James Walvin's wonderful memoir of growing up in the 1950s evokes a lost world of harsh poverty and mutual dependenceby David Goodhart / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Different Times: Growing Up in Postwar England, by James Walvin (Algie Books, £7.55)
Human beings tend to be creatures of habit. New things like email or mobile phones become so quickly absorbed into our daily routines that we forget how novel they are or what life was like before them.
This instinct seems to make us oblivious to the speed at which our societies are changing. Just as we experience the world as physically fixed despite the fact that we are hurtling through space at 65,000 miles per hour, so social change, however rapid, seems to happen somewhere just beyond our vision.
Then every now and then something brings us up short and reminds us of how fast the immediate past is receding, how things that only a few decades ago seemed fixed and permanent have disappeared completely. James Walvin’s little gem of a book, a memoir of an industrial working-class childhood in north Manchester in the 1950s, is one of those things.
I had to pause every now and then while reading the book to remind myself that this world of the factory village, of harsh poverty, of tight bonds of mutual dependence, existed in my lifetime. Indeed, many of the vanished things that Walvin describes would have been familiar to anyone growing up in 1950s Britain: assumptions of parental and adult authority, the casual violence of everyday life, the stoicism and emotional reticence, the chauvinistic reflexes about British superiority.
Weaving the story of his family into the wider social realities of the postwar working class world—there are chapters on neighbourhood, factory life, the extended family, education, football and so on—this book is a useful and enjoyable contribution to the social history of the 1950s.
“The industrial way of life felt eternal then, though it was in fact no more than five or six generations old”
It is also about the making of a social historian: how a bookish, inquisitive young boy came to connect his family and neighbourhood to the wider…