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.

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!

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

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

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.

SKAN – School Kids against the Nazis (1970s)

SKAN – School Kids against the Nazis – were briefly active in our secondary school handing out leaflets. This was the most famous leaflet of the lot. It showed a load of our favourite pop stars and told us they would be deported if the extreme Right got into power – because they had non-British backgrounds.

This sort of stuff was quite effective and it obviously made an impact on me because I held on to the leaflet in my scrapbook. Still think it’s a very visually compelling argument today.