There are flags flying in the village ready for Jublilee celebrations on the green at the weekend, and they remind me of the passing years and that I can remember back beyond our queen’s coronation when I was a child in Kettering.
I suppose my first memory of royalty was telling my young friend that the king had died. I’d have been five, and probably had little concept of what a king was, but I did know that it was an important event in peoples’ lives.
‘The king is dead. Long live the queen.’ That has always seemed a rather heartless statement.
Churchill’s voice was on the radio a lot around then, I can still hear his strident voice, but I was more concerned with Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy, Mr Pastry, and the Flowerpot Men. Dad was always one for the latest thing, and we were one of the few families in our road to have a television, all nine inches of it – black and white of course – an Echo, in a walnut cabinet with doors, and a radio beneath the screen. It only broadcast for a few hours a day, and I was only allowed to watch the children’s afternoon program, but I was fascinated by it; even the potter during the ‘intervals’ was entertaining as was ‘normal service will be resumed as soon as possible’ which was a common and lengthy interruption due to breakdowns. And of course, there was only BBC.
I’m not sure if I can remember the king’s funeral, but images of the coronation, the white horses, the ornate coronation coach, the heavy crown being placed on the queen’s head… they are as clear today as they were then, though in my mind now, I see them in colour.
There was huge build-up to the coronation. On my walk to school, I admired the Union Jacks flying from windows, and the plywood cutouts of crowns on house walls. One man in Windmill Avenue, at the back of our house, had made a whole coach and horses out of wood, painted gold, and had fixed it across the front of his house. It was huge and very imposing.
As the day grew nearer, we had several requests to view the coronation on our television, ours being one of the few in the vicinity. On the day, our front room was crammed with family, friends, and neighbours. My grandparents would have come by bus, working-class families like ours didn’t have cars in those days, and Dad used to cycle twenty miles to work at Stewarts and Lloyds steelworks in Corby.
We crowded around the TV in the front room, which lent a real sense of occasion to the day as the room was rarely used, because we lived at the back of the house, and Richard Dimbleby’s sonorous voice delivered the commentary for the proceedings.
This was typical of a street party held in any of the back streets of Kettering: streets of houses built for the shoe workers of the town. My grandparents lived in a street like this.
How much has changed since then. Kettering’s streets were lit by gas lamp, and a man used to go around town with a long pole to light and snuff out the lamps. There were more horses and carts in the town than cars or delivery vans, and sweets had just come off ration. Men cycled to work on black sit-up-and-begs, while women did outwork for various factories, for which they were paid piecework, while they looked after the home and children. Mum made duffel coats, teddy bears, dolls’ clothes, or anything that would bring in a few pence per item. We saved pennies for the electricity meter, and shillings for the gas. I used to love popping in the coins and turning the knob to hear the clunk and see the lights come back on if the meter had run out of money. Feeding the meters was my job because they were situated under the stairs, and I was the smallest in the house.
Women wore corsets, children played in the streets and the fields and had mumps, measles, and whooping cough, Monday was washday, no one wore jeans, and hems were definitely below the knee! November was always foggy, with smogs from the coal fires around which we huddled playing board games, there being no central heating or computers. February was always wet, the summers were long and hot, and the annual holiday was a week in a caravan at Skeggy. If you misbehaved, you got a good hiding, and at school, naughtiness earned you the cane. There was a structure to life, and you learned about right and wrong, actions and consequences, and knew your place within society, within your community, and within your family. It gave you a sense of security and of belonging.
Indeed, my generation was probably the first to strive out of their ‘class’. From the age of two, I’d always wanted a pony. ‘You’ve got ideas above your station in life, young lady’ was my mother’s admonishment. It would have been unheard of in her youth for the daughter of a shoe worker to have a pony. That was for rich kids, the daughters of factory owners, not their workers. A new class was arising, the self-employed entrepreneur, and Dad, I suppose, came into that category. He saw the coming rise of television, and he and a friend set up a TV and Radio shop in Wellington Street, making a living selling TV sets and erecting TV aerials, part-time at first while he was still working at the steelworks as an electrician
Due to his hard work, and him making me save half the cost from my pocket, birthday, and Christmas money and working in Wicksteed Park leading pony rides, I got my pony when I was thirteen. I am hugely grateful to my parents for allowing me to be a child, to stray beyond my ‘station in life’, and for teaching me that anything is possible if you want it enough.
So here we are, seventy years on, older, stiffer, and wiser, but not necessarily where we expected to be. Life throws bricks at you, and you can’t always duck in time. We order much of our food and necessities on-line, supermarkets have destroyed our high streets and towns, and i-phones mean our children walk along glued to them instead of looking at the world around them.
It isn’t the sort of improvement folk hoped for in the fifties and sixties. The planet is in a worse mess than it was after World War Two, Hiroshima, and the great London smogs: society is at breaking point, our dependence on the electronic age, though wonderful in many respects, has the potential to catapult us to a global disaster, and as if Covid and climate change wasn’t enough, now an idiot has decided another war would be a good thing with all the fallout that will bring – hopefully not nuclear; we lived through the fear of that in the sixties and seventies. I can’t help but fear for my children and grandchildren.
I watched the program The Unseen Queen last night and found it a very interesting glimpse into Queen Elizabeth’s life and family. It struck me forcibly that everyone was smiling and happy, and she seems to have had a wonderful carefree childhood playing the same games we played – the sort of childhood every child deserves, not the anxieties they suffer due to poverty and an uncertain present and future. Her majesty has certainly ‘lived long’ and I wish her well, but I wonder what she sees when she looks out on the world seventy years on.