Memories of the early 70’s – change, fear and injustice


As 1970 drew to a close the year ahead really did seem filled with promise. Alex was expecting another baby, although I was still very vague about where it was coming from. She had also moved into a terraced house in Weston. As Mother didn’t drive and Dad’s Hillman car had been sold, being so much nearer made it far easier to visit her. Although there were limited buses this was exactly what we did on Boxing Day. For some reason Pappy didn’t come with us but he and Alex never did see eye to eye.

We spent the day watching my nephews playing with their new toys, eating a big dinner and playing games like Monopoly and scrabble. We were having such a good time we didn’t notice the snow falling at first. Even when we did, we weren’t too worried. We hardly ever get snow here and, when we do, it rarely ever lays. This snow was laying though and, before long, it looked like a blizzard outside the window. We thought we’d better try to get home before it got any worse but it turned out the few buses there were had been cancelled and the taxis weren’t running either. There was nothing for it, we would have to stay the night.

Mother and I were both a little worried about Pappy. He would be expecting us home and, when we didn’t arrive, he might well think something terrible had happened to us. Strange as it seems now, we didn’t have a phone at home and Alex didn’t have one either, so there was no way to let him know what had happened, although he would surely have seen the snow outside. Perhaps if it hadn’t been snowing so hard we might have tried to walk home. We spent an uncomfortable night sleeping on camp beds worrying about Pappy worrying about us. When we did finally get home the next day, all our worries about Pappy had been in vain. He’d seen all the snow and hadn’t been expecting us to come back!

Getting older meant I took a lot more notice of the news, or perhaps I just understood more of what I saw. The big news at the beginning of 1971 was the final stage of decimalisation. We’d been using some of the new coins for three years, or at least people who actually had any money had, but, in February, the last of the old £SD ceased to be legal tender. It felt a little bit sad to say goodbye to the old silver sixpences and shillings forever but, seeing as I never had that kind of money, it didn’t really make much difference to me. In actual fact, I wasn’t the only one who loved the silver sixpence pieces. There was such a public outcry at the thought of losing them they were kept in circulation and used alongside the new five pence coin, which was the same shape and size.

Mother bought me  a special commemorative wallet containing one of each of the new coins. These were not to spend, but to keep as a memento. What became of it is a mystery. It disappeared somewhere during all my house moves in my twenties. It could still be in the attic somewhere I guess. Thinking about it now, it would have been better to have a wallet containing one of each of the old coins. In fact, someone in London must still have a stash of the old pennies because they’re used to calibrate Big Ben to this day.

In February I became an auntie for the third time when Alex had baby James. For me, this was one of the highlights of the year. Another was swimming. Although I can’t remember exactly when I began to have swimming lessons I know it was some time after my Dad died. In my first years at junior school a large blue temporary pool would be erected in the school playground in summer. It wasn’t very big or very deep and it stank of chlorine. It was also freezing cold. At the time I couldn’t swim and I can’t say I looked forward to school swimming lessons very much.

At some time in 1969 or maybe 1970 we began collecting bundles of old newspapers and foil milk bottle tops and taking them to school to raise money for a permanent school swimming pool. There was a chart on the wall of the school hall like a giant thermometer showing how much we’d raised and how much we still needed. Then Liz, the girl who lived at the top of the crescent, began to have proper swimming lessons at the Central Baths with the Southampton Swimming Club. We both lived in the same road and went to the same school but we didn’t know each other very well. Somehow though, her parents and Mother got together and I ended up going with them.

Once a week we’d get the bus into town and walk down the forty steps to the baths on Western Esplanade. Liz’s little brother, David, was fascinated with the old walls and his mother would tell him stories about them as we walked past. Some, like the stories of dungeons where the tide would come up and drown prisoners, were not strictly true, but it would be many years before I discovered this and the stories did make me look at the old stone walls in a different light.

At first the swimming lessons were half scary and half exciting. The Central Baths were huge and rather beautiful with acres of glass. In the foyer downstairs there were massive windows looking into the water of the sixteen foot six deep end of the big pool. Sometimes we’d stand for a while watching feet and arms waving about in the water, or the occasional diver swooping down in an arc of bubbles.

Liz, David and I started off in the baby pool. The water was warmer than the outdoor school pool but not much deeper. We had polystyrene floats to hold and we’d go up and down kicking our legs like mad. The teacher was called Mr Pugh, at least I think he was. He believed I could swim long before I did. Self belief never has been my thing.

In the end he tricked me into realising I could do it. We’d been practising our legs holding the float in our hands and our arms with the float between our legs or under our tummies.
“Let me help you practise both together,”he said. “I’ll hold onto the back of your costume and you can swim a length with your arms and legs at once.”
”You promise you won’t let go?”
”Of course not.”

So Mr Pugh held onto the straps at the back of my costume and I set off doing front crawl with my arms and kicking my legs at the same time. When I got to the far end of the pool I stood up and turned around. Mr Pugh was right back where I’d started, grinning at me. I’d swum the whole length by myself and earned my very first swimming badge.

There were a whole load of badges to get, little strips of grossgrain ribbon in different colours you could sew into your swimming costume. Over the next weeks, month and years, along with Liz I worked my way through them all. All my life I’d hated sports but I’d finally found one I was quite good at.

At the end of each lesson we got changed and went out into the evening air where Liz’s dad was always waiting for us in his car. On the drive home we usually listened to comedy shows like  Not In Front Of The Children on the car radio. The very best part of these swimming days was getting home, still smelling faintly of chlorine with my muscles singing and my stomach rumbling. There were always baked potatoes with lashings of butter waiting for me along with Mother and Pappy. Neither of them ever saw me swim.

The year wasn’t all new money, new nephew and swimming lessons though.  The evening news was often filled with gloom and disaster. The crush to leave a football stadium in Glasgow led to a pile of bodies and haunted my dreams for a while.  A postal workers’ strike lasting more than a month didn’t really affect me, eleven year old’s don’t get much post after all, but it seemed to unsettle the adults. Then there were protests about the Vietnam War and a terrible plane crash in Yugoslavia. The world seemed to be a far more dangerous place than I’d realised.

Then, when the new school year began in September, the newly completed school swimming pool didn’t make up for the discovery that the dreaded Miss Please was my teacher again. It didn’t seem fair that I’d have to put up with her for my last year at junior school. She had not mellowed with age and she still didn’t like me for some reason.

Early in the term we had a sponsored swim to raise money for heating for the pool building. My sponsor form was filled right up and I knew the more lengths I swam the more money I would raise. This seemed like my chance to get into Miss Please’s good books. On the night I swam and swam, determined to raise more than anyone else and make her proud of me for once. One by one the other children tired and got out of the pool but I kept on going. In the end I was the only child left in the pool but I still had energy left so I carried on. Rather than being proud of me or impressed with my efforts though, Miss Please was annoyed. When I got to the end of a lap she told me quite brusquely, “enough is enough, get out now.”

Even now I look back and wonder why she disliked me so much? I was never a naughty child, in fact I always tried my best to follow the rules and do what I was told. Ok, so I talked a little more than I should, but so did most of the girls in the class. I didn’t talk back, I worked hard, even if I was rubbish with numbers and useless at P.E. In her eyes though, nothing I did would ever be enough.

Where the classroom had been the one bright spot of the previous year, it soon became the dark place that haunted my nightmares. In fact I remember one very vivid dream I had about sitting cross legged in the assembly hall and suddenly realising, to my horror and embarrassment, I  was dressed in my green P.E. knickers and vest.

Along with a fear of doing the wrong thing at school, the fears of the wider world  crowded in on me. The Northern Irish troubles were constantly in the news. It felt like there were riots reported every night, although I’m sure that wasn’t actually the case. Violence and the loud, shouting Irish accent of the Reverend Ian Paisley, seemed to be all around, separated from me only by the Irish Sea.

Then things got frighteningly close to home. A bomb exploded at the top of the Post Office Tower in London. No one was hurt but the IRA claimed responsibility and there was talk of a possible wave of terror attacks. This climate of violence and unrest, along with all the tales I’d heard of war and bombs dropping sent my vivid imagination into overdrive.

Original by Brian Gillman

The year ended with the usual festivities. We may not have had as much money as we had when Dad was alive but there were still Christmas presents under the tree, aunts and uncles visiting and a huge mountain of food to be eaten around the dining table.  Little did I know it would be the last Christmas I’d really enjoy.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

2 thoughts on “Memories of the early 70’s – change, fear and injustice”

    1. Teachers and their attitudes can shape our futures for good or bad. This one was definitely for the bad. I rarely go swimming these days but learning to swim was one of the best things I did. Living in a port city with so much water everywhere it was vital. My boys learned young too, although one is still not keen. It was reassuring to know they could do it and wouldn’t drown if they fell in the river.

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