Whenever my daughter throws a tantrum because we won’t buy her some new thing that she absolutely, desperately, please please please, must have, I find myself coming on all Four Yorkshiremen and giving her the “you don’t know how lucky you are” speech which I’m sure she finds as eye-rolling as I did when my mum gave it to me. If I whined about not getting something, or was just insufficiently grateful for what I already had, my mum would play the “World War II” card, telling me how she only got an orange for Christmas when she was a kid, had to eat powdered eggs, and had bombs dropped on her by Nazis — which is hard to top really, Hitler trumps a new Action Man every time.
But even if I didn’t grow up during the Blitz my childhood wasn’t without its own relative hardships either, and I don’t mean only having a black and white telly (though, you know, we didn’t get a colour TV until I was 16).
I was about seven when my dad ran away from home to join the theatre, leaving my mother to raise two kids on her own (to be fair to my dad he did carry on paying the rent). This was in the late 60s when there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for women that paid enough to raise a family, so my mum really struggled to keep us fed and clothed and pay the bills.
Money was tight enough for my mother to burst into desperate, angry tears one time when I lost a brand new pair of shoes (my only “good” ones), and at the beginning I think she borrowed money from a loan shark because one of my earliest memories is of this man coming to our flat every Friday night and mum giving him money which he entered into a little book. Some Fridays she wouldn’t have the money to pay so we had to pretend to be out – lights out, telly off, keep quiet — when he knocked on the door. We often did that on Saturday mornings when the milkman came knocking to get his money too.
The term “single-parent family” didn’t exist in those days, instead I came from what was called a “broken home.” My sister and I hated that phrase because it made our situation seem so grim and damaged, conjuring up images of deprived “Latchkey” kids letting themselves into cold, dingy flats where they’d heat up a tin of baked beans for tea and wait for their stressed-out parent to come home from work and slap them around a bit before bedtime. Divorce and separation are much more common now but we were the only kids we knew in our situation, and “broken home” was a label with a real stigma to it which made us feel as if we could being taken into care at any minute.
I’ve had friends ask me if I’d rather have grown up in a two-parent family but I have no idea what that would be like so they might as well ask me if I’d rather have grown up on a planet with two moons — it was just the way things were and I didn’t ever lie awake at night wishing my dad would come back. Obviously there were things I missed out on, but on the positive side I learned to cook and clean for myself at an early age (on a school camping trip and at college I was stunned how inept my peers were at basic culinary skills) and it has never occurred to me that women shouldn’t or couldn’t do the same jobs as men for the same money, so being raised by my mother made me a feminist (the chicks dig that, you know). It also made me a big believer in school uniforms because I know what it’s like to go to school without the latest trendy gear.
Here I am forty years later with a thoroughly middle-class life and two kids who are already more familiar with flying on planes and eating out in restaurants than I was in my 20s so I guess things have turned out OK. Having a daughter whose idea of deprivation is not being able to play on our iPad must count as a success of sorts, I wouldn’t ever want her to have to learn how to avoid the milkman.
Download: Poor Boy – Nick Drake (mp3)