How Boomer kids learned about the world

Look and Learn

If you were a middle-class Boomer kid in the 1960s or 1970s, there were certain magazines and easy to read books that set out to teach you about the world. Magazines like World of Wonder and Look and Learn. And then the vast Ladybird book series that covered everything from how to knit to Richard the Lionheart.

We had no Google to help us search for knowledge. And no smartphones for easy access to any number of research databases. No, if you were knowledge-hungry kid in the 70s, then you greedily thumbed your way through World of Wonder!

These publications stuffed your head full of facts. Whereas young people now tend to specialise and stick to their areas of interest, we couldn’t avoid being exposed to a much wider range of learning. Because we had far less choice in terms of information sources, we sucked up everything on offer. If my father brought home an encyclopaedia, I read the whole damned thing. Over and over again.

So the weekly edition of a magazine like World of Wonder was like manna from heaven for a Boomer child. It was from that mag, that I first learned about the 1500-year-old Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. And when Look and Learn ran a series about photography, this Boomer kid nagged his Dad until he had a Polaroid circa 1974.

My love of history began as a young child. What certainly helped to fuel it was the Ladybird book series. I’m still in awe of the cover illustrations, which have now become iconic and even mocked in satirical versions of the Ladybird books. Think about it though – the artist had only one shot at engaging a Boomer kid in some aspect of the world. When I saw these two books on medieval history, my addiction was firmly established and continues to this day.

Toppling statues and comedians – the new Punk Rock?

toppling statues

In the second half of the 1970s, Punk Rock exploded into our teenage lives as Boomers. It lifted two unpatriotic fingers up at the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations. Pilloried pop stars way beyond their sell-by date as “dinosaurs”. And stuck the boot into a whole generation of comedians who had traded on racist or lame humour.

So, is the current toppling of statues and comedians just another Punk Rock explosion?

History repeats itself, first time as tragedy and second time as farce. So wrote Karl Marx. Watching the current purge of comedians from YouTube and Netflix reminds me of the death knell that Punk sounded for many cultural icons in the 70s. Punk Rock was an aggressive cultural laxative that flushed out a lot of rottenness by making it look pathetic. Its influence swept across music, the arts, comedy and fashion.

Punk Rock pillories old pop stars

On the music scene, we had one famous pop star who had drunkenly endorsed the racist politician Enoch Powell at a gig. Look it up on Google. I’m not getting sued. Others had played gigs in apartheid-ruled South Africa. While plenty more popsters had just become complacent and very rich with it.

Punk declared Year Zero in music. And I remember going down to Small Wonder Records in Walthamstow and begging the owner to give me a pittance for my early 70s prog rock, triple-sleeve LPs so I could buy some punk albums. You almost had to deny having ever listened to certain bands. And I remember the lead singer of Yes – replete with kaftan and flares – asking on the front cover of Melody Maker why he was hated so much.

Punk Rock gave birth to alternative comedy

The new punk purge today is claiming the scalps of some comedians, over doing “blackface” for example. It all seems terribly unreasonable to those comics who’re now seeing their shows coming off Netflix and YouTube. But some of these laughter mongers began their career by slaying the comic talent of the 1970s.

Out of the Punk ethos sprang the alternative comedy scene in the early 80s and soon TV shows like The Two Ronnies were looking very out of date. On reflection, I’ve got nothing against The Two Ronnies but their dominance of TV comedy made them a target to topple. What was offensive were shows like The Comedians on ITV, which aired in the early 70s.

I remember sitting at home as a kid watching The Comedians and feeling very uncomfortable as the anti-Irish gags got told. My Dad is Irish. I learned from the “talent” on this weekly show that I was genetically stupid and prone to doing dumb things.

At my first secondary school, I was called “Paddy” so much that I ended up on the school register with that name. Much to the horror of my father at a parent-teacher evening when my form tutor said: “Paddy’s school report was quite good this term”.

Toppling statues and comedians = Punk Rock for millennials?

When history repeats, it does so differently. Context and language changes. In the 70s, Punk Rock was a roar against the stagnation of the mid-70s. The post-war economic boom had ground to a halt. Britain was in visible decline. Pop had lost its vitality and become turgid and pretentious. And if millennials think us Boomers are backward – the older generation in 1976 was antediluvian!

Punk Rock was about causing maximum offence – to shock the bourgeoisie (as the French say). Whereas today’s movement is about not being offended by ‘problematic’ content. Although the end result is surprisingly similar.

Since 2008, many Boomers have wondered when the new Punk Rock would arise. Well, here it is. It may not be taking an agreeable form for older folk but then Punk Rock horrified the establishment in the 70s. Today’s movement is the spirit of 1968 and Punk Roll plus more besides rolled into one.

Ironically, even though we Boomers are often the target of millennial hatred – their actions smack of our revolts forty and fifty years ago. So, don’t judge them harshly.

Weird birthday cards of the 1970s

1970s birthday card

I go into my parents’ attic occasionally and chance upon some of the very weird birthday cards from the 1970s that I got in my childhood. I have to say of all of them, this has to be the oddest of the lot. It was sent by my lovely Portuguese grandmother but definitely a different era. I mean, could you imagine a kid walking down the street dressed like that now? Ah – it was a different time!

Economic Depression – one more for the road eh?

Coronavirus could lead to an Economic Depression on a scale not seen since the 1930s – according to the International Monetary Fund. We’re already seeing people going without food and being kicked out of work. And when the virus subsides, it’s not going to be a return to business as usual. The damage that’s been done is way too severe.

Millennials experienced the 2008 crisis as a brutal coming of age. A long, deep recession that trashed people’s life chances. For Boomers, I’m losing count how many economic recessions we’ve been through now. Sterling crisis of the 1960s. Oil crisis of the 1970s. Manufacturing collapse under Margaret Thatcher. Housing market collapse in the early 1990s. And here we go again!

Only this time it will be very different. It’ll be way more catastrophic in terms of the impact on jobs and markets. And of course it’s happened not because of economic cycles or government policy but – a biological virus. You’d surely have to go back to the Black Death of the fourteenth century to see a disease hit our economy at such a scale.

Economic depression – all about oil in the 1970s

As Boomers, we’ve seen economic recessions with very different characteristics. The 1970s saw short bursts of recession that despite the reputation of the decade for crisis and gloom, actually saw the economy bounce back into positive growth pretty quickly. The psychological impact though was huge because we’d basically been booming since the end of the Second World War and suddenly, we experienced a taste of what our grandparents had lived through in the 1930s.

The cause of recession in 1973 was the decision by oil producing countries to quadruple the price of ‘black gold’. Basically, they weaponised oil and were punishing the UK, US and other nations for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. I remember the news bulletins were always relaying the latest bad news from the meetings of Arab oil producers. And Sheikh Yamani – the Saudi oil minister – became a household name. Here he is blithely informing us that oil is now a weapon…

Sheikh Yamani was a household name

Monetarism turns economic recession into depression

1979 saw Margaret Thatcher become Prime Minister in the UK and she implemented what was called a “monetarist” policy in the face of an economic downturn. That meant Austerity-Max with public spending cut and state support to manufacturing industry reduced. What Thatcher wanted to do was break the trades unions, reduce inflation and privatise the state-run parts of the economy. So, a political agenda as much as an economic policy.

The result between 1979 and 1981 was benign if you lived in the south east. But in Scotland, the north and the Midlands of England – industries collapsed like dominoes. I went on a canal trip at the end of secondary school on the Cheshire Ring canal and we were gobsmacked as middle class southern kids to see mile after mile of closed factories. It was a scene of devastation that led to a summer of riots in cities across the UK in 1981.

Thatcher remained in power until 1990 – when she oversaw another, often forgotten, recession. Like 1979 to 1981, the recovery took way longer than the downturns of the 1970s. We’d had the yuppie boom of the late 80s when markets soared. But then 1987 saw a stock market crash on Black Monday with the FTSE falling nearly a quarter in two days. Two years later, the aftershock hit the ‘real economy’ with unemployment rising sharply all over the country.

What I recall the most about the early 90s recession was the collapse in house prices. There were a lot of what were termed ‘voluntary repossessions’ where people chucked their own keys through the letterbox and walked away from their own home. And there was a boom in auctions of empty properties.

I was a financial journalist at the time and the other thing I reported on was the massive amount of financial corruption that was exposed as the economy slowed down. From Lloyd’s of London to independent financial advisers on the high street – the reality of the 1980s Yuppie era revealed itself in one scandal after another.

Back to the 1979 to 1981 recession. Here is the Toxteth riot of 1981 – what happens when you let youth unemployment skyrocket…

Millennials revive Boomer style home delivery

It seems that environmentally conscious Millennials are reviving home delivery of milk in glass bottles – because, well, they’re not plastic and you get to choose the type of milk you want. And this is part of a major structural shift in retail from browsing in shopping malls or the high street to having goods pop up at the front door instead.

Hmmmm….this does sound familiar!

The return to home delivery of basic foodstuffs has been accelerated by Coronavirus lockdowns. Milk, bread, meat, vegan dishes, fruit, wine, beer and every household item you can imagine is being brought round by an Amazon or Ocado driver. An army of home delivery personnel is set to expand massively. It’s all heralded as part of the digital revolution.

From Boomer era home delivery to a revival with Millennials

But we’ve been here before of course. Last time analogue. This time digital. Sure there’s more choice and you go online to browse a huge variety of products. But this is back to the future for Boomers. Home delivery was part of our childhoods. The milk “float” gliding down the road. The burly baker at the front door on 24 December every year asking for his Christmas tip. The newspaper chucked at your porch every morning by a surly youth.

We are back to the delivery man/woman being an essential part of urban life. As with life forty years ago, there will be companies that operate wholly through home delivery or it’ll be a distribution mechanism for high street retailers – big and middle-sized. The big chain supermarkets down to the hipster-run artisanal butcher will be sending you boxes of goodies without you having to walk down a soulless aisle or queue at a checkout.

Hey millennials – 1970s home delivery could be ecological too!

Back in the much maligned 70s, it wasn’t just your milk that was dropped on the doorstep. The baker came to our door with a regular drop off that went straight into a large, tin, bakery box. Note – no plastic! I remember we used to get a kind of Stollen every week with a stick of marzipan through the middle of the bread. Sheer heaven!

And then the knife grinder would appear on our street every so often. Housewives (it was mainly women at home back then) would leap out of the front doors clutching blunt cutlery to be sharpened up. He sat there in a parking bay with an ancient piece of machinery – a big foot-operated grinding wheel where he got to work.

Then the rag and bone man of course, ringing a bell and asking you to bring out your crap. Not your dead I hasten to add – that was another century! But what a great example of recycling. And in pre-modern times, there was a small army of people from mud larks to rag and bone men who took rubbish and gave it a new lease of life. I see a campaign for Greta Thunberg…

Plus financial services and cosmetics were sold at the door. What was termed “industrial” life assurance – small, affordable life policies – were flogged by salespeople who turned up at your home. And for cosmetics, it was the legendary “Avon lady” who rang the doorbell.

It will have been a new experience for young people to have a procession of strangers coming up the front drive and appearing at your porch. But for Boomers, there will have been a curious, wistful sense of deja-vu. And I don’t see this trend going into reverse.

FYI – the proverbial milkman was such a feature of life forty, fifty years ago that the 70s comedian Benny Hill even had a chart topping hit about a milkman called Ernie and his amorous adventures!

Ten best cop series of the 1970s

Kojak
  1. McCloud

From 1970 to 1977, this largely forgotten 1970s TV cop series followed Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud who hailed from New Mexico as he tried to learn crime fighting techniques on the mean streets of New York. On horseback. With a stetson. Played by Dennis Weaver who also starred in a creepy early Spielberg movie – Duel – about a man being chased across the American desert by a mysterious, psychopathic and faceless lorry driver.

2. Cannon

This was a CBS series that ran from 1971 to 1976 about an overweight retired cop in Los Angeles who becomes a private detective. He had a penchant for fine wines and dining. Sometimes he would be fat shamed but would evidence in no uncertain terms that his girth was no obstacle to throwing a killer punch. In the series, the fictional Frank Cannon was a Korean war veteran while the actor William Conrad in real life had been a fighter pilot in World War Two.

3. Harry O

David Janssen had been famous in the 1960s for his title role in the TV series The Fugitive – later turned into a 1993 move with Harrison Ford. Harry O was quite a dark, sombre cop series but I really enjoyed it. There was something very compelling about David Janssen on screen. The gravelly voice and heavy smoker’s etched face. But the public didn’t agree with the young me. Barely made it to two seasons before this 1970s TV cop series was cancelled in 1976. The first season was based in San Diego but in season two, the whole thing was inexplicably shifted to Los Angeles with no explanation.

4. Hawaii Five-O

No – not the 2010 remake which I’d rather forget. This was the 1968 to 1980 original, which until 2002 was the longest continuous running cop show on American TV. It was shot entirely in Hawaii and dominated by the charismatic presence of actor Jack Lord as Detective Captain Steve McGarrett. When the criminal had been caught – McGarrett would always turn to the same officer and growl: “Book ’em Danno”.

5. Streets of San Francisco

This was my first exposure to a young Michael Douglas – starring alongside Karl Malden as two murder cops on the hilly streets of San Francisco. This ran from 1972 to 1977 and totalled an eye watering 119 episodes. And yet I’ve never seen it repeated like Kojak and Colombo – which are still broadcast today. I’m going to guess this 1970s TV cop series hasn’t aged well.

6. Serpico

If you’re fans of Al Pacino then you’ll remember the 1973 detective movie by this name. What you may not realise is that three years later, Dino de Laurentis decided to produce a TV series based on the film with classical actor David Birney in the starring role. It limped to the end of a first season in 1976 before being unceremoniously canned. The consensus among critics seemed to be that Pacino had covered all bases and a TV series was entirely unnecessary.

7. COLUMBO

A whodunnit where you know whodunnit from the outset – but the fun is watching Columbo reach your level of insight. The original run on NBC was from 1971 to 1978 and I think all Columbo fans would agree these were the glory years. It was revived in 1989 by ABC and trudged on to 2003 but less enjoyable. What I love is the cheesy 70s decor of the sets and spotting some great character actors chewing the furniture around the detective.

8. Starsky and Hutch

Saturday night in the 1970s saw Starsky and Hutch rule the airwaves – before Match of the Day and Parkinson rounded off the evening. Actors David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser played a brooding mid-western blonde and a Brooklyn short-tempered army vet respectively. David Soul also had a singing career and some hits in the 70s – being something of a teenage pin-up. The opening credits featured Soul as Hutch landing on the top of his Ford Gran Torino car butt first – which always seemed hideously painful.

9. The Rockford Files

Jim Rockford is a Los Angeles private investigator played by James Garner – an actor superbly cast for the role. He’s a hapless fellow always getting into scrapes with an I-told-you-so father played by Noah Beery. Sadly, Garner and Universal studios ended up in litigation over the profits from the series. It ran for six seasons throughout the 70s ending in 1980. And I think it’s still very watchable now as 1970s cop series go.

10. Kojak

To me – Kojak was the king of the 1970s cop series. CBS aired it from 1973 to 1978 and the hard-bitten protagonist was instantly popular on British TV when it aired this side of the pond. Telly Savalas nailed the role sucking his trademark lollipop and observations delivered with maximum sarcasm. Watching it now, Kojak totally captures the danger and depravity of New York in the 70s. It’s a city where dark forces stalk the streets and any crime is possible. Politicians are corrupt and nobody can be really trusted.

Polaroid camera pics of a school trip in the 1970s

school trip 1974

Aged ten in 1974, I was given a Polaroid instant camera and was thrilled to bits. In my small hands, it wasn’t easy to hold this large chunk of cream plastic with big orange buttons but that didn’t matter. But I possessed a great icon of the 1970s!

The first assignment I took it on was a school trip around Essex in my last year before secondary school. This would have been just after the eleven-plus exam when some of my friends, who’d failed, were sent off to secondary modern. Seems incredible now but the old system of selection at eleven years of age meant that kids were basically written off and denied a second chance.

Polaroid camera on a 1970s school trip

Those that passed the eleven-plus with a fair grade went to the local comprehensive. And the best grades went to grammar – if they passed the entrance exam or interview with the head teacher. I hated exams but scraped through the exam. And somehow wormed my way into a grammar.

Anyway, the school trip was to a very picturesque village called Finchingfield in deepest Essex and an old Saxon wooden church at Greensted. We spent most of the day horsing around and signing each other’s autograph books. And then I whipped out my Polaroid to take a few snaps.

Unfortunately, in their haste to see the photos my mates stuck their fingers all over them before they’d properly dried. So their prints have been preserved there for the last 45 years. And what a riot of 70s fashion you get in the photos – so many synthetic fibres and flares. We look like the kids in Scooby Doo or Stranger Things.

So below are real images from a Polaroid camera of the 1970s.

School trip in 1974

The horror of 1970s school dinners!

school dinner

Spam fritters, stringy beef, scoops of mash potato shaped like an igloo and vegetables boiled until any vestige of vitamins was removed. Chocolate pudding with matching chocolate custard. Tapioca that looked like frog spawn.

Metal water jugs and Duralex glasses with a different number at the bottom of each glass signifying who knew what? Not a sign of fresh fruit anywhere. And discipline maintained by stern dinner ladies who’d seen off Hitler and the Luftwaffe and weren’t going to put up with nonsense from a bunch of nine-year-olds.

The canteen was a Nissan hut extension of the school thrown up after the Second World War. More than likely we were getting a constant light dusting of asbestos throughout our meals – which were eaten on long benches. Each table was supervised by a monitor, normally a physically bigger kid with a penchant for bullying.

A skinny guy called John seemed to have an eating disorder or maybe just had a discerning palate. Either way, he used to stuff the stringy beef into his trouser pockets when the dinner ladies weren’t watching. Because we were expected to eat everything slapped in front of us. And if we had difficulty cutting the aforementioned beef, a dinner lady would hover over us and hack at it with our knife. “There,” she’d snarl, “you can eat it now!”

Spam fritters were so dire that we used to chuck them on to the ground in the hope some hapless kid would slip up with his tray and send his school dinner flying. That was the only decent use for them. They’d obviously been one of those wartime staples that lingered inexplicably into the 1970s.

All that said, at the end of the decade, school dinners took a fast food turn under the Tories. Out went the stringy beef and igloo-shaped mash potato and in came sub-Wimpy burgers and oven fries. Maybe more appetising but not more nutritious. I’m struggling to find the fond memories. Just memories…

Your 1970s sister – a David or Donny fan?

David Cassidy

In the 1960s, you divided between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. In the 1990s, you either liked Blur or Oasis. But in 1972 – your sister was either screaming at David Cassidy or Donny Osmond. And how they screamed…

David Cassidy came to prominence as the older son in a fictional TV sitcom called The Partridge Family. This was normally broadcast on a Saturday morning – on ITV if I recall correctly. The Partridges, led by their widowed mother, embark on a musical career managed by the affable Reuben Kincaid. Erm….and that’s the plot basically. It was enough to keep it going from 1970 to 1974.

While Donny was the second youngest son in a group of brothers called The Osmonds who performed as barbershop singers on The Andy Williams Show in the 1960s. Then in 1972, Donny had a hit with a cover of Puppy Love and Britain was gripped by the weirdest pop hysteria I’ve ever seen. He was clean cut, not quite out of puberty and voice still breaking. And girls just went wild.

David Cassidy
David Cassidy – credit: Hans Peters / Anefo / CC0

To this day, I have middle-aged female friends who still define themselves by which side of the David/Donny divide they sat on. It split sisters and it split my eardrums as my sister hollered at the TV whenever Donny appeared. In 1973, thousands of girls descended on Heathrow Airport as the Osmonds landed from the United States and part of a balcony on a roof garden collapsed causing serious injuries.

Sadly, David Cassidy had alcohol problems later in life and gave permission for his own struggle with dementia to be filmed prior to his death in 2017. Donny is still around with a loyal fanbase to this day. So – was your sister a David or Donny aficionado?

Donny Osmond launches Osmond mania with Puppy Love
David and The Partridge Family

Pubs – how different were they 40 years ago?

British pub

Cigarette machines, jukeboxes, beer mats, soggy red carpets and terrible wine. Pubs divided up into snugs with dark conspiratorial corners. You daren’t nudge a bloke with a drink in his hand unless you wanted your face rearranged. And closing time was 10.40pm with the lights switched off and chairs stacked around you to encourage you to leave.

When I started going to pubs around 1979, that was the world you entered. Pubs opened at 11am and closed again at 3pm – re-opening around 7pm. The curious afternoon closing rule was only lifted in 1987. It was a practice dating back to the First World War allegedly to encourage munitions workers to return to the factories – presumably plastered by that stage.

There were pubs that could carry on serving if they had cooked food available. The bar at a polytechnic in Liverpool opened all afternoon by having a chip frier fizzing in the background. I don’t remember seeing anybody eat a single chip! Or pubs just had a “lock in” either in the afternoon or after closing time at 10.40pm. Those pubs were normally frequented by off-duty cops so they didn’t get raided.

If you needed to phone a mate who hadn’t turned up, there might be a coin-operated public phone box in the pub or you could ask the landlord to use his phone. This was normally produced from under the bar and might have a padlock on it or a coin slot or you just paid an agreed sum. The world before smartphones!

Ordering anything other than beer was a leap into the unknown. I once asked for an orange juice at a pub in northern England and was given half a pint of bitter by a disgusted landlord. Clearly the idea of drinking a fruit juice in a pub was entirely unacceptable. And you could forget tea or coffee!

Wine was a place you didn’t want to go. I remember one pub with the white wine on the spirits rack and a dispensing tap fixed at the bottom. I dared myself to try this beverage and it was warm, rancid vinegar. There was no selection of wines. Forget asking for a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc – it was either red or white and rose if you were lucky. Seem to remember Hirondelle was the brand of choice in the 70s.

You could do “off-sales” in some pubs. My local in east London had a special door that led to a counter where you could buy beer to take home. There was a plastic flagon you were given that was filled up with three pints – and was then reusable. Interestingly, with the current Coronavirus, pubs have been lobbying to be allowed to do takeaway service for both drink and food again.

Regarding food, there were no gastro-pubs in the 70s or very much in the 80s. Posh nosh tended to mean a Ploughman’s lunch – cheese and pickle sandwich with some trimmings. A Ploughman could be quite nice in a country boozer but in the city, it was soggy and tasteless fare. Snacks were the usual dry roasted peanuts and Scampi Fries. Oh – and pork scratchings if you wanted to loose some silver fillings in your mouth.

Paying by credit card in the pub was difficult until the 2000s. Either it wasn’t accepted or there was a high minimum spending limit. I’m still amazed that I can now buy a single pint and just tap my card. Believe me, there was time – not very long ago – when that was the stuff of science fiction in the British pub.