You know those anxiety dreams where you just miss the bus, or the train? Story of my life.
I just missed out on a lot of things. I just missed out on the War. I just missed out on rock and roll, I just missed out on being a hippie and I just missed out on all that New Age mumbo-jumbo: all the stuff I would have been interested in, all the stuff I really needed to know. Just my luck.
The War – I was born a few years too late. I arrived, and was instantly labelled a Baby Boomer, and the minute they give you a label you cease to be anything else. Worldwide, around eighty million human beings may have been lost between 1939 and 1945 during ‘the deadliest military conflict in history’. This estimate includes not just soldiers but civilians, those who died from war-related disease and famine and the prisoners of war who died in captivity. Post-war, young marrieds everywhere did their patriotic duty, whether they were aware of it or not, labouring (literally) to restore the balance. The result was a tidal wave of babies, a lumpy, unmanageable and now increasingly unpopular ‘bulge’ in the population stats, destined to become the hippies of the sixties and seventies. Through no fault of their own they are now, or will shortly be, clogging up our monstrous, overspent, inefficient National Health Service and forcing the younger generation to work harder and harder in order to generate enough taxes to keep everything going.
Like most women in those days, Mum and Nan were Housewives, totally dependent on their men for money; their role – to stay home, clean, tidy and replenish the house, do the cooking, washing-up, laundry and shopping, raise any children and Keep Young & Beautiful. This was in order that their husbands, coming home from a hard day’s work, should not – as a result of a spreading waistline, the odd curler still a-dangle, unshapely eyebrows or a lack of careful make-up – be tempted to Stray. However, I don’t think all the women in those days minded it all that much, and I can understand why. As a stay-at-home Mum you can exercise your creativity through cooking, crafts and childcare, quite apart from being able to take up hobbies, raid the library or write novels, if so inclined.
I find the idea financial dependence on a man – or anyone – pretty nearly unbearable, but that’s just me. Bit of a Wild Thing. I’m not sure what a Wild Thing is, but it sounds good. I’d rather be as poor as a church mouse (as indeed I am) than hand to a man the power to decide, arbitrarily and without any significant knowledge of grocery shopping, how much housekeeping I ‘deserve’ at the end of each week; then have to scrimp and save out of that to buy myself headscarf or a second-hand book, or see a film. As you can tell, feminism was the one thing I wasn’t too late for.
That being said, I envy the way women in those days had at least leisure to chat, listen to the radio and generally be themselves. Had I been able to stomach the ‘kept woman’ scenario – or been able to bear children, in which case I would have had no choice – I might have written more, and sooner, but I doubt if I would have written well. I would have missed out on the lifetime of learning, loss, muddle, fear, friends, struggle, chance encounters, odd jobs, strange bedfellows – some of them very strange – weird and appalling experiences, Getting By and Making Do Somehow – I now have to write about.
I got to hear quite a lot about the War, via the conversations that went on over my head while Mum and Nan were sitting in the kitchen, knitting. It was lucky for me that they lived at either end of the same street and would meet up several times a day. Grown-ups forget about children, if the children can manage to be forgettable enough. Once – I must have been throwing a tantrum – my mother called me a Prima Donna. I had to ask her what it meant, and was actually quite pleased when she explained. It was a step up from Diffident or Unaffectionate Child, Impossible Baby to Cuddle, etc. Being Diffident etc etc did have its advantages: I overheard a lot.
I heard about having to eat horsemeat, and what you could make from a blackout curtain or parachute silk. I heard about bombed buildings, and babies sleeping undisturbed in their cots, found amid the rubble. Under the kitchen table, hugging my little scabby knees to my chest, I heard about Nan’s experiences running a NAAFI canteen in Swindon in the War, and how they put the cabbage on to boil at ten in the morning and it was like seaweed by dinner time (and she had to throw the rice pudding out). I heard about Mum being evacuated to Wales to live in a cottage with Miners, and being forced to empty the chamber pots by the grand family in a country house near Canterbury, while my uncle was given the job of filling the coal-scuttle. I heard about painting your legs with gravy-browning when you didn’t have stockings, and drawing a line up the back to look like a seam. Maybe everyone is fascinated by the decade just before they were born. I went on to read as much about it as I could, and devoured all the Mass Observation books, made up of contemporary diary entries, or ‘reports’ sent in by ordinary people.
And then I just missed out on the original wave of American folk music, blues and rock and roll. I was just too late for Elvis – or rather he was still around but I saw no point in him. I probably wouldn’t even have realised I’d missed out, except that I married a man nine years my senior. Suddenly I was listening to his records, and to him singing and playing the guitar. This was my introduction to blues, folk and classical music. And even then I didn’t fully appreciate all that I’d missed, musically, still being contaminated with The Beatles, The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers and all that sort of stuff. Ironically, long after husband and I were no longer an item I began to listen to that music again on my own account, and take an interest in classical music.
And then I just missed out on being a hippie. Oh, my mother thought I was a hippie, but that was because I never evinced much of an interest in wearing make-up (particularly eyebrow-pencil) a Playtex girdle or frilly blouses, or having my hair nicely permed. But I wasn’t – not really. I was certainly a bit on the shabby side because my tiny Tech College grant meant I had to buy my couture at Oxfam, but I was a few months – maybe even a year – too late. It had all happened, somehow, it had all jingled and jangled its way off into the rainbow-coloured sunset. And I was timid. I never experimented with LSD or smoked a reefer; I never danced in the sunshine at a festival or went to San Francisco wearing flowers in my hair. But doesn’t it look fun? Why wasn’t I there, Oh, why wasn’t I?
As it was, Free Love entirely passed me by. I went steady with a Maths student, half-Austrian and several inches shorter than me. He went off to teacher training college and so, abortively, did I – in another town. End of.
In the common-room some Hendrix look-alike practised what sounded like pretty good riffs all day, but how would I know? In the refectory I was stridden past (I’m groping dimly for the Past Perfect Progressive, or whatever that tense is, of strode past – help me out, someone…) by skinny, long-haired art students in eccentric hats, uncompromising tee shirts, big boots and scarecrow jackets. I was filled with admiration but for some reason I couldn’t actually be one of them, and was as invisible to them as I had been to Mum and Nan under the kitchen table.
And yet I think I am a natural hippie. For me it has never gone away, a way of thinking and being that I never got to manifest at the time. The ‘eighties went, and the ‘nineties, and I began at last to hear about and – thanks to Amazon – obtain copies of books on particle physics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Zen, mysticism – anything that caught my eye – that were being written as I was being born and labelled a Baby Boomer; when I was a child at school; a teenager failing to play table tennis with the boys at Youth Club; a student and almost a hippie; an unhappy wife. One book led to another – sometimes I read several at once – and I started to see the connections between things – the way one academic discipline morphs into another, the way New Age becomes, imperceptibly, Science – the way it all adds up – the way people far apart in time and space can be approaching the same conclusion from different directions. I also became addicted to Amazon and second-hand paperbacks, which was ruinous to my finances. The postman/lady turned up every other day with yet another cardboard package, jiffy bag or brown-paper parcel – or sometimes a stack of them held together with elastic bands. I made notes, I made connections, I wondered, I thought about Stuff. Without realising it, I was knitting my own degree.