Mum and dad born at the end of the Second World War, two kids born in the mid-1970s, grandparents who made it through the Depression and the war and now hoped to enjoy their retirement in a bit of comfort which they never had when they were younger, living in the suburb of a big city. Yep, that was us, and that was also the Ashfield family – although, in their case, the city was Birmingham. This is only a short book, but it’s a wonderful exercise in nostalgia. I read the entire book very quickly, nodding and laughing and saying “Oh yes”! Especially when the author said that she herself, as a child, was always very interested in “the olden days”, because she was always busily reading about them in Enid Blyton books.
Did you collect Panini football stickers and smelly rubbers? Wear a Fergie bow in your hair? Tape the Top 40 off Radio 1 on a Sunday night? Learn things from Judy Blume’s Forever and the Just Seventeen problem page which you never learnt anywhere else? Yep, that was me, and that was also the author of this book. It really did give me a good laugh!
It’s subtitled “A memoir of growing up in the last decade before technology took over” – and, yes, that’s true. All right, I’m not saying that, when we were kids, we were out roaming the great outdoors, eating macaroons and drinking ginger beer, but we certainly didn’t have mobile phones, we only had basic computer games, and a Walkman was the height of sophistication! But, as the book says, any sort of new gadget was very exciting, and people thought they were really something if they got one for their home. The author devotes most of a chapter to the family’s first microwave. I have no idea why I remember this, but we got our first microwave on the weekend that Tom Watson won the British Open. So it must have been either 1982 or 1983, because he won it in both years. And the fact that I remember that just shows what a big deal it was when your family got their first microwave!
And, as the author says, grandmas and great-aunts were not overly impressed with microwaves. They liked to cook things properly. Specific reference is made to lemon meringue pies. Oh yes. My maternal grandma was always making lemon meringue pies. People who were not so devoted to cooking, on the other hand, served up Angel Delight. We used to get this at primary school. It was always the chocolate flavour. Someone nicknamed it “mud pud”, and the name stuck. The author writes at length about how utterly vile primary school dinners were in the 1980s. They were indeed.
I was more interested in the primary school nostalgia than the secondary school nostalgia, probably because I was a very shy and boring teenager but, as our primary school was so small, everyone there was part of the in crowd. She talks about it being a big deal when one black kid arrived at the school, but I have to say that that didn’t resonate with me, because my primary school was always very multi-ethnic. Other things did resonate with me, though. Having to go to school even in the bleak midwinter. If you slipped in the snow, hard luck! And picking up the litter in the playground being regarded as a mark of high status rather than as a punishment. I’d completely forgotten about that, but it was true! There was a girl in the year below me called Claire, and Claire was obsessed with being one of the people chosen to pick up the litter in the playground! I was never that keen on it myself, but I’d never have got a look in anyway, because Claire and her mates were always in there first, so excited about getting to pick up crisp packets left lying on the ground. I mean, why??
And the collections. Rubbers. We had two huge sweet jars full of rubbers. Being a rather anal kid obsessed with record-keeping, I kept a list of rubbers, and every new rubber which my sister and I acquired was entered on to the list. I am not making this up. Panini football stickers, of course. Care Bears. And My Little Ponies. We even had a My Little Pony game at our primary school. Girls only. Each girl was assigned the name of one of the ponies. I was Applejack. My sister was Seashell. My then best friend was Bubbles. No, I have no idea why I remember this, either.
Dads and grandads, meanwhile, dreamed of winning the pools. The author writes quite a bit of this. Our pools man came once a week, to collect the money. My dad put on the same numbers every week, and, to this day, I can still remember most of them. My maternal grandad, meanwhile, always talked about how, when he won the pools, he was going to buy two racehorses. He’d even chosen names for them. Needless to say, he never did win the pools. Nor did anyone in the author’s family. But we had our dreams!
Another chapter is devoted to Wimpy parties. Now, I don’t remember ever going to a Wimpy party, but Wimpy parties and McDonald’s parties were much the same thing, and McDonald’s parties were really big round our way in around 1984. I had one myself. You and your friends all went to the local McDonald’s, and the staff even organised games for you. And it meant that your mum was not left with a load of mess to clear up at home. So cool! *So* cool!
Less cool were those mental arithmetic tests with which some teachers were obsessed. I’m so glad to learn that this didn’t just happen at our school! Our headmistress used to yell “Right, mental arithmetic test, number down 1 to 100,” and then fire questions at us so quickly that you were usually still trying to work out the answer to question 1 when she was on to question 3. These days, it’s probably all computerised.
There were all sorts of other bits, too. Mr Frosty machines. Monogrammed hankies! Fergie bows. Watching Bullseye. And then all the things you did at secondary school. As I said, I didn’t get as much from this, because I was a bit of a saddo at secondary school, but plenty of it was still very familiar. Fake IDs. I’m not sure how it worked elsewhere, but, in Manchester, there were under 16 bus passes and 16-19 bus passes. Kids aged 13, 14 and 15 would photocopy their birth certificates, change the date with Tippex to make it look as if they were 18, photocopy the copy, and then get a 16-19 bus pass. The staff at the bus station shops must have known jolly well that the said kids were nowhere near 18, but I don’t remember anyone ever being questioned about it.
Forever, by Judy Blume. Yes, we all read that. To this day, I find it very hard not to snigger if I meet anyone called Ralph. There are very few people under 50 called Ralph, despite the fact that it was the name of the hero of The Thorn Birds. I think Judy Blume killed the name off. The Just Seventeen problem page. The constant fad diets – generally tried by mums and aunties.
And, according to the author, a lot of girls wanted to be models. Now, I remember Aveline in Bread and Georgina in Grange Hill both wanting to be models, but I think that that particular trend must have passed my school by. OK, a fat kid like me was never going to aspire to be a model anyway, but I don’t remember any of the pretty girls being interested in modelling either!
Taping the Top 40 off the radio, though – now that was something which we definitely did. The snag was that, unless you had a fancy combined radio and cassette thing, those old cassette players recorded everything, and you could guarantee that a parent or sibling would barge into your room and start talking just as your favourite song came on! Video rental shops were a big thing too. My then best friend’s parents actually owned a video rental shop, so we got the pick of all the newest videos. And hanging around in town on Saturday mornings. I think calling the city centre “town” is a specifically Mancunian thing, and the author just talked about hanging around in the city centre, but, yes, everyone did that! These days, people go into town to have a drink and something to eat, but, back then, there weren’t anything like the number of eating places that there are now. And we didn’t go shopping. We just hung around.
I suppose everyone thinks that the decade in which they grew up was something special. It’s where you get your soundtrack from, as well. I can hear a song from 1989 and know exactly when it was from, and what was going on in my life at that time. With songs which were released later than … probably 1995, the year I graduated from university, I just haven’t got that. I rarely listen to any music from any time later than the mid-1990s. Because the time when you grow up’s special. We’ll always be 80s kids.
Loved this book! Really, really loved it!