Writing about the 1950s

histfictionpromotionnov16This post is part of a historical fiction promotion by a number of writers on the 12th and 13th of November 2016.

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Writing about the 1950s

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the 1950s as history, because I lived through the decade, and yet there’s no doubt that it’s now ‘different’ enough from the present day to be regarded as history. When I was at university I studied the 1940s as history, and yet it was only about 20 years in the past at that point. I think as well as the perspective produced by time passing, there has to be another kind of perspective, perhaps that created by major change, for it to make sense to treat a past era as historical.

I’m not one of these people who sees the 1950s as a golden age to which we should aspire to return. Yes, children could play outside from dawn to dusk without even having a mobile phone to provide a lifeline to their parents. We would play on the beach for hours and sometimes, more dangerously, at the local quarry.

Mothers tended not to work outside the home, so they were always around, usually cooking, ironing or doing the family wash, which was a major operation even for people lucky enough to have washing-machines at home. The daily routine, in our family, used to revolve around my father and his work. He would come home for lunch every day and because there was a short train journey involved, he didn’t have much time, so the lunch had to be ready at the right time. Not that he was in any way a domestic tyrant – this was something my mother did because she wanted to and not because he laid down the law about it.

Some of the things I wasn’t so keen on about the 1950s were mostly the result of living in a village. There was very little to do except go to church, unless you went outside the village to do it. I was a keen tennis player but even that came to a stop in the winter. Everybody knew everybody else, but it took several generations for people to be accepted as natives. The library van came round only once a week, so there was only one chance to change your books. We had to go into the nearest town to shop for certain things.

Other things I didn’t like were the result of living in a draughty Victorian house. We could never get warm enough in the winter. During one very cold winter all our water pipes froze in the ground just outside the house and we didn’t have water for several weeks.

As I now know, there were many important events going on nationally and internationally to which I was completely oblivious at the time, so writing about the 1950s and doing some research is a good way to catch up with them. The only events of this kind I can actually remember during that period were the Coronation, the Hungarian Revolution (and that was only because some Hungarian refugees arrived to live in our village – I didn’t really know why at the time) and the 1959 UK general election.

Among the national and world events I completely missed hearing about were the exposure of the Cambridge Spies, the Korean War, the death of Stalin, the East German riots of 1953 and the Suez crisis. I suppose in some of these cases my parents deliberately didn’t mention them in front of me in case they had to go into long explanations – although actually I was quite an incurious child so I probably wouldn’t have asked anything difficult – and in some cases I just wasn’t interested. The only reason I even recall the 1959 election is that I told some people at my primary school that my mother had voted Labour, and they chased me round the playground.  We lived in a staunchly Conservative area in those days.

Having skimmed through the Festival of Britain, the great storm of 1952, the Coronation and my own version of the Cambridge Spies in my Quest series of novels, I am currently writing about Berlin in 1954, which is a particular pleasure for me as it forms a backdrop to my own experience of Berlin in 1964, when I visited it on a school exchange trip. For example, I hadn’t realised until I began my research that the building of the Berlin Wall came as a complete surprise to the British, French, Americans and most Germans as it literally went up overnight without any warning.

1964-willy-brandt-speaks-at-schoneberger-rathaus

I was in the crowd as Willy Brandt spoke at Rathaus Schöneberg

1964-berlin-checkpoint-charlie

and at Checkpoint Charlie well before you could buy souvenir T-shirts there.

Of course there are many traps waiting for anyone who writes about fairly recent history and there is always the risk that someone who actually remembers the relevant time and place reads the novel and notices all the mistakes. It doesn’t help that I tend not to remember details very well, which isn’t a recent development but has always been the case. I got round this when studying history by considering generalisations and not specifics wherever possible. It’s actually quite a lot more difficult to get round this kind of thing while writing fiction, when you suddenly find you need to know what it was like getting the Night Ferry from London to Paris, whether there was more than one berth in the sleeping compartment and what people had for breakfast. But of course that’s what the internet is for!

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2 Replies to “Writing about the 1950s”

  1. Cecilia,

    You have an interesting blog. I’ve bookmarked it.
    I sure do recall Monday, washing day, stirring the copper over a gas ring flame. Putting the heavy wet sheets through the hand wringer.
    I was born in 1946, and my mum always had the ABC radio on, so I was aware of the daily reports of deaths and casualties from the Korean War from the age of four. I wanted to understand the why of things, and felt frustrated that my mother could not explain to me why there was a war. Well, at seventy, I still do not understand…
    I recall the 1950s as a paternalistic era. A repressive era for women, an era where my sister and I discovered our paths to our chosen careers blocked by the gender barrier in education. I see the fifties as the breeding ground for the 1960s rebels who created social change.

    Cheers, Ryn.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Ryn. Of course the Korean War would have been more immediate for you. It was all a long way off as far as we were concerned.
    I can’t say I experienced any gender barriers in education, but perhaps we were a bit ahead of the game in Scotland. One thing that puzzles me is that when I started work in computing in 1970 there were equal numbers of men and women in our office, and yet since then it has been almost completely dominated by men. I don’t see that as progress!

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