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.

Growing up with the films of Stanley Kubrik

Clockwork Orange

For film-loving Baby Boomers there was one director who made iconic and yet very different films from the 1950s until his death in 1999. That was the brilliant Stanley Kubrik.

Costume from Clockwork Orange at the 2019 London exhibition on Stanley Kubrik (image: Tony McMahon)

In 2019, I went to an exhibition in London celebrating his decades of cinematic achievement and some of my iPhone snaps are here for you to peruse. A curious mix of Roman togas; eighteenth century courtly costumes and fashion from a space age future. All reflecting the very broad palette of his movies.

As a kid I watched the epic Roman slave revolt movie Spartacus with the late Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis plus a supremely malevolent Laurence Olivier. There were always sword and sandals moves on TV in the 70s like Cecil B DeMille’s 1949 classic Samson and Delilah or the Mervyn LeRoy directed Quo Vadis from 1951. But Spartacus was different – superior – and gripping from start to finish.

That was how Kubrik began the 1960s before giving us entirely different offerings such as the seedy tale of Lolita, the darkly comic Dr Strangelove parodying our fears over nuclear war, and then the overblown sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I hope this doesn’t sound callous because it isn’t intended to be but watching my mother’s gradual mental decline as a result of vascular dementia often made me recall the fate of the ship’s super-intelligent computer in Space Odyssey.

The scene, if you recall, is where the astronaut David Bowman removes one-by-one the “modules” that make up the mega-brain of HAL9000. And as he does so, the computer initially pleads for him to stop then its speech becomes more slurred until it stops to function. Any of you who have watched the effect of dementia will know what I mean.

Kubrik then gave us the nihilistic and very controversial A Clockwork Orange – a movie that was banned for years. The first time I saw it, in the sixth form, was at a friend’s house on a pirate video with Spanish subtitles. The grim, relentless violence carried out by its main protagonist, Alex, was believed to have inspired copy-cat incidents. Though I suspect the tabloids hyped this beyond any measure of reality.

Into the 1980s and we had this slew of Vietnam movies in 1987 with Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill jostling for position at the box office. At the time, I think most of us plumped for Platoon as the best of the lot. But it’s Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket that has stood the test of time. Apparently, I’ve read, Vietnam veterans thought Hamburger Hill was the most realistic but who remembers that movie – apart from me?

What Laurence Olivier wore in Spartacus (image: Tony McMahon)