You have to be in your seventies to have any recollection of life when the Queen came to the throne. Her passing brings up many memories. The 1950s are not history, they are very real for us. Wander down some of those lanes with me.
I was six when George VI died in February 1952. I don’t remember the pictures of the young Queen returning from Africa, which is what the archives throw up, but I do recall being impressed by this young woman surrounded all the time by men in suits. All we ever saw was black and white photos, everything was grey, but somehow she brought colour into them.
I clearly recall listening with my mum to the radio coverage of the King’s funeral, I imagine it was on the BBC Home Service. I heard bagpipes for the first time, playing Flowers of the Forest. I was in tears.
It is worth remembering the ordinary detail of the time. We had milk delivered daily, glass bottles with foil tops. It arrived by horse-drawn milk float. The horse knew the round and needed no instructions, walking on to the next house as the milkman did each delivery.
At night, the gas street lights were turned on by a man with a long pole and at least once a day a policeman cycled up and down the road. Our local shops sold everything you needed for daily living and even as children you got to know the shopkeepers. The man who ran the tobacconist and confectionary shop lived on our road and knew us well. If I walked in the door of the baker’s, they knew what I had come for without a word being spoken.
My father had a car, not many in our street had one. In the 1950s, it was a Standard 8 with the registration BYB122 – a completely useless piece of information to remember. Our house, a 1930s semi, was rented. We had a garage, which my father actually used. The road was a cul-de-sac with no through traffic. It made a ready playground for the dozen or so children who lived there.
We went to school by bus. The fare was, “ha’penny half please.” Some of the conductors were married to their driver and the bus route passed the home of one couple. He stopped the bus, she went into the house and came out with their mid-morning snack, which they had at the end of the route. On their next circuit they did the same for a lunch break.
Most of the outer suburbs of London had largely recovered from the damage of the war but in 1952, as you got closer to the centre, there were still ‘bomb sites’ where a building had stood but was not yet replaced. My abiding memory of these sites is buddleia. The blue-flowered shrub seemed to grow like a weed. My mother, a staunch Londoner, would never in later life countenance having one in her garden.
Meeting a Queen
I had one contact with royalty as a child.
Queen Mary, the new Queen’s grandmother, bought her books from the Times Bookshop in Wigmore Street. Her visits to the shop were always planned in advance and she expected to see children there. So once or twice a year children of the staff were shipped in, wearing their best school uniform. My turn came when I was about five and I went in one Saturday morning with my father, who was the book buyer. I recall a very grand lady around whom everyone fussed. I cannot remember if she spoke to me or even noticed me, although I know I was within very few feet of her. I do know that my school blazer, black and gold stripes, was admired by many of the other adults.
The Coronation in 1953 was a memorable occasion. We drove across London at some insane early hour, dressed in our best, to get to a television owned by one of my father’s colleagues. There must have been ten or twelve people around that set, with a tiny screen, black and white, woolly sound – no comparison with how we will watch the next one. They gave me a small glass of Guinness to toast the event at lunchtime. I hated it but these are nonetheless memories of an historic occasion which few can now remember.
I did not know then that, in later life, I would meet the Queen and have a conversation with her. Part of her graciousness was that she knew she had impact and she made it so easy for those she met to cross any barriers they might have felt.
Seventy years ago, I could not have dreamt of meeting her. Today, it is a memory that I treasure.