I suppose that one thing that I particularly remember as a child was a sense of optimism. The world seemed such a positive place and science was going to lead us into a bright future. This seems almost a ridiculous state when we look at all the ills that the world faces at the moment, but it was the way that I felt. I was speaking with my youngest son last night and we were discussing how life has changed and how in the past many children did not live beyond five years. One of the few things that I remember from English A-level at Roundhay School was that John Milton’s wife had twenty-two children and that none of them survived into adulthood.
I am sure that he sees me as some boring old man who lived in the dark ages, as I did when my father told me that at primary school in Scotland that he wrote on slates. But the truth is that I can still remember gas lights, trams, dip ink pens and inkwells, the arrival of television, the first Doctor Who, the arrival of colour television and the Moon Landing. As I have recounted before, my grandma’s house in Chapel Allerton had no bathroom, had coal fires and range, outside toilets at the end of the lane, guzundas, a coal cellar and a dolly tub for the washing.
Now these things strike me as strange, but at the time, they were perfectly normal and modern. This was still relatively soon after the Second World War and so I suppose society was still trying to find its feet. I do believe there was a real sense of optimism and as the world moved into the 1960s, this feeling was real. Young people were not happy with the status quo and wanted different things from their parents. Clothing became cheap and colourful, popular music developed and was led by young people, and there was a growing demand for a new world order where wealth was evenly distributed.
As a child I really had no idea about the past, apart from knights in armour, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and William Tell, and that was all from the television. I do remember that they kept showing a series called All Our Yesterdays, and it was about the war and I found it very boring. But I watched as things changed around me, the black stone buildings in Leeds City were cleaned and revealed sandy yellow structures. Slums were cleared and new estates built. Shopping centres such as the Merrion Centre appeared in the city and tall blocks of flats popped up. The Quarry Hill Flats were old at this time and, despite being a symbol of modernisation, it was becoming evident that they were not the answer. There were some pre-fab houses, but again, it was clear when I was a child that they would not play a major part in the future.
The window to the new world that was coming could be seen in science fiction, both in books and on the screen. Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, Supercar, The Jetsons, My Favourite Martian and Dr Who, were my prime viewing and later added Blake’s Seven as a must watch. When I was at Roundhay School, I started reading Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and their ilk and they showed the way. Technology, man’s ingenuity, space travel, advanced communication would all transform our lives, and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. Toys began to become modernised, and clockwork was replaced with battery-powered toys. Ray guns, robots from Lost In Space, and all kinds of things appeared, and our imaginations ran wild. Dalek toys that were remote controlled on a cable were the must-have toy for boys. This was long before radio controlled toys were even thought of, but cars on cables made you the bee’s knees of cool kids.
It wasn’t just children that saw the changes coming; my parents had ambitions to have a quality of life that was beyond their parents. They had a television and a car; we went on holiday; they had a house and began to modernise it. Electrical appliances started to arrive in the house. Fridges, twin-tub washing machines, telephones, electric heaters, transistor radios soon joined us in our changing home. As I and my brothers grew, so did the house and the innovations.
One area that I was aware of was medical advances. When I was little, we used to see people who had suffered polio, rickets, and other common illnesses at the time. On Christmas mornings, the TV would show Leslie Crowther visiting hospitals and children who had to spend their time there. It was an uplifting programme, on the whole, and Leslie would hand them gifts to brighten up their days. But they also used to visit the wards where the iron lungs were. These were quite frightening places, and the patients endured a horrifying existence. I didn’t realise that we were some of the early recipients of the vaccinations for measles, chickenpox, smallpox, German measles, polio, mumps and others. We just went to Dr Black to receive them, or we were given them at Harehills County Primary School, with everyone else. As I got older, it appeared that these diseases were eradicated in the UK and were only remaining in the less developed parts of the world. As a result of this, infant mortality rates changed dramatically and countless lives were saved. My parents were far too sensible to question whether we were inoculated and we were just given the jab at the appropriate time. When our first son was born and we went to speak to the doctor to ask about the whooping cough injection for him as a baby, there was some discussion as he had suffered what was called the jitters during birth, a form of mild concussion, I believe. The doctor said on balance, because of his history, he thought it best that he didn’t have it. We followed this advice and lived to regret it. He became ill at the start of the school summer holidays, which was lucky for us as we were both teaching. He developed this whooping coughing fit, and we knew whooping cough was in the community. We took him to the same doctor, and he was dismissive, saying how did we know it was whooping cough. Our son obliged and went into a coughing fit, and the doctor’s face changed instantly. This was the start of a dreadful few weeks. Our son would start coughing, find it almost impossible to catch his breath and it meant that my wife and I were frantic with worry, and got almost no sleep for the whole time.
It was one of the worst times of our lives and certainly I would recommend anyone gets fully vaccinated as the consequences of not doing so can be devastating. For anyone unsure, then contact a doctor, not Facebook or Google.
The introduction of proper heating into our house was a real boon for me and my brothers. Up to this point when the central heating arrived, winter was bitterly cold and ice on the inside of the windows was common. Sleeping completely hidden under the covers was the only way to endure the freezing temperatures of winter. Despite my father constantly adjusting the thermostat back to 21 degrees, when any of us raised it, it was much more pleasant than it used to be.
The optimism seems to continue all through the 1960s, but in the 1970s and later 1980s there came a period of social upheaval. There were strikes for better pay and conditions, shortages of oil as OPEC limited supply, and the coal industry, steel industries and others were either totally destroyed or weakened to the point where they could no longer hold governments to ransom. Three-day weeks, blackouts, food and fuel shortages soon stopped much of the prior optimism, but still great music was produced and I enjoyed my teenage years. It was when the teachers decided to take on the Conservative Government, after seeing the coal and steel destroyed, that was the wakeup call that I needed to seek new horizons. Logic told me that withdrawing playground supervision, parent interviews and clubs and sports after school had absolutely no chance of beating the Government. We decided that we would look for jobs teaching overseas, both as a financial benefit and to bring excitement into our lives. We had one son at the time and we applied for about four positions in the Times Education Supplement. We heard back from two positions. One was for a position in Mozambique. They wrote a nice letter saying that they were war-torn and poor, but if we were still interested to let them know. The other was for general positions in Papua New Guinea.
Now I must be honest in saying that I had no idea where Papua New Guinea was at the time, but we were asked for an interview in London. We had to pay our own way there, and it was held in the high commission. It was a strange day when we took the train down and we arrived outside the commission. We were invited up to a small room and were interviewed by two men. One was the head of the large highschool in Port Moresby, the capital, and the second was a head of a small school who was just finishing his contract. It was one of those interviews that was relaxed and seemed to just go well. We were both positive, excited at the opportunity and at the end were really quite elated about the whole experience. The sense of euphoria lasted all the way home. On November 5th 1985, my wife failed her driving test, and somehow that was my fault, but it was a disappointment for her, and the first and last time she failed at anything, apart from possibly in her choice of husband. Anyway, the next morning we received a phone call just before we were leaving for our schools. It was from the head teacher of Banz International School, and he had been asked by the school board to offer us a three-year contract. I just turned to my wife, and she said yes, and so I said we would be delighted. His name was Les Martin, and he said didn’t we need time to think about it, and we both said no. That was it! He sent paperwork, photographs of the school, and further information.
They wanted us to start a few weeks later in January and so we both had to speak to our heads as we couldn’t give the required notice, and both were very supportive. Things were then a blur, as all sorts of things had to be arranged. It was a quick decision, built on optimism that things could be better, and it proved to be a successful and exciting venture.
We returned in 1988 and had twins, and then the fourth son within a very short time. This kept my wife very busy, but during the first year I came home and asked would she consider moving to Australia. Now at this point she was worn out with three babies, but with her limitless optimism she said, why not? It took a long while for the process to go through and I remember vividly walking with the double pushchair, a single buggy and going to the post box in Wrenthorpe. We stood at the box with a large envelope and stopped and said, ‘This could change our lives.’ I then dropped the envelope and the next adventure was started.
It is interesting that before we left for PNG, we had to buy suitable clothes to last the year and people asked why we were buying a lot. When we explained, it was surprising how many said that they had had opportunities to go to Canada, Australia or some such places, but had turned it down and now regretted it. I am not sure if we have just been lucky, or whether it is a matter of making the best choices when opportunities arise, but there is very little that I regret. I think the optimism and confidence came from the families my wife and I came from, the City of Leeds, ‘can do’ attitude, and the optimism of the time. Sadly, much of the optimism has been lost, with climate change issues, the pandemic and lack of leadership world-wide, but he optimist me says that things can and will only get better!