24 June 2024

Teach your children well? : 1960s-1970s : vegetable-free adolescence, Camberley

 “How often do you wash your face?” asked the doctor.

“Like how?” I responded, uncertain about what he was enquiring.

“You know, with soap and water,” he clarified.

“Er, never,” I replied truthfully.

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Because nobody ever told me I needed to,” I said, somewhat embarrassed.

The doctor regarded me pitifully, imagining I must belong to a tribe of itinerant gypsies or have been raised by wolves. To the casual observer, my suburban home life appeared quite normal. Scratch the surface and you would have discovered that my parents had given me few of the ‘life skills’ that are supposed to be demonstrated to children. On this occasion, my mother had sent her teenage son to the family doctor in Frimley Road because his face had become progressively covered in spots. But neither she nor my father had ever instructed me how or when to wash. Once a week, I stood under the water in our modern home’s shower cubicle. If my face became wet while shampooing my hair, I merely dabbed it dry with a towel.

The doctor wrote a prescription for a liquid called ‘Phisohex’ which came in a large green bottle. After a few weeks washing my face twice daily with this cleanser, my spots magically disappeared, following more than a decade of cheeks shamefully having been untouched by soap. Did my mother acknowledge this shortfall in her parental duties? Of course not. This was but one aspect of her ‘hands-off’ approach to childrearing. She had enjoyed a good post-war education at Camberley’s girls’ grammar school in Frimley Road where she was likely taught conventional housekeeping and domestic skills in preparation for marriage. She was goodlooking and always dressed immaculately in the latest trends. Her parents had raised her and her two sisters impressively. So where had her own parenting regime gone awry?

Most of the basic skills I developed – writing, reading, arithmetic – I learned from books and television rather than parental instruction. However, one ability that proved impossible to appropriate in that way was tying shoelaces. As a result, at junior school, after ‘PE’ (Physical Education) lessons that required us to change into slip-on plimsolls, I always had to seek out my cousin Deborah in the year below mine to ask her to retie the laces on my shoes. Once I progressed to grammar school, my skill deficit became more difficult to hide. The mandated school uniform required black lace-up shoes. My mother acknowledged my ‘shoelace’ issue but, instead of simply demonstrating how to do it, she bought me slip-on 'Hush Puppies' shoes for school which resulted in regular disciplinary action. Finally, I had to draft an embarrassing letter from my mother to the school, asking for her son to be excused from the dress code due to difficulty finding suitable lace-up shoes for his high in-step feet.

Like many 1960’s housewives, my mother regularly cut out recipes from magazines and stuffed them in a kitchen drawer. She was particularly proud of a plastic box with transparent lid holding two rows of Marguerite Patten recipe cards that she had sent for to ‘Family Circle’ magazine and which I was tasked with keeping in correct order. She loved making cakes and had a sweet tooth that probably promoted the development of diabetes in her later life. However, her skills with main meals were limited and she preferred to rely upon ‘instant’ foods like fish fingers that were heavily marketed to ‘busy’ housewives at the time. This was probably why I remained as thin as a rake during my childhood, despite teenage years spent scoffing two bowls of cereal both morning and night.

I had been a regular visitor to the family dentist on Middle Gordon Road due to the dreadful state of my teeth. Even at a tender age, I was being gassed for extractions. On one occasion, the stern dentist accused me of not brushing my teeth sufficiently firmly to prevent decay. I resolved to use the state-of-the-art electric toothbrush in our family bathroom with greater pressure during twice-daily cleanings. I returned to the dentist six months later, only for him to inform me that I had rubbed away most of the enamel from my remaining teeth. The outcome of his ‘advice’ was merely more extractions. Not once did this dentist question my mother about her children’s diet. Even if he had, she would have been unlikely to respond honestly.

My mother had an inexplicable lifelong aversion to vegetables. Only the humble potato would accompany our meals, usually in the form of Cadbury’s ‘Smash’. Carrots? Never. Peas? Nope. Broccoli? Unseen. There were other foodstuffs we never experienced – spaghetti, yoghurts, condiments, rice – because my mother had a preference for jellies, custard and blancmange, but it was the lack of vegetables that must have impacted our health growing up the most. I never understood how, despite the piles of women’s magazines around our home, she somehow studiously avoided taking their practical advice regarding suitable family diets. Such behaviour could have been excused earlier in the twentieth century when literacy and knowledge were less prevalent, but surely not by the 1960’s.

Much of my childhood during weekends and school holidays was spent at my maternal grandparents’ adjoining house where I helped prepare ingredients for their meals. Instructed by my wonderful grandmother, I would sit on the backdoor step with a bowl between my knees, shucking peas from their pods. I would use a peeler to remove the skins from various vegetables whose names I did not know. I would carefully place dozens of apples in rows within cardboard boxes, separating each layer with old 'Daily Sketch' newspapers before carrying them into the recesses of the house’s darkened larder under the stairs. My grandmother loved to make jams with these fruits, for which I carefully wrote out white adhesive labels carrying the manufacture date and type. Bizarrely, none of these vegetables or jams were ever served in our own house next door.

From the day she left school at twelve until the day she finally retired, my grandmother worked in fruit and vegetable shop ‘H.A. Cousins & Son’ at 11 High Street on the corner of St George’s Road in Camberley. During all those decades, her ‘sales assistant’ job never changed, standing all day on the shop’s bare floorboards, putting requested items in brown paper bags, weighing them on old-style scales against combinations of various brass weights, calculating the cost in her head and then the correct change to return to the customer.

Shop owner Mr Cousins would daily travel thirty miles to the fruit, vegetable and flower markets in London at the crack of dawn, returning with a van of produce to sell. Once a day’s stocks were sold, that was it. Any produce left over would be given to the shop staff. My grandmother regularly brought home quantities of all sorts of fruit and vegetables which she shared with us, though my mother always refused the vegetables. Thankfully, she did accept the fruit which became the sole source of my necessary five portions per day.

Cousins advertised its shop locally as “by appointment to Staff College” (Sandhurst Royal Military Academy), providing “Dessert Fruit and Flowers for Dinner Parties, etc.” Its upper-class customers and Sandhurst’s foreign residents necessitated it stock a variety of exotic fruits, the excess of which ended up in my family’s fruit bowl. Visitors to our house in the 1960’s were shocked to see pineapples, mangoes and lychees on our dining table, delicacies that I enjoyed as ‘normal’ long before their availability in supermarkets.

My mother insisted that fruit always be eaten covered in sugar, her favourite ingredient. Cups of tea required two spoons of white sugar, coffee two lumps of Demerara sugar, stewed apples or pears served frequently as our dessert had to be sprinkled with granulated ‘Tate & Lyle’. Even when I visited my mother in her final years, she would buy in a banana to offer me (she refused to eat them), accompanied by a plate of sugar in which to dip it. Thanks, mum. Banana yes, sugar no.

When my grandmother reached the statutory retirement age of the time, we all went round to her house for a little celebration of her departure from a lifetime of work on Cousins’ shop floor. She was pleased to be able to retire before Britain switched to decimalisation in 1971 as she feared metric calculations that no longer involved farthings, florins, half-crowns and guineas. Months later, the shop asked if she would return and work part-time because it was short-staffed. Of course she agreed. In total, she clocked up more than half a century working for that one employer in that one location, a 400-metre walk from her sole marital home.

In 1976, on arrival at university, the bulk of my Surrey County Council grant had to be paid in advance for one term of accommodation and three meals per day within college. Having never taken school dinners and rarely eaten out in restaurants, I was unfamiliar with the canteen system where you line up and tell the kitchen servers which food you want. I hardly recognised any of the foodstuffs on offer and would often merely opt for two identical desserts, skipping main courses entirely. Most intimidating were twice-weekly ‘formal dinners’ lasting an hour, during which more than a hundred students remained seated at long benches in the huge dining room to be served by staff a succession of courses completely foreign to me. The table places were laid with radiating lines of various cutlery, none of which I knew their specific purpose. My fellow students seemed to find all this ‘etiquette’, including ritual table-banging and foot-stomping, perfectly normal because 90%+ of them had grown up around such ‘practises’ at elitist private schools. I often avoided these ghastly events and sat in my room munching a packet of biscuits.

My parents having never taught me how to use cutlery, I had developed my own system whereby I always used my right hand to hold the fork. Only when I had to cut up some food would I transfer the fork to my left hand and then simultaneously use the knife in my right hand. The rest of the time, I placed the knife down on the table. Nobody had ever corrected me. Not until sitting in that university dining room, surrounded by loud toffs with posh accents and double-barrel surnames, did I have to learn to eat holding the fork in my left hand. To this day, my default way of eating is to grab the fork with my right hand. Old habits die hard.

In 1986, my little sister was offered a Saturday job on the till of a small self-serve fruit and vegetable shop in Camberley town centre. She was worried that she would not recognise the produce she would be expected to ring up, since our mother had never fed us veg other than potatoes. By then, I had spent a decade living away from our vegetable-free home and was able to accompany my sister on a ‘Secret Squirrel’ mission to the shop, during which we walked slowly around its one central aisle and tried to identify the varieties of common vegetable on sale. ‘Common’ to everyone else, particularly to our beloved late grandmother, but weirdly not at all to us!

In retrospect, my childhood must have been quite unusual because, although I lacked some basic life skills, I was steeped in other abilities beyond my age. By junior school, I had taught myself to type, to read music and play the piano (despite having non-musical parents). Having recruited me into his business once I could walk, my father taught me how to survey a property, create architectural plans on a drawing board, use Letraset, calculate floor areas and room volumes, prepare client invoices and statements on an electric typewriter, photocopy and make dyeline prints. Meanwhile, my mother enrolled me into reconciling her employer's accounts and calculating its staff's pay packets, pinning and cutting dress patterns to materials, basic knitting stitches, using her sewing machine and threading multiple yarns on her knitting machine. I was eight when typing the forms for my parents' passport renewals, testing my mother's knowledge for her driving test and testing my father for his pilot licence. By the time I started secondary school, I was holding the fort at my father's town centre office, learning shorthand from my mother's discarded 1950's text books and calculating potential profits of deals for my father's new property business. What a strangely un-childlike childhood it was!

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