I loved the BBC’s Back in Time for the Weekend. If you didn’t see it – and do try if it’s on again – a family basically spend 30 days living a decade, so day one and they’re back in 1950, day 2 is 1952, day 3 and its 1953 and so on, right through to the year 2000, living exactly how families in that year lived, complete with food, clothes and morals.
It really was a trip down memory lane, full of: “Eeee, do you remember…?” and: “Ha! Only the posh lot down the street had them.” and: “God, I’d forgotten about that.”
But perhaps the most interesting aspect was seeing how today’s young people – tweens and teenagers – reacted to being young in those decades. And although the young boy moaned constantly about the lack of technology, they both declared they had more fun in the past, in particular the 1970s, when I was a child. “They were teenagers then,” said the 17-year-old daughter. “We just stare at our phones.”
Today’s children have everything we once dreamt about, with rooms packed full of stuff. But you know what, the Back in Time… kids were right. We did have more fun in the past.
And here’s why…
Is there anything better than going home from school, grabbing a jam sammidge and then heading out to play? Oh, sorry – that should all be in the past tense, because today’s youngsters don’t do it. But after being confined all day, that rush of freedom as we ran around the back lane and beyond, was exhilarating. Who needs a sugar tax when you’re running around like a Tasmanian devil?
We explored, fought, made-up, played, ran, screamed, fell, cried, laughed with only each other to rely on.
And this actually does worry me. If someone hurt themselves, we would comfort them. If someone said something nasty, we’d tell them off. Whatever the situation, we’d sort it out because we had to – there were no adults around to run to. We weren’t taught how to be self-reliant, how to be part of a society, we learnt it by being it. A whole college course of social skills was on offer just by going outside and seeing who was around to play.
Which brings me to…
Nebbing over people’s shoulders on the Tube the other morning – when you’re squashed like sardines and your head is lodged firmly in one position, it’s impossible not to – I was intrigued to see a mother write an entire missive to a father she’d met the previous day at a PTA meeting arranging a play date for young Tatiana and Rupert.
Let’s just savour that for a moment.
They were scheduling a time for their children to play. A specific time for their children to have fun. Every minute that wasn’t spent at school or being dragged to the shops was playtime in the 1970s. Of course, I didn’t always feel like playing out. Sometimes I was happy sitting on my bed reading or playing with my dolls by myself – I’m still that sort of person – but it was when I wanted to do it, not something scheduled.
Nor did we need parents to contact each other. If no one were around, we’d simply go to their back gate and shout. I’d scream: “Chris-teeeeeeeeeeen” and “He-lu-uuuuuun” and in return, they’d come calling: “Eh-liz-ah-bi-iiiiith”. Each name had its own way of being shouted, melodic, sing-songy, which is why Helen had three syllables. I’d go out to the top of my stairs, look down and we’d decide if we were playing or not. Us, not our parents.
But not only were Tatiana and Rupert’s parents deciding when they would play, they were deciding that they would also be friends. The parents had met and approved of each other and decided it would be okay to have some sort of relationship. It was the parents making friends, not the children. Tatiana and Rupert were basically conduits by which their parents could improve and enhance their social circle.
Officially, it was Grace Street Adventure Playground but for us it was simply the Quarry – because it was built on an old quarry, obviously. I mean, what better place to build a children’s adventure park?
Now this was one of the places I knew I couldn’t go by myself. My big sister used to take me – she’s a whole seven years older, so of course it was okay for her to take a five-year-old.
The Quarry was everything it sounds like: rocks, concrete, wilderness. Health and safety would have a field day just from the settings never mind the equipment we used to play on.
We used to go screaming down the shaky flying fox without a thought. Older kids would push the teapot lid so fast that you had to time your jump on and jump off precisely so the momentum would carry you away safely (my first physics lesson) and if you didn’t go down the slide back-to-front and upside-down so your head crashed off the end, well you just weren’t with it.
Yes, we fell at times and it hurt. But the feeling while you were in the air, or whooshing higher and higher on the swing, spinning round, round (baby right round) was worth it. So if you crash-landed, you picked yourself up and got right back on. Of course, if it was really bad, you’d go running back home to your mam, who’d kiss it better and then send you on your way – right back to the Quarry to start all over again. We’d go home at night exhausted and scraped and dying for it to be nine o’clock the next morning so we could get back.
Now tell me getting 100 likes on a Snap chat picture can equal that.
Every Christmas, I’d get a big toy, one special thing. When I was seven, I got three – a schoolteacher doll, a servant doll and a mammy doll. But (before big sister starts kicking up a fuss), I hadn’t been given a special treat. They were all the same doll, a dark-haired thing with a red gingham dress, a white mop cap and a matching apron. By mixing up the different pieces of clothing, the doll became those three characters (mammy doll had the apron over her dress, which says everything about society’s view of mammies in those days).
Playing outside, sticks became machine guns (me and Mr 50 Sense argue over the noise. I’m a genteel nah-nah-nah-nahhh nah-nah-nah-nahhh fighter while he goes full glottal stop with a staccato ke-ke-ke-ke-ke-ke depending on what era you’re talking about. Please settle this for us!), doorsteps were zones of sanctuary during catch and your mam’s washing hanging on the line were tents taking you miles away from the back streets of Byker. (Sorry, mam.) Everything had a hidden identity just waiting to be released.
Going around today and I see kids in pushchairs with their eyes glued to a tablet, being drip-fed someone else’s imaginative offerings. Give them a stick!
Well, yes, we did have our own screens when I was young – I’m not that old. Our first telly was black and white but it didn’t matter because so was Andy Pandy. I think he may even have been my first crush, before Jimmy Osmond and Les McKeown entered my life.
I also adored The Flower Pot Men and can remember standing in Laws stores on Heaton Road while my mam bought ham, staring into the convex mirror put up to keep an eye on shoplifters and being the Weed – complete with her “Weee-eeed” catchphrase. Yeah, I’m not sure why neither, but I’m sure it explains a lot to my friends reading this.
Children’s TV was simple and wonderful. Good guys were rewarded, baddies punished and everyone was friends at the end. Are today’s programmes worse? Probably not. I’m sure the kids today love Dora the Explore just as much but I bet she’s never inspired them to be a weed.
There was no Zoella trying to sell me a lifestyle I couldn’t afford, no pictures of my classmates having an “awesome” time without me popping up on TV every five minutes, merely stringed puppets having fun.
Am I looking back with rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps, but when reports come out about growing levels of depression in young children, I wonder.
So to Gillian Dixon and Clare Walton, my best friends at Welbeck Road school, to everyone in Canterbury Street and at the Quarry – especially the adults who ran it – and to the people who made Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben, thank you for some of the best years of my life.