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"Just talking about my g-g-generation!"
This website is mostly about Imperial units of measure. This page doesn't really fit into that description, but it is connected. It deals with words and phrases which people from my generation understand and sometimes even still use, which are incomprehensible to younger people.I was born in 1953 in England, a few days before Queen Elizabeth's coronation. That makes me part of the Baby Boom generation, the bulge of births which happened after the second world war. We had (and still have) a strong sense of our own identity, shown by the quote from The Who, given above.
The idea for this page came from a friend who referred to something on the wireless. This is nothing to do with wi-fi. It is the original description for a radio. They used valves, glass tubes which worked as amplifiers, etc. They were fairly large, and heavy, and often had a cloth front. You twisted a dial to find the right frequency, and these changed so rarely that the name of the programmes were printed on the wireless dial. There was long wave and medium wave. The BBC radio programmes were on the Home service (the oldest), the Light Programme and the Third Programme (which was called that because it was the third channel to be introduced). A wireless was plugged into the wall to use mains power, and there was usually only one wireless in the house (and none in the car). Later transistor radios were introduced, which used the new transistors instead of valves. They ran on batteries (which puzzled me as a child - why did wirelesses have wires and radios not?) and were portable and cheaper. Teenagers started having their own radios. Pop music was originally on pirate radio, broadcast from ships outside British territorial waters (so they couldn't be prosecuted). Finally the BBC started Radio 1, whose disc jockeys were all former pirate radio staff. The Light Programme became Radio 2, the Third Programme Radio 3 (logically) and the Home service, Radio 4. My mother was very annoyed at this, since the oldest radio service had the lowest new number.
In my childhood, music was on records. These were made of shellac, black and heavy, and they broke if you dropped them. They played on the gramophone at 78 rpm (revolutions per minute). Then there were singles and LPs (long playing records). These were still black, and made of plastic. Singles were 45rpm, were smaller than the 78 records, and lasted about 3 minutes each side, the same as a 78. LPs were 33rpm, larger, and lasted perhaps 30 minutes each side. These records had two sides, and for a single, there was the A side (which was what was played on the radio) and a B side, usually not as good. These new plastic records were played on a record player, which could usually play a 78 as well. You had to switch to the correct speed. It was always fun to play a record at the wrong speed. A record player had a needle which fitted into the groove of the record, and the vibrations of the groove made the music. Records were often scratched (by the needle moving over the surface if the record player was hit) and sometimes the playing got stuck in a loop, playing the same bit of music again and again. Some record players had auto-changers. You could stack up several records, and the record player would drop the first, play it, then drop the second, play that, and son on. Otherwise, you would have to change the record every 20 or 30 minutes, and for singles, every 3 minutes. Originally the sound came out of a single speaker, but later we had stereo, so records were marked mono or stereo. Some pop music got very exicted about this, and different instruments would whizz from one speaker to another, which if you were wearing headphones gave you the impression that the musical instruents were travelling through your head! Good quality record players were called hi-fi, and their owners could get a little boring talking aout them! Record players were obviously not at all portable. There were open reel tape players, and later there were cassette players which used playing smaller enclosed tapes and fairly portable. Sony produced a much smaller, really portable cassette player called the Walkman, which was the origin of people wandering round listening to music. Records were taken over by CDs, and now we have MP3 files, which can be downloaded from the internet, stored and played from computers and various types of music player.
Above I have described playing already recorded music, but there is also the history of recording your own. Open reel tapes were never common, I think. I remember people recording Christmas greetings and sending them to people abroad. When cassette tapes started, recording music became wide-spread. You could buy blank tapes, and my tape player had a radio as well, so it was easy to tape direct from the radio. You could easily tape music from records as well. I think it was generally accepted that this was illegal but tolerated. If you recorded twenty minutes of music, it took twenty minutes, and you had to be there at the start and end to switch the recorder on and off. But television was not recordable. If you were not there to listen, then you missed the programme. Video tape recorders made a lot of difference, but there were two problems. To start with, there were two incompatible formats of tape, Betamax and VHS, and you will still find people who snarl at the memory! But sadder still, a lot of people never discovered how to program their recorders and only used them to play bought or hired tapes.
In 1971 I revisited my old school after spending six months working for IBM as a computer programmer, and my headmistress asked me what computers actually did. I was shocked at her ignorance, but that attitude was common. People knew the things existed but had no contact with them themselves. Still I was working as a commercial programmer, I knew about mainframes (big computers), minis (small computers) and micros (tiny computers). They stored data on open reel tapes and dismountable disks. The computers were kept in special air conditioned rooms, and we were not allowed in. We had to type our programs on paper tape or punched cards, and got back the result on printed paper. When I started, the turn-round (from handing over the punched cards to the operators to feed into the computer, to getting the results back) was often a whole day! By the early 1980's, there were some cheap micros available, and Margaret Thatcher had the aim to have one computer in every school in Britain. Those that could afford it would get a BBC computer, otherwise they would have a ZX81. (Both these were very slow and could hardly do anything.) There was certainly several years when the joke that an eight year child knew more about computers than an adult was uncomfortably near the truth. Some people got computers for the games, others for word processing. The BBC computer originally stored its programs on cassette tapes, which was painfully slow and unreliable. Then there were the original floppy disks, in square black card cases, 5 and a quarter inch. They were called floppy disks for a reason - a joke ran that someone sent a floppy disk through the post with "floppy disk do not bend" written on it. When it arrived, someone had added "Oh yes they do!" These were replaced by 3 and a half inch disks, in robust plastic covers of various colours. As I explained to my mother, they were called floppy disk because they weren't floppy and they weren't round (but they were inside, of course). If you want to know what this type of disk looked like, its picture is still used as an icon for 'Save file' in most software. By now, PCs and Microsoft had arrived, and there were more and more computers around. Once the internet started, suddenly in a couple of years we seemed to go from expecting people not to know about computers to expecting people to own one, have an email address and shop online! Meanwhile, data went onto CDs, then DVDs, then USB sticks, and data was transferred through email as well.
When I was young, the second world war (1939-1945) was a recent memory for most. People would talk of 'before the war'. I did this until the Falklands War, when I thought that I ought to be more specific! The first world war (1914-1918) was called the Great War, and also there was 'between the wars' (I think I still say this). There was also the remains of the effects of the war. I would be told that my bedroom looked like a bombsite. Building sites or empty patches of ground were also called bombsites, and it was rather a shock to me when I realised that that was what they were, even up to the 1950's. A pretty girl would be called a bombshell. All of my generation seemed to know about the main WWII campaigns. I can remember Harold Wilson (Prime Minister in 1960s and 1970s) appealing to the Dunkirk spirit, and although people were rather annoyed by the reference, everyone knew what it meant. I must add one more reference to time, which was slightly before my time. During the war, instead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and Summer Time (GMT+1), they had Summer Time and Double Summer Time (GMT+2). This was supposed to make more efficient use of daylight hours. However, the slang terms used for it revealed what people thought. GMT was God's Time, Summer Time was Government Time and Double Summer Time was Daft Time!
Shops and pubs
While there were large shops in my childhood, they weren't supermarkets like today. There were large departiment stores, and large grocery stores, but you weren't expected to get the stuff yourself and take it to the till to pay for it. Most of the shops were small ones. There were butchers for meat, bakers for bread and cakes, greengrocers for fruit and veg and grocers for other food. This is where most people did their food shopping, queuing up in each shop. There were barber shops for men to have haircuts ("short back and sides!") and the hairdressers were for the women. A barber would have a striped red and white pole outside. Chemists had large glass bottles full of of brightly coloured water in their front windows; I'm not sure why! They were just coloured water. Prescriptions from the doctor had the ingredients in them (which was supposed to be why doctrs' handwriting was illegible, so ordinary people couldn't read it), and the chemist made up this prescription himself. Sometimes a doctor would prescribe his own medicine for something like a cold, and this would be supplied in a bottle, say, with a label saying "The Mixture!" Every town had its High Street, with shops both sides, narrow pavements and busy traffic in the road. There were many more Post Offices than there are today. The letter boxes were collected several times a day, with collection times on the box. Post was delivered to houses twice a day. The first post was first thing in the morning, and there would be a second post later. Without email, you could get a message to someone quickly by telegram.
Pubs often had saloon bars and public bars (or other variants on the idea). The saloon bar was the 'polite' bar, and the public bar was rougher. For example, the saloon bar might have a carpet rather than a lino floor, and the drinks would cost a little more. Some pubs expected women to go to the saloon bar. Most of the pubs were tied houses, rather than free houses. That meant they were owned by a brewery, who insisted that only their own beers were sold there. By the 1970's, the quality of beer had deteriorated. A few large breweries dominated the market (and the pubs), and the beer was often keg, with the the yeast filtered out of it and served under pressure to artificially reintroduce the fizz. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) started up to reverse this, introducing the idea of Real Ale, with its yeast still alive.
The train system was run by British Railways, which was state owned. Trains were one of the few places which had a partial ban on smoking. A carriage in a train would either be smoking or non-smoking, and the 'smoking' carriages could be pretty disgusting! I avoided them unless there were no free seats in the non-smokers. In general, I remember the trains being dirtier. On the other hand, a train would have a guard's van for luggage. I even remember getting a bike sent by train, with my mother putting it on the train at one end, and me collecting it at the other. There were porters to help people with heavy luggage. You could also buy platform tickets, very cheap, which allowed you onto the platform to wave goodbye to someone travelling by train, or meeting someone.
Buses had conductors. These were people on the main part of the bus whose job was to sell you the bus ticket. The driver merely drove the bus. London buses had open platforms rather than doors, and it was not unknown for someone to jump on a bus while it was moving.
© Jo Edkins 2011 - Return to units index