t your average octogenarian. A hangliding, homebrewing, pak-choi-kenobi who only recently ditched the ponytail, he is more likely to recommend a good book or tell a bawdy joke than complain about his joints. Which could be why I called him this week.
Floundering in the midst of global health and economic tailspin, it seems like we are all clutching for handholds and Grandpa Bob, having grown up in postwar East London (nowhere near as trendy back in 1940), I thought could provide some illuminating insights into crisis parenting for multitasking millennials. I was wrong. Or at least, I was wrong about setting this out as the objective for the interview. Old people don’t help anyone, do they? They think – and rightly so – fuck ’em. Perhaps that’s a history lesson in itself.
AD: What was a typical day like when you were a child?
GB: A typical day? Okay, let me think. I was five years old at the end of World War Two and, at that time, it was too dangerous to play outside, so my mother kept me in a lot. By the time I was six, I would be going out with the other boys, playing amid the damaged buildings and debris, you know? It was dangerous. We were obviously told not to, but we went anyway. We used to get shouted at a lot. Shouted at and whacked. Adults whacked kids all the time back then; I mean, you didn’t even know them sometimes. Still, we’d go to the dangerous places and muck about collecting rubble in bags, making things out of what we found, sometimes tree climbing or scrumping. Which we also got in trouble for.
AD: Right. Isn’t that illegal? Well, never mind. Did you have any toys or games back then?
GB: Well, yeah. I mean, people had no money where I grew up, so not much if I’m being honest, but..let me see. I loved train sets and one year, I got this clockwork Hornby. That was fantastic. I was into model aircraft, too, which was very time consuming. There wasn’t a lot pitched specifically at kids back then; it was, you know, quite technical. Reading, of course. I was a voracious reader and my parents both encouraged me. Books mostly, but also comics. They were popular. My grandmother lived in the flat downstairs and she was one of the first people in the street to have a TV. It was the size of a shoebox, if you can imagine. Black and white. Amazing, absolutely amazing. It sounds strange to say that now. We’d all pile round it and watch Muffin the Mule.
AD: So do you have any favourite memories of childhood?
GB: Well, Christmas is always good, isn’t it? Fancy food – ha ha. Roast chicken once a year. It wasn’t all that bad but yeah, I guess there was Christmas. My father worked for British Railways for a bit, so we would sometimes go on holiday to Devon, which was a real treat. We’d stay in a bed and breakfast, then get back on the train to London the next day. I would have been – what – ten years old then? I remember visiting Canvey Island. That was good. I was pretty lucky, really.
AD: That sounds really nice.
GB: It was. Life was simpler in some respects. Milk was delivered to every property by this cheery milkman with his horse drawn milk float. I was six or seven, and would sometimes be allowed to give the horse a piece of bread. The milk would be left at the front door if nobody was at home, and if left for more than a few minutes, you would find that the birds had pecked through the foil top and drunk a lot of cream from the bottle. Because there was always cream on top, and the birds knew it.
AD: You went to school though, right? Or were you a chimney sweep?
GB: I was not a chimney sweep and yes, I did go to school on and off. It was a different time back then, girl. My first day at Sandringham Road Primary School, I got delivered into the classroom by my mother – no preparation or anything – and handed over to the teacher. It was bedlam; kids shouting and crying, and the teacher trying to cope on her own. I sneaked out and ran home. The writing was on the wall, really. I hated school.
AD: Yeah, that definitely wouldn’t happen now. They have gates and buzzers. Other than that, it sounds familiar to be honest. Teaching is tough.
GB: I know, but this was also postwar London and I can tell you Harold Road Secondary School was awful too. There were two gangs in the school, run by the ‘big’ boys and I learned very quickly that it was safer to be in a gang than not; that way I only had to fear being caught alone by the opposing gang. I was simply playing the odds and it worked most of the time.
AD: Mmm-hmm. I’m listening. Its just you sound like some of the kids from my form group a few years ago.
GB: I don’t doubt it. In the 40s though probably fifty per cent of our teachers had seen combat in the Second World War before coming to ‘teach’ us. They were tough guys and crap teachers, I mean quite obviously. My best friend and I used to write covering notes for each other when we were truanting, until we realised that nobody really cared or missed us, so we didn’t go at all for the last nine or ten months. I really enjoyed that time.
AD: Wow! Study leave..
GB: Not really.
AD: Well, okay then. Moving on, why don’t you tell me about the first children’s book that caught your imagination?
GB: Definitely The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I was a big reader, did I mention that?
AD: You did.
GB: Yeah, I read just about anything I could get my hands on, but The Faraway Tree was something else. Just magical. I guess I might have been seven or eight when I first read it. Such escapism! The Land of Sweets! And the battles at the end. It stuck with me, you know?
AD: We love The Faraway Tree too, actually. Sorry, dad.. YOU TWO, STOP IT! JUST STOP IT! NO! NOOOO! JUST.. oh. Well, carry on. Okay, my last question.
GB: Fire away.
AD: Do you think childhood has changed nowadays, compared to when you were young?
GB: Yes and no.
AD: That’s helpful. Could you be more specific?
GB: It kind of depends on what family you’re growing up in and a whole host of circumstances. But, you know, I’ll tell you a story because you’ll find this funny. My grandmother was the first person to have a TV on our street and then, the first person to have colour TV. Very expensive to have a colour TV in those days, so do you know what people used to do instead? They would have this plastic screen which you stuck on the front of your TV and it had three different colours running running horizontally. Colour TV! Incredible, no?
AD: Incredibly unrelated to my question, if that’s what you mean. But look, thanks dad. Ummmm.. the kids have a couple of final questions if you don’t mind.
AD: Your granddaughter wants to know, did you have a swing?
GB: Yes. My father put one up in the back yard. It had limited stability, though, so you couldn’t swing for very long!
AD: Did you have goggles? This seems important to middle child.
AD: Did you poo in a bucket? Whaaaat? I’m just asking the questions they’ve written down here.
AD: Right, one more. What’s that, middle child? He wants to know, did you have Egyptians?
GB: Yes. There have always been Egyptians. Seriously, Anna, what are you teaching them?
AD: Ancient Egyptians, then? Sorry.
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