on 16 October 2009
As an almost contemporary of the author, brought up in poor but very different circumstances in a country setting rather than in the East End, I find this book to be a moving, eloquent, and indeed inspiring story of the triumph of humanity over adverse circumstances. For the older generation it is an exercise in nostalgia, for the younger a source of information, conveyed with illuminating anecdotes, about life in the respectable working classes in the nineteen thirties and the war. Much of it throws light on our present problems of social dislocation, alienation, and breakdown. The author himself was brought up by his grandparents, his father having left when he was very young.
Houghton tells us that in the community in which he grew up everybody was poor, there was a "togetherness", a real sense of belonging, but now the street where he lived has been replaced by "uninspiring drab architecture, devoid of character and without soul". Hitler failed to destroy it, indeed as in Coventry he merely strengthened its resolve, but in the 1960's town planners demolished it forever, broke its community spirit, and scattered its residents to dwell in "cold, grey, concrete, monolithic jungles".
Yet a poor community often saw evictions for failure to pay rent,overcrowding was usual, work was available if at all in sweatshops,recourse to pawnbrokers was common, and there were lots of drunks around especially on Friday or Saturday nights. As the author says "it was like the embryo for the criminal, the fighter, and for those seeking a better way of life, all trying to find a way out". Nevertheless the women cleaned and coloured their front steps as a badge of respectability and he cannot remember wanton damage on the part of the young. He talks of "a great respect for our elders" , with muggings and rapes being unheard of. It was quite safe to walk around at night. For children their first reading matter was provided for by "The Dandy", "The Beano", and "Film Fun", very patriotic an moral publications indeed. At the end of cinema showings the National Anthem was always played - even if as I remember it was a signal for a stampede to the door. Schools celebrated Empire Day (the 24th of May) with appropriate festivities.
In this setting the author sketches his life with skill and good humour, through the war and evacuation to National Service afterwards. Like so many of his generation he had cousins killed in the war, endured long spells in airraid shelters, and was kept vey fit by the system of rationing at the time. There was indeed no problem of obesity.
Students of the period covered by Houghton can especially derive great benefit from this book, but it is extremely readable, enjoyable, and interesting for the general reader. All can enjoy the pictures, which evoke a lost world. I wonder how many men can remember wearing , like the author as a young boy ,a sailor suit? It was common in the 1930's, indeed I had one.