I was having a conversation with somebody the other day – I don’t remember who – about growing up in the 70s. I was born in 1971. And it’s only when you really think back, or your ailing memory is jogged by something, that you start to realise how much times have changed since you were a child. Many people think bygone childhoods were an idyllic time compared with the fast-paced lives our kids have to lead now; back then we had children playing out on bikes instead of being stuck at home on their phones or iPads, it was a healthier time before processed foods, and perhaps less stressful too. And yes, some aspects of the past – it wouldn’t be a bad idea to aspire to – or return to. But personally, I remember the 1970s as being a fairly sucky era in which to grow up – and I’m not just talking about the brown flares we were forced to wear or the orange floral wallpaper. These are my sketchy memories of things we had to put up with back in the day – ‘when I were a lass’; things my children couldn’t even imagine now.
When the Paraffin Man came around:
I had forgotten all about this up until recently. When I was a girl, living in a block of flats in the East End of London, there used to be a chap who came around – perhaps once a week – with a small flatbed lorry with a large tank containing paraffin on the back. All the mums and dads would hurry frantically out of the flats with a plastic one-gallon container to buy paraffin for their heaters to warm their homes. Quick! Grab your purse! The Paraffin Man is here! Arrrghhhh!! I always quite liked the petrol-type smell of the stuff. I’ve researched this a little, and apparently you could buy economy or better-quality paraffin – the pricier stuff was supposed to smell better when it was in use. I don’t know if our particular Paraffin Man sold differing types of paraffin, but if he did, I can guarantee we would have bought the cheap stuff. I was pretty young then, and my memories of the Paraffin Man are vague, so if you’re a little older, please do feel free to fill in the gaps if you remember him more vividly.
When central heating wasn’t really a thing:
Well, since we had a paraffin heater, you won’t be surprised to know we didn’t have central heating during my first eleven years of life. I don’t know when central heating became so commonplace in the UK – but many 70s homes did not have it. I remember my eldest sister used to have a boyfriend called Tommy, and whenever she visited him at his family home, she would come back regaling amazing stories to her awestruck younger siblings. You see Tommy had central heating. And my eldest sister swore blind that you could walk around his house in the dead of winter in a t-shirt. We would sit there with eyes as wide as saucers and think, ‘OMFG – a t-shirt?? In the dead of winter??’. And it was only when we moved to our second home in about 1982 (which was a new-build) that we too experienced the joys of central heating. Yes, people, we had radiators! Was that Tommy onto something, or what?! I lived and worked in New Zealand for a year between 1999 and 2000, and central heating wasn’t really a widespread thing over there at the time (it may well be now, I’ve no idea), but I do know I would irritate my NZ nursing colleagues no end moaning about their lack of central heating; which was crazy since their winters were as cold as ours in the UK – if not colder! Nowadays, I keep my house toasty-warm – about 20 to 21 Degrees Celsius in waking hours, you couldn’t walk around in the dead of winter in a t-shirt (I’m not bloody made of money!); but you could wear a hoodie and some slippers, and you’d be comfortable. Still, if my kids could only understand how lucky they are to never really know what it is to be cold (ugh), but I guess they never will.
When you had to rent your TV:
Technology now has become a disposable commodity, but it came at a price when I was a child. Electronics in the 70s were clearly less affordable than they are now. And we, like many others, rented our TV from a company called Radio Rentals. I marvel at that now, because every time our TV breaks (please note: our TVs never get the chance to break, my husband just has to have the latest, slimmest model, with the best picture quality in all the land) it will always be cheaper to buy a new one. But a brand-new TV in my childhood was just not an option; I guess many like us could not afford a TV outright. So we rented some horrible monstrosity like the one pictured (usually housed in fake wood with loads of twiddly knobs on) on a monthly basis for the majority of my childhood. Weird, right?
When we only had three TV channels:
While I’m on the subject of television, do you remember when we only had three channels to watch in the UK? I certainly do. BBC1, BBC2, and ITV. And those three channels weren’t even on for 24 hours a day – they shut down at the end of the evening. I remember sometimes being unwell in the night and switching on the test card just for a bit of company. Bear in mind I was a kid back then; and although I think there may have been a few very young children’s shows (Watch with Mother etc) mid-morning, there was nothing else for us until you got home from school – then the children’s TV finished up before the six o’clock news. And we didn’t get channel 4 until 1982! Of course, then came Channel 5, then Free-Sat and Sky, and finally we had a wealth of (mainly shite) channels to watch twenty-four hours a day. Funnily enough, although I may have been deprived of channels as a child, I barely watch live TV anymore. We watch movies or TV series on Netflix or Prime TV, if anything. We want our TV on demand; when we say so, when we feel like it – not just because it’s on (I never get to chat about reality TV shows like ‘Love Island’ on my lunch break as I just don’t do live TV, I don’t even watch it later). And even then, the TV is only on for a couple of hours in the evening. Apart from using it to play workout DVDs, which I do five days a week, I guess I just don’t need it.
I could go on and on; perhaps about the Rag and Bone Man (I barely remember him at all), or the Milk Man (although the Milk Man is making a bit of a resurgence lately), or when you had to fry your own chips in a chip pan and a chip basket because oven chips were not a thing (incidentally, I once put out a chip pan fire as a young girl with a damp tea towel, like you do), or when you had to go to the launderette because you didn’t have your own washing machine – but I’ve gone on enough. Yes, we’ve come a long way since the 70s, but I don’t feel resentful about all the things we didn’t have; we didn’t know any better. We had the best, most cutting-edge, technology there was – at the time. We didn’t know what the future would hold, so we didn’t feel cheated. Actually, I did feel cheated having to go to the scabby launderette once a week. Even then I knew that sucked. Maybe it’s just the class I’m from, maybe not every 70s child lived a life quite like that, but those are my memories. But kids nowadays, really, they don’t know they’re born. My children would be absolutely horrified to spend a single day living my childhood. But thirty or forty years from now, we will all be laughing about our crappy iPhones and the super-basic laptops that we had. Ha-ha-ha, how on earth did we manage?