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.

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…

Anybody use a calculator like this in the 1970s?

Texas Instruments

This was the first calculator I ever owned. Made by Texas Instruments and possibly the last thing I ever got from that company.

Think this wizard piece of technology was from around 1978 and could do everything from long division to logarithms. But – we weren’t allowed to take them into exams. Infuriatingly, we still had to use “log books” to calculate logarithms and slides rules.

Anybody who remembers slide rules will know how fiendishly difficult to use they were. I hated them. Still shudder when I see one.

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.

The Anti-Nazi League carnival of 1978

Anti Nazi League 1978

It’s still a day I look back on as mystical and magical. On the 30 April 1978, I went on the Anti-Nazi League march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the east end of London – and there, your humble scribed aged 15 at the time, saw The Clash and several other legendary bands play. What a time to be alive!

Though I should remove my rose-tinted spectacles at this stage of the blog post. Because it was also a time of racist attacks – especially on Asian people – unbridled bigotry in the tabloid press and the National Front (the main extreme Right party) doing well in local elections.

We had a handful of wannabe Hitlers at our school but they were rather pathetic suburban poseurs. But more worrying, the skinhead scene had been infiltrated by extreme Right groups and there had been some high profile murders.

So, a group of us went on the tube down to Charing Cross to join the demo in Trafalgar Square and a VERY long march to the Mile End district of London. Not sure you’d get anybody to march that kind of distance these days! But all that roller skating and cycling round on Chopper bikes meant we were always up for some exercise – especially in a good cause.

I actually got separated that day from the group and ended up marching on my own. There were so many people that it was useless trying to find my mates again. I have a small confession to make and that is I didn’t pay too much attention to The Clash on stage in Victoria Park and much preferred the Tom Robinson Band. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Tony McMahon remembers the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978