My birth certificate shows my father’s occupation as ‘toy retailer’. Dad had a market stall selling cheap toys. By the time I had started school in January 1965 he had given that up and was a window cleaner. A year or so later he was sacked from his job, and never worked again; he was 52.
His career, if it can so be described, up to my birth appears to be an assortment of odd and badly paid jobs. He left school at fourteen and suffered with ill health, brought on largely by malnutrition. Times were hard in the 1920s and 1930s, and the first of my father’s two arrests came about as a result of his participation in a bread march. He claimed he was nicked to fulfil some sort of police quota; whatever, the fact that these sorts of protests existed is a testament to the grim times and grinding poverty endemic in many parts of the country at that time.
Life on the dole in the 1960s was no picnic. There were four mouths to feed, and the Sunday roast lasted three days as the leftovers ended up in stews and as cold meat and mash. The cheap cuts of meat that we had to endure meant that this fussy eater had many miserable childhood mealtimes. We had no refrigerator, never had takeaways, no holidays, nights out, and much that I wore was either hand-me-downs, knitted, or bought at jumble sales. I recall shoes held together by string, often with holes. The one word description of the period for me would be ‘humiliating’.
Father, in the early days, applied for many jobs. The frequency of applications and interviews diminished over time as increasing age made dad a less attractive employment prospect. He was offered jobs, but since these paid less than what he received from the dole he declined them. My recollections are somewhat flimsy, but an idle father made for a bad-tempered one.
Of course we had some luxuries. We rented a black and white TV, we did have a football to kick about, and library tickets opened up all sorts of possibilities. We even acquired a second-hand gramophone in my early teens. Card games were de rigeur, as was the occasional game of chess (which was not enjoyable owing to dad’s failure to accept defeat, ensuring re-run endings until he found that move to defeat me). He even made a shove ha’penny board – something that I still own (with some real ha’pennies).
This was no existence of idle grandeur, no leisurely stroll at the tax-payers expense. It was grinding poverty, a humiliating struggle to eke out a basic existence. Our rented home had no heating, no hot water, no bathroom. The loo was either outside, or a bucket under the bed. The weekly bath was a shared experience – and the bath hung on a nail on the outside back of the house.
We felt poor, and whilst we lived in a poor area with poor neighbours somehow we felt poorest. However, whilst I was aware that most of my friends had more, none approached the apparent wealth of today’s generations.
I never believed I would grow up and not work, although I cannot pretend that I have done anything other than muddle through. I had no grand plan except to escape the stifling crampness that poverty brings. I recall no ambition, and on leaving home just before my seventeenth birthday I had nothing but rebellion in mind. I was angry with what life had dealt me thus far, but it would be a few years before I figured out how to fix it.
As bad as it was, my childhood was luxurious compared to my dad’s. He spoke of eighteen sharing two rooms in Peckham. He spoke of seasonal employment as a peanut vendor – goodness knows how he survived in winter. His radicalism, and ultimately mine, came from the injustices of those times. By the time I came along we had the Welfare State, and despite the stigma of living on benefits it did mean that we did not go hungry, or face eviction. It did mean we had clean clothes, a TV, a few books, and the occasional picnic. Despite its shortcomings, and I am aware that there are many, the Welfare State has made for a more civilised Britain.