We lived near enough to London for visits as a treat. In those days the drive up was on single carriageway A roads, parking was no problem, and you were allowed to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
The school was an intimate, family-run business and the Headmistress would invite selected classes into her sitting room to watch momentous world events on her small black and white television. I am sure I saw several but the only one I remember with any clarity was the launching of the QE2. As we did not have radio or TV at home we relied on the papers for news. I remember bouncing on my parents bed when my father came in the room with the Daily Telegraph and said "Kennedy's dead" and they both stood silent, shocked. I carried on bouncing.
Towards the end of my Elm Green years we drove to London for one of our days out, it must have been '67 or '68. We drove through Trafalgar Square but the traffic was heavy and there were crowds of people with placards. We were trapped by the mass of people, and then realised we were between the crowd and a wall of police, some mounted. The crowd were chanting "IRA, IRA". Suddenly someone threw a metal news stand at a police horse making it rear up and nearly crash into our car. Two policemen rushed out and grabbed a man, pushed him onto our bonnet and gave him a good beating (short rubber truncheons then, not riot sticks and body armour). The crowd wanted revenge, my father wanted out. We shot off, and the side of the car took a hammering from scores of angry boots and fists. Scary enough, but how soon the Republicans lost sympathy in London. Within a short time we were entering a decade of bombing and tension, luckily I never came close to the worst of it.
Unfortunately his access lane could not accommodate the vehicles, dish and mobile cabins that were needed so they had to come down our lane, through our front garden, across the paddock having removed the fence, and into the Gibson's field. There the whole rig was set up, and the signals tested successfully. I remember going over to have a look in the trucks, where there were glowing green lights, lots of wires and some engineers having a heck of a good time with all their kit. In fact they were able to get a grainy TV picture all the way from the USA via a satellite called Early Bird. This was all part of the preparations for the 1969 Apollo moon landing.
When I was at pushchair age, my parents took me sailing in their wooden dinghy, but after a slightly risky episode they realised the danger and we didn't sail together again until very much later. But the damage was done, I had tasted the salt water.
In 1970 my father heard that the great Dock Strike had stranded a number of big liners in Southampton, so we piled into the car and drove down to the docks, where enterprising local fishermen were running sightseeing cruises. Both the original Queen Mary and Queen Elisabeth liners were there, and they were incredibly impressive.
In 1973 my father bought a wooden Norwegian fishing boat and we worked on her together to convert her into a little cruiser, in which we explored the estuaries of the Essex coast. We had no VHF radio, no chart-plotter, no GPS, no electronic anything except a depth sounder that worked with a rotating flashing light. You had to learn a lot before you ever dared cast off. Now, it is too easy to buy a boat, fill it with electronics and drive off as if it is a car. Here she is, being launched in a small dock at Maldon. You can just see me, aged 15, in flares and (yuk) two-tone shirt. I can see Dad was worrying she might not float...
Many years later, after university, a job and first house were taken care of I bought my own small boat, and I have been messing about in boats ever since. In 2006 I self-published my book "Angling Boats", which thanks to Amazon has been very popular. I have owned my boat "Salar" since 1993, and we are often spotted fishing together off the Isle of Wight.
Another treat would be a trip to Southend Airport to see a freighter take off. This happened approximately twice an hour. An alternative was Stanstead, but that could involve a wait of over an hour between planes. As an aside, Idi Amin used Stanstead at the time to fly out his personal supplies, including cases of whisky - there was a weekly "whisky run" flight that was well known locally.
Southend was fun because there was always a gaggle of anoraks on the open observation deck, listening to air traffic control on their radio sets. You could wander up to the low fence and hang over it to see the planes more closely. The one in the picture is a Bristol Freighter, run by British Air Ferries. These had noses that opened and cars could drive in - probably only a couple at a time. I think the families would sit in a cabin at the back. The planes would hop over to France - a lot quicker than the ferry, which at the time was a very time consuming affair. Goodness knows what the cost was in real terms - it must have been horrendous.
Our house had real leaded windows, which meant small individual panes were joined with lead strips. This gave the window a degree of flexibility. In the 1940's a V1 flying bomb had missed London and landed near the village with a massive explosion. The rush of air into the space created by the blast is actually stronger at a distance than the blast itself, which meant our windows all bowed outwards slightly. When we went to Chelmsford shopping, we did not need to look for a car park. There were plenty of vacant lots as a result of the bombing, which had been flattened and left ready for re-building. We just casually referred to these spaces as bomb sites.
The old village school had a large concrete air-raid shelter in the yard. One day a crane came with a huge steel ball to demolish it. We all went to watch but it took them hours just to make a few dents. There was a lot of work still going on to remove wartime structures and rebuild damaged buildings.
There had been plenty of aerial dog-fights over Essex, and when 'planes fire guns, the spent cartridge cases fall to the ground. These could often be found buried in the earth, I still have a few of various sizes.
I can't remember my mother ever buying a ready-cooked meal, apart from the treat of fish-n-chips, everything was home cooked and wholesome. Fruit and vegetables were very seasonal, particularly so as we grew a lot of our own. Choices were limited - Weetabix, cornflakes or Rice Krispies for breakfast was about as long as the list got. By comparison, choices today have gone crazy, partly because people want a lot more variety than we had, but mainly because they do short-cut cooking, where most of the ingredients are already in the packet (and probably a lot more ingredients in there than you would really want). Although I welcome the adventures in taste that we now have, I really think we have lost a lot of the emotion in cooking - Marco Pierre-White claims that preparing a meal is an act of love, (he said "luuurve") and I know that my mother expressed her love in the care she took with our meals. I don't think kids eating a stir-and-serve pasta sauce will feel the same way as we did.
With no TV to distract us, and no worries about child molesters, we were free to roam about the countryside from an early age. The best play involved making dens or shelters in the woods, which meant a lot of muddy digging and the collection of large quantities of corrugated iron and timber. Another favourite was swinging on a rope suspended from a tree, over a perilous drop with barbed wire at the bottom. We always carried knives - graduating from penknives to sheath knives, and every stick that came into our hands had to be sharpened. Guns featured prominently in outdoor play and we all had arsenals of plastic and metal replicas that fired caps or just went click. The same weapons were used whether we played cowboys, gangsters or soldiers.
When it rained, I read avidly. Enid Blyton soon gave way to Biggles, Willard Price and The Hardy Boys. Paul reminded me of the "Look and Learn" weekly. When I was smaller I played with Britain's farm and zoo animals, and later I had an impressive train set that took up much of the bedroom (Hornby vs. Tri-ang was a heated debate). I had a Meccano construction set but I probably had more fun with Beta-Builder, the failed competitor to Lego at the time. But as I mentioned earlier my real love was Airfix kits. There was even an Airfix Magazine for boys as obsessed as I was. Every toy shop stocked a good range and most kids had a go, although some were more gluey fingered than others. I think the main difference between my childhood and that of my own children was that very little was organised for us, we had to make our own play, use our own imaginations and make do with what we had. Happy times though.
Looking back, we were a fairly serious lot. The student power and love-ins of the sixties were in the past, and we had not discovered fashion, lifestyle, and gadgets that were to come in the eighties and nineties. There were no Starbucks, or even McDonald's at that time. We drank instant coffee and cheap beer and never felt the need to spend a lot. We all wore jeans and sweatshirts and studied hard in the library. Or were supposed to. I actually did just enough work to convince my tutor I was doing OK, and spent as much time as possible not doing anything at all academic. A cold realisation dawned in my last term but one, that Finals were coming and I would have to earn a living soon. I shifted up to fifth gear, worked solidly day and night for the last few weeks and gained an Upper Second BA Honours. This totally infuriated my then girlfriend who had spent three years being very swotty and achieved exactly the same result. Those three years had passed very pleasantly in a rather cocooned world, but now I would have to find a job.
In university holidays I applied for an office job with Marconi, and spent two Summers putting on a gruff voice, phoning suppliers and telling them off for being late with deliveries. I had one fill-in week at another factory, where I had to empty rubbish bins. Again, I finished the days work in about two hours and as a warning, I was sent to scrape rust off a huge oil tank for the rest of the day.
I started full-time employment as the British Manufacturing Industry was in its last blaze of glory. I joined an industrial truck manufacturer as a management trainee, and was sent to work in every department for a few months at a time. That was an eye-opener, and a very valuable experience too. The factory employed several thousand people and was a living microcosm of the industry. The Chairman turned up occasionally in a Rolls Royce, but he never spoke to us. There was an active apprentice school which turned out skilled fitters if they survived the pranks. There were also three separate canteens; one for factory staff, one for office staff and one for "management". You knew your place. We made very high quality products and were proud of them, but it was obvious that there were huge inefficiencies and gross over-staffing by today's standards. It was strictly 9 to 5, and the pace of work was very easy compared to the pressures of today. Within a short time of joining, Ted Heath took on the unions and the Three Day Week was imposed, so we all took a massive pay cut and only worked three days out of seven. This was a disaster for many of us because we didn't have much left at the end of a month at the best of times. Still, we struggled through somehow and went back to full time work as soon as we were allowed. Here is a photo from 1979: my boss Cliff, the two office girls, me and our beer-mat collection that covered every wall surface.
There are lots more stories I could tell about factory life in the Seventies - practical jokes, scandals on the Night Shift, old-fashioned ideas - but that would make me seem like an old codger. After a few years I became interested in a very innovative technology at the time - business computing, and moved on to the very different world of IT.
My first employer was taken over by a German firm, all production moved to Europe and most of the site was sold off for warehousing. My second employer's factory was merged with another for efficiency, the site was sold off, and now is a retail park with a Toys 'r Us where my Planning Office used to be. That was typical of the way Britain's traditional manufacturing industry gave way to the economy of the 80s and 90s.
Barclaycard was the first credit card to be introduced outside the USA in 1966. My Dad had one in the early days, and I remember it came with a booklet that was a list of all the places where you could use it.
The first cashpoint machine was opened in Enfield in 1967. There are now over 60,000 of them. I don't remember much about the introduction, I never had enough cash to bank for a long time. My father knew his bank manager - yes, banks had staff and phones that they answered.
Low cost package holidays were introduced by Thomas Cook in 1851, and package holidays were popular all the way through to the sixties - but based on coach or rail travel. Holidays involving cheap flights only started in the early seventies, I remember being envious of a schoolfriend who went to Spain on one of the first ones in about 1972.
Windsurfers were not a feature of the seaside until after the seventies. I remember a lone windsurfer sailing up the Thames in 1977 doing a sort of promotional display and generally showing off to the crowd who were waiting for the Queen's Jubilee firework display.
McDonalds were unknown in Nottingham in 1977. We decorated our Hall for a themed party with images of America. The significance of the Golden Arches had to be explained to a number of people.
In 1978 the Christmas Lights in Regent Street included lasers. We didn't know what they were, and they didn't look very impressive either. We never realised at the time that they would become indispensable for shopping, as price labels (which were then individually applied) would go and instead a bar-code would be printed on every product and scanned by laser at the till.
Mobile phones were unheard of in the 1970s, although Motorala demonstrated a prototype in 1973 that was about the size of someones head. My employer finally allowed me to install a "car-phone" in 1989 after being stranded and out of contact with the office as a result of the storm that year. It had a full sized handset with a curly wire, a box in the boot the size of an encyclopedia and an aerial that stuck out of the side of the car. (An encyclopedia was one of those things we used before Google).
House price changes make interesting reading. From the Halifax web site, in 1957 the average house price was £2,030 and in 2007 it is £182,000. Even when inflation is taken into account that is a staggering multiple.
Some things do get better though. My first house was bought when the mortgage rate peaked at 15.8% - that is not a mistake. It actually was that high, and the current rate of 6.6% is highly affordable by comparison. It's hardly surprising we decorated our houses with awful wood-chip paper and magnolia emulsion - we couldn't afford anything else.
Getting back to the point though, what has happened in 50 years? This won't seem a big deal to folk older than us, but it will to the young 'uns. The first integrated circuit was demonstrated the year before we were born, but we went though school without even knowing what a pocket calculator was, and my first contact with a computer was at University. Contact is a loose term, as we had to painstakingly punch holes in cards, leave a wad of cards in a tray somewhere, and a day later the cards were replaced with a pile of strange, green-striped paper with holes down each side, usually printed with strings of messages like "****error****error****error***". We never even saw the beast, I think they kept it in a pit and fed it coal and Christians.
My first employer was very forward thinking for 1978, they had several mini-computers to work out what needed to be bought and stocked. It produced a lot of paper, it ran "batch" which meant it only processed its main calculations once a month, then spat out the answers in a pile of paper we literally had to collect in a van. We then spent a month trying to work out what it was on about before the whole cycle started again. Business computing moved on slowly, we started to see the occasional computer screen (heavy lumps, with green letters on a black screen and an irritating blinking cursor). The first commercially mainstream PC was the IBM PC in 1981, although Apple had produced a PC in 1977 and there were many predecessors for the home boffins. The IT Departments resisted these PCs as if they were a disease, insisting that all serious computing had to be done in an air-conditioned room. Eventually PCs were produced with software suitable for small businesses, and the IT empires started to wobble. Wealthier people bought one or two for home use, micro-processors were put in things other than computers, and gradually, computers became part of our lives.
What computers costing a few hundred pounds can do now, compared to those expensive lumps of tin we used to revere, is as different as we are from a bracheosaurus. If you are into statistics, Google it and marvel. Not just marvel at the stats, marvel at what you have just done. Think that when we were kids, the only way of finding anything out was to look it up in an encyclopedia, if you had one, or go to a library. To communicate in writing meant sending a letter and waiting for a reply. Generally you only knew people you had met. You only heard or read news that editors had deemed you should receive. The world is so, so different now. The next 50 years are going to be either very exciting or very scary. I think it will be both, actually.
If you arrived at this point via the BBC web site you will know that there are about a dozen other Today50 Bloggers, and we were rewarded with an invitation to the BBC's own 50th Birthday party. Here are a few of us with John Humphries and James Naughtie.
This photo makes it look like we are the only ones there but in fact there were many hundreds of guests (most a lot more famous than us), and the photo opportunity was snatched in the few seconds that we were allowed John Humphries attention, before he was rudely dragged away by one of the many lobbyists that were taking advantage of the occasion. The hand on my shoulder belongs to the politician on my right. I tried to explain that that sort of thing was not obligatory outside of politics but it didn't seem to make any difference. This whole project has also been a learning experience about the BBC and media relations - not all positive unfortunately, but all of it valuable. I'm glad I did it.