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.

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…

Fringes and flat tops – men’s hairstyles of the 80s

80s hair styles

Just for the record – I never had a mullet in the 80s and neither did 90% of my friends.

I don’t believe I circulated in a particularly mullet-free environment. Most mates had heavy fringes or 50s style flat tops at one stage of the decade but the idea we were all sporting mullets is one I’d like to kill right now. No. Mullet. Ever.

Unless you count that Phil Oakey attempt in the photo below on the far right. But I don’t. That was not a mullet. It was circa 1983 should you wish to date it.

The photo above goes pretty much in date order starting with 1980 then 1981 then 1982 and finally 1983. The 1981 look I’d call sort of New Wave with the fluffy punk-style jumper bought on Carnaby Street. The 1982 fringe – third from the left – was going a bit soul boy. And finally Phil Oakey on the far right with a NATO army jacket.

Some time around 1984 I embraced the flat top. Twas all the rage at the time as we entered the era of The Smiths. And the sartorial look went very 1940s with us raiding vintage and second hand shops for long coats and pleated suit trousers that old geezers had thrown away. We basically dressed like our Granddads for a while.

My flat top – see below – was cut by the legendary (I like to think) Syd Strong in Camden. Note the wooden escalator on the London Underground there – all of them ripped out after the 1987 Kings Cross fire.

Then the mid-80s seemed to herald what I call ‘baroque’ hairstyles for men – the blonde dyed monstrosities popularised by certain pop stars and DJs whose blushes I’ll spare.

I succumbed to hydrogen peroxide at the start of my student union sabbatical year in 1984. From memory, it involved having a bathing cap with holes stuck on my head and then tufts of hair pulled through to be given the treatment. My landlord called me Limahl.

As in – “where’s the bloody rent Limahl?”

Kajagoogoo lead singer – not

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.

Meeting people from the 19th century

Many younger colleagues and friends find it completely crazy to think that people of our generation – and we’re not ancient yet – met people born in the 19th century.

When I was six years old, I met my great-grandmother in Portugal who was born in … 1884. That is mind blowing even to me now. There was also my grandmother’s second husband who was basically my grandfather as a child – born in 1899. He used to have a joint birthday every year in the 1970s and 1980s with a woman born in the same year. Sadly they have obviously both gone.

In my road as a kid there was a First World War veteran – also born in the 19th century. Part of his face had been burnt very badly and the greater part of one ear had gone. Upsetting to think back that he was referred to be crueller children as the “lizard man”.

Did you know people born in the 19th century?

My step-grandfather born in 1899 – impersonating Hitler in the 1940s

Appearing on BBC Question Time in 1980

1980 television

In 1979, the BBC launched a new political discussion show called Question Time – presented by Sir Robin Day. Somehow, a friend of mine got tickets to be in the audience and so, aged 16, we went along to the studio. Robin Day was elsewhere that day and the programme was hosted by the veteran Canadian broadcaster Bob McKenzie.

At that time, I’d started to get involved in left-wing politics and had developed a curious and unconvincing cockney accent – ditching the cut-glass posh voice my mother had instilled in me. I also still had the Irish Republican convictions that my Irish Republican grandmother had indoctrinated me with from an early age. I later became a lot more nuanced on that issue.

During the show, I stuck my hand up and got to make a point about the vote being taken away from Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom. This was a typical piece of Margaret Thatcher spite aimed at Irish people.

Me on Question Time in 1980

The British Nationality Act (passed in 1981) was being discussed in parliament and she was clearly keen on trimming the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. Subsequent analysis has suggested she thought they all voted Labour and so needed to be disenfranchised. Being half-Irish – I was not impressed.

Anyway, with my newly found cockney accent, I made my contribution and was roundly put down by Bob McKenzie. Should mention that the poor man died a year later. I hope the stress caused by my angry teenage words didn’t contribute to his demise!

The perils of prog rock

Yes Drama Buggles
I kept the gig programme from the 1980 Yes/Buggles tour

As punk simmered down from 1977 and the break up of the Sex Pistols – there was an explosion of youth cults for about six or seven years into early 1980s. Britain just threw up one 18 month musical movement after another.

So, being a bit of a cultural dilettante, I meandered into disco then New Wave then the whole 2Tone and ska wave and….unfortunately…was talked into a very brief regressive detour into prog rock.

Indeed dear reader, right at the end of the 70s, when I should have known better thanks to punk, I instead started listening to the likes of Yes, Genesis (early albums), Van der Graaf Generator, Hawkwind and Rush. These were the very “dinosaurs” that punk had excoriated. They’d been declared redundant and handed their cards by the Sex Pistols as Johnny Rotten declared year zero and a new start.

I’d seen nervous guys a few years older than me approaching the counter of Small Wonder records in Walthamstow, east London desperately trying to offload their Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Mahavishnu Orchestra LPs for a pittance. They begged to be free of their triple concept albums in return for a few pennies that would let them buy the latest punk offering from The Vibrators.

I’d seen Jon Anderson of Yes – soon to leave the band – on the front cover of Melody Maker asking – “why do they hate us?” He was referring to the punks. In the photo, Mr Anderson was clad in a kaftan and flared trousers. If he’d possessed a mirror – the answer was before him.

Yet despite all that – I was lured into the prog rock forest where the elves and wizards live. And worse – I went to some of the gigs.

Which is how I found myself at the Lyceum theatre in London – then a total dump – at a six or seven hour concert listening to a load of dodgy bands with Hawkwind as the final act around 1980. One of the music papers – think it was the Melody Maker again – ran an article at the time on Hawkind asking if there was “life after decomposition” as it seemed they’d been around forever.

Then I saw Rush at the Hammersmith Odeon on the Permanent Waves tour. Already moving leftwards politically, I struggled with their love affair with the libertarian right-wing ideologue Ayn Rand. As I listened to the anti-equality lyrics of The Trees, I began to wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake.

The final straw regarding my brief love affair with prog rock came with the news that Yes – the archetypal prog band – had merged with the New Wave popsters – The Buggles.

Truly this was a marriage performed in the lowest rungs of hell by Satan himself. Not that the resulting album, Drama, was terrible. It was good enough to convince me to buy a ticket for their gig at the Hammersmith Odeon where the tension was palpable all around me. Vocalist Jon Anderson (mentioned above) and keyboardist Rick Wakeman had been replaced by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, this happened because the two bands shared the same manager who thought it might be a good idea. I don’t know. But I never expected to hear a crowd chant: “Bring back Rick Wakeman!”

I left disillusioned. A broken man. And filed for divorce from prog rock. A year later I was at university and like the apostle Peter when asked if he knew Jesus Christ – I denied my prog dalliance vehemently and repeatedly.

It had never happened. It was all lies.

Royal Wedding and a Riot – flavour of 1981

In the summer of 1981, I got a place at Liverpool University. In July of the same year, the Toxteth district of that city exploded in riots over unemployment and a breakdown in community-policy relations. At the same time – Prince Charles married Princes Diana in front of three generations of the Royal Family.

The front page of the newspaper featured here sums up the mad contradictions of that long hot summer. Britain was convulsed with rioting in every major city – particularly Liverpool and London. While at the same time, millions tuned in to the “fairy tale” wedding of Charles and Diana – which ended up being more of a horror story.

This was the massively divided Britain of the early 80s. Half the country north of the Watford gap took the brunt of a two-year economic recession that decimated manufacturing industry. While the south-east – I think it’s fair to say – coasted through. At least that was the impression I got at the time.

Something snapped that summer. Youth jobless rates had gone through the roof. The government was bent on a monetarist economic policy that had turned a recession into a disaster. And there’s no getting away from the polarising affect that Margaret Thatcher had on people. She was either idolised or vilified. There really wasn’t much by way of a middle ground.

What this newspaper front page reports is the sole death that occurred during the Liverpool riots – in the Toxteth area of the city. It’s a very sad story. A disabled guy, David Moore, unwisely decided to take a closer look at the rioting near where he lived and was crushed under the wheels of a police van.

As Charles and Diana said “I do”, David died in hospital.

When I turned up to university, I was totally unaware that my halls of residence had just been used as a police dormitory for officers drafted in from all over the country to quell Toxteth. I only found that out years later.

John Lennon murdered – December 1980

What a terrible way to start a new decade. I was in the upper sixth at secondary school and was on my way home one day, standing at the bus stop, when somebody asked me if I’d heard about John Lennon being shot.

You have to remember that there were no smartphones, social media or 24 hour rolling news. Surprising how many news stories came to you by word of mouth. Even random people just turning round and sharing something. Seems beyond old-fashioned I know.

And it really hit me like a thunderbolt. I was a keen piano player and massive fan of the Beatles. I know this will sound a bit trite, but I was so upset that I missed my piano lesson that evening – something I went to like clockwork for years.

Instead, like most of the nation, I watched specially screened Beatles movies on the TV that night and updates on the 5.40pm and 9pm news on the BBC. Those were the regular times for the early and late evening news back then.

In the weeks that followed, the music press – NME, Melody Maker, Sounds – ran their obituaries on Lennon. Some journalists revived the stories about Lennon being under FBI surveillance and of course that led to an undercurrent of conspiracy theories about his death.

Lennon’s eulogy to Yoko Ono – Woman – went to number one in the music charts. As did Imagine. Echoing the outpouring of grief after the death of Elvis, there was a sense of a huge gap left behind and a great talent lost. And all because a talentless mediocrity, Mark Chapman, wanted his wretched 15 minutes of fame.

This is a publication – one of many – that came out at the time. And I’ve kept my copy down the years.