The way we were

By “The Photographer’s Assistant”

It is Christmas 1952. It is a very simple affair. This may be the second time in the year that we have a fresh chicken. Everything is still on ration and the veg. is from our garden.  The cake was made by my mother and we count ourselves lucky that she was a cook during her army service. She knows so many tricks and ways around the shortages. No one has thought to ask where this chicken has come from, but she is quite pretty and the pub seems to have lost a couple recently! This is generally felt to be the worst year on ration, despite the ending of the war seven years before. Making everything herself has been a great challenge, even for one who is so resourceful!

This is the period that has stuck in the mind of the Photographer and his Assistant. The Assistant loved her father’s garden. It had very little grass, but loads of veg and fruit. Even in the winter, it was is teeming with interest. There were tall, strange plants called sprouts and potatoes have been conserved in an outdoor shed. We had a coal shed and a fire place. We were living on a new council estate in an imported steel house and had central heating. We had a modern sink and the bathroom was first rate. Today, television programmes come close to emulating it, but they miss the atmosphere. The Assistant was a sickly child and now that it was cold, she was only allowed to roam the garden under heavy protection, so that she could hardly move, but helping Dad with a bucket of sprouts that would shortly be on the table was a must!

The Photographer and his Assistant dwell on all this over this Christmas and have  been quite unconsciously been conducting what may be a worrying experiment. We started our preparations for a home made Christmas in the spring, when we began to plan our garden. Sprouts, leeks, carrots, parsnips and potatoes were a must. This is when Christmas preparation began! Because we live on the Moor carrots and parsnips were planted under cover and potatoes were stored early, the season always being short here. The year continued with the buying of half price bits and pieces, as most people do. On our return from our holiday in October, we decided that everything for the Christmas feast would be home made. We had never really done this before and we thought it would be interesting. We started our shopping, having planned recipes at the start of November. You have to come down off the upper Moor in order to do this. Stocks in the house had run down and everything had to be bought. Normally we use the internet for shopping, which cuts our shopping time by a huge amount, but these ingredients had to be found and selected from real shops. We spent days shopping. It was endless. The amount of dried fruit and basic ingredients was vast. Our mothers did all this without a car! No wonder I used to cry when the pram filled up, and there was no room for me! I was impressed by my mother’s strength in lifting all this stuff. The housewife might not have had to go to actual work, but, boy, did she work at this!

Preparing the Christmas onion soup..........summer '74

Preparing the Christmas onion soup……….summer ’74

The preparations had to start in earnest 6 weeks before Christmas with the making of the cake and the puddings. The Photographer made the puddings, while the Assistant made the cake, she thought the cake would be harder than the puddings and the Photographer would be spared the really hard work.

It was decided that Mary Berry’s recipes would be used as the Assistant had been given a Great Bake In book the previous Christmas. The Assistant was surprised to find that making the cake was really easy, the only difficulty being yet another expedition to buy the tin! The Assistant had seen her mother make this cake over several days and was puzzled, then she remembered that all the fruit used to have to be soaked before use and the nuts also had to be prepared. This preparation had often led to the Assistant being put to bed late! The Photographer, bless him, had taken an entire day to make the puddings, without soaking the fruit! Further more, he had to use a great deal of strength to mix all the ingredients up. The Assistant would have probably failed to mix the puddings up properly, because of the strength required. The decorations were mostly gleaned from the garden and all other food for the feast for the days before and after had to be home made.

A giant turkey arrived on Christmas Eve from across the moor, went into the Aga after Midnight Mass till early afternoon, and a ham bubbled away all one day before the stock metamorphosed into pea soup.

The conclusion is that we, a relatively fit retired couple, with all the days to spare that our children have not, struggled and we were using modern ingredients, and where we could, modern machinery! There is, however, a ‘but’ in all of this, and it is an extraordinary one. Despite all their hard physical labours, our parents led a simple life and had more time. My mother was a standard housewife and her job was simply that, doing the work in the house. Even remembering she had no washing machine or fridge, her entire life was expected to be one of hard work and ingenuity. My father was always home on time and he stuck rigidly to his hours, all of my friends’ fathers did too. He could spend all his time at home helping to look after the children, especially at the end of the day. He had so much time even though he worked really hard at the Hospital that he could take us out into the garden and on walks. He had time. The day was rigidly formed, even for our free thinking liberal parents. No one ever put their children to bed late, unless there were special circumstances. Each day had a simple structure and was very much the same as the next.We always eat together, because the structure allowed for this. Our parents could do stuff like Christmas! We simply can’t do an old fashioned Christmas without an almighty struggle! It is just a romantic idea. Our children are entirely occupied by work, even days off are spent catching up with doing what our parents did during the week. One person doing the work at home makes a huge difference, even without the modern conveniences, and another person, getting home at 5.30 every day is almost unimaginable! Many of our retired friends could not have done what we have done. They have many days spent on rewarding, but exhausting child care, to enable their children to pay a hefty mortgage or rent.

The Photographer in 9 to 5 mode.......circa '72

The Photographer in 9 to 5 mode…….circa ’72

I realise that this has not been a funny blog, but I hope it has given pause for thought amidst all the talk of our vastly improved computerised lives. My father thought the invention of the computer would make for a liberated age with more time to indulge in the Arts. The Photographer’s father, meanwhile, working for the electricity company predicted with total confidence that as nuclear reactors bred their own fuel, energy costs would collapse and we would only pay for distribution.

The Assistant’s father would think as he listened to the BBC Home Service over his pipe and his bed time cocoa ( taken early in the evening, with even The Assistant disciplined and in bed with a mind teasing puzzle, bought especially for the purpose of learning to entertain ones self! ) He thought that people would only have to work four days a week, while machines allowed them to indulge in all sorts of mind blowing activities. He imagined time to grow his vegetables as well as take a holiday. He told the Assistant and her brother to develop worth while hobbies for a great period of leisure was coming. He was quite simply wrong. Poor old Dad was living in a leisured age. He just didn’t know it!

The Assistant's father.........with time to think

The Assistant’s father………with time to think

1 comment
  1. Dear Peter and Sue

    What a brilliant post! No wonder we “fail” at Christmas…

    Meanwhile Waitrose today had stacks of hundreds of Christmas puddings reduced to 49p each.

    As Edie puts it, “I don’t like Christmas pudding but we must have one”. For the flaming, naturally. Edie and Henry made our Christmas cake, and drowned it in so much alcohol that you practically have to drink it.

    Thank you so much for the chocolates – Dodo was thrilled with the idea that their sharing was entirely under her control, and indeed it is only today that one of the boxes has appeared on our bed.

    How are you both? I had a very wobbly emotional patch before Christmas but am finally down to only pills and a weekly blood test.

    Trying to think if I’ve got any nice Christmassy photos of the family to send, but I fear not…

    Lots and lots of love Portia x

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