OPINION: Frugal families have dealt with worse money worries for decades

Milking time in Norfolk during the 1950s

Milking time in Norfolk during the 1950s with youngsters looking on and wondering, perhaps, what the future might hold for them - Credit: Archant

We’re constantly being reminded, mostly by “experts” who still take home a handsome wage for their trouble, how our current financial and social woes add up to the nastiest cost-of-living crisis for 70 years,

Those of us now feeling rather privileged to have been born and raised in those austerity-riven but community-driven times after the Second World War may be able to add a bit of positive perspective with a few cheery comparisons and memories from the early 1950s.

As one of 10 children – five boys and five girls - crammed into a small tied cottage close to the mid-Norfolk farm where my father worked, I was weaned on big family banter in a climate of homely bewilderment which must have arrived with the dried milk and rusks.

Where on earth did all those babies keep coming from? Was the Tilley lamp attracting them? Would the midwife appear every time the kettle boiled?

These and other leading questions were later condensed into one of my favourite tributes to the emergence of large broods – “Mother was deaf. Dad asked if she wanted a cup of tea or what..". A neat fusion of Norfolk squit and important socio-cultural matters.

Of course, membership of such a big Skipper cast … I came somewhere near the middle – meant some of the ragging could be barbed and highly personalised.

However, I like to think that helped prepare me for serious challenges ahead …..grammar school adventures, work in the media, marriage, parenthood, losing my hair, failing a series of driving tests and suffering long-term technological dyslexia.

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I try not to romanticise Norfolk country life too much in my regular glances over the shoulder at the world in which I grew up.

Rationing and shortages lingered on. A whiff of feudalism persisted over the agricultural scene with poor wages, long hours and traditional subservience to farmer and squire. Long before a major drift from the land as mechanisation took hold, younger villagers touched by ambition realised their futures lay beyond fields and furrows.

I presume most of them, like me, immediately missed that special brand of belonging and freedom to roam in and around small communities blessed with cohesion and continuity. Strangers, usually lost and impatient, and odd of newcomers were comparative rarities. Two or three sizeable families like ours could keep the village school going with regular topping-up sessions. Second homes and holiday lets had yet to make intrusive marks on long-reigning country calm.

Another key ingredient of my rural Shangri – la with sugar-beet, shire horses and golden sheaves has to be that cheeky sense of humour spiced with broad dialect tones and narrow respect for what now gets dressed up as political correctness. I can remember when feelings weren’t so much spared as employed for useful social commentary and a sharp dose of instant character building.

I can reel off a whole series of droll lines inspired by a crowded household, many of them recycled today by folk reared in homes with luxuries like electricity, hot and cold running water, a bathroom and inside toilet. A far cry from days when a tin bath in front of a coal fire was commonplace and a visit to that little building down bottom of the garden an experience full of menace after dark.

It was widely rumoured we had so many nappies drying in our kitchen we had a rainbow in the front home.

When times were extremely hard we knocked a hole in the wall so we could dip our bread in next door’s gravy. Mum invented the Norfolk spin dryer – a hula-hoop with pegs. Dad couldn’t afford Andrews’ Liver Salts. So he used to sit us on the pot and tell ghost stories.

Despite blatant shortcomings as a toiler next to the soil, I did help out alongside my dad and two older brothers during busy spells.
Wise men of the fields soon put me to the squit sword, especially at harvest time when my weakness in the teamwork ethos became all too obvious. “Next to useless!” was the most flattering label I wore.

My stock remained well below acceptable levels when I tried my luck with a farmer in a nearby parish. “Can you use me on the land?” I inquired in desperate hope my dismal agricultural track record might be unknown to him. He looked me up and down, fiddled with his trilby hat. scratched a stubbled chin and replied in deadpan fashion; “No, boy, we’re got speshul stuff fer that now.”

Perhaps the most durably vibrant Norfolk legacy of that challenging and chastening era with a jocular edge are the evergreen Boy John Letters contributed to the EDP in broad Norfolk from 1946 until 1958 by Norfolk comedian and Potter Heigham garage proprietor Sidney Grapes.

Most epistles featuring colourful village characters such as cantankerous Granfar and busybody Ole Mrs W …are rounded off with a telling postscript from Aunt Agatha. Let’s allow this homely sage the last word with a delightfully topical gem from 1955: Aunt Agatha, she say: “The cost of living is always about the same – all you’ve got!”.

Think I’ll pass that one on to the IMF … Indigenous Monetary Factors.