Before leaving the country I feel a digression coming on. A little bit more about the social climate in England in the first half of the 20th century. People in England were, and still were when I left there in 1964, very class conscious. When the first members of the British Labour Party took their seats in the House of Commons in the 1920s they made a point of wearing cloth caps to demonstrate their working class origins. Members of the lower classes frequently spoke deprecatingly of themselves as being just working class. There was a BBC sitcom in the 1950s called The Worker. Whether the theme song was a genuine number from the music hall (although I’d never heard it before) or it was specially written for the program it did sum up a general attitude: “I gets up every morning when the clock strikes eight/I’m always punc-tu-al never, never late/With a little pot of tea and a little round of toast/The Sporting Life and The Winning Post/When I’ve had my breakfast I toddle off to work I do the best I can/’Cos I’m only a-doing what a bloke should do ‘cos I’m only a working man.”
The Scottish comedian Will Fyffe used to pretend to be inebriated and he would sing: “I belong to Glasgow/Dear old Glasgee Toon/But something’s the matter with Glasgow ‘cos it’s going roon’ an’ roon./I’m only a common old working chap as anyone here can see/But when I’ve had a couple of drinks on a Saturday Glasgow belongs to me.”
There’s a thought in a lyric in My Fair Lady, which was probably taken from Pygmalion, which says that whenever an Englishman starts to talk he makes some other man despise him. You did, indeed, weigh up anyone you came into contact with by their accent. If you could put on an upper crust accent it was good for being disapproving and haughty. When I was about 14 I remember thinking, in all seriousness, how lucky I had been in the circumstances of my birth. I was a member of the superior sex, a male, tall not small and fat, Church of England and not Catholic or some lesser creed or, heaven forbid, Jewish. On top of that I was white not coloured and, best of all, I was English when, but for a happy accident, I might have been French or even German. One incidental thought here, up to the time that I finished with school in 1939 you got told off if you said OK. It was considered a vulgar Americanism that had to be resisted.
Looking back we might have seemed to have been racist but we weren’t really, just ignorant. Most of us had never met a coloured person. We thought of them chiefly as living in tribes in Africa, waving spears and cooking missionaries in big pots. In fact mothers would threaten their children with black men. “If you don’t behave yourself the black man’ll come and get you.” The great West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine who later became Premier of his island and was knighted by the King, told a story about himself. Early in his career he used to come over to England every year to play as a professional in the Lancashire League. He always stayed with the same family and was much-loved. One day the little boy came home from school in tears. The other boys had been giving him a bad time. Learie took him on his knee to find out what the trouble was. He looked up into Learie’s extremely dark face and with trembling lip said, “Uncle Learie, you’re not a black man, are you?”
Orientals were considered figures of fun. There was a popular musical comedy called Chu-Chin Chow. I don’t know exactly when it was written, probably in the early years of the century. It had a comic song for a “Chinese” character that seems outrageous now but was perfectly acceptable at the time. “Chin-chin Chinaman him velly sad/No more meat, couldn’t eat velly, velly bad/No joke stony bloke nothing in the shop/Chin-chin Chinaman chop, chop, chop.” As I said before, just sheer ignorance yet it happened within my lifetime.
On that subject I often think about how much women of my mother’s generation had to take in their stride. She was born in a small mining village in 1897. Telephones had been invented some years earlier but wouldn’t have been plentiful. I think the first motor car ran in 1896 in Germany. She actually drove one herself in her 20s. Electric light was not common even in my earlier years. We moved house a lot and my mother decorated most of them with new wallpaper. She removed lots of brackets for gas lights although I remember those lights very clearly and think that we didn’t always have electricity. Wireless and television, of course, plus two world wars and the Great Depression together with vast social changes. Until the First World War from 1914 it was not common for women to work outside the home. During the war when men were in short supply women worked in factories, drove buses and generally kept the country running. I forgot films, at first silent and later with sound and later still with colour. And aeroplanes, originally single engine biplanes and then larger ones and she came to Australia in a jet plane. next