BEFORE TV

Can anyone born in the last 20 or 30 years imagine a time of very little or no television (unless you were wealthy), certainly no computers and computer games; when travel by aircraft and ship were the preserve of the wealthy, and jet planes had not long been in service and only as military devices? When many houses still had outdoor toilets, often shared with neighbours!

Looking back to the time when I was growing up as a child (between 1944 and 1955), I now realize that I was a member of that band of people that were being born into the Brave New World of television, jet aircraft and computers – and not least into the Nuclear Age. Then there was the identification of the DNA structure and other scientific breakthroughs. In the U.K. it was the last days of Empire, and the first days of the Welfare State. At school, writing was still done with pen and ink (the ink coming from an inkwell embedded in the desk!) until I reached the age of 14, and I was then among the first to use the new cheap, disposable, Bicä ball-point pens. And they even came with a choice of ink-colour - amazing!  All at once it seemed that the old world was disappearing in front of our eyes, but we still used slide-rules and log tables. Hand-held calculators and desk computers were still 10 or more years away, but rapid social change was shortly to become the norm at a time when the percentage of university entrants was only about five percent of the population. University education was then seen as an opportunity to absorb wisdom, as well as book-ish knowledge.

Even when TV did become more popularly available in 1955, there were only two channels available (BBC and ITV) in ‘natural’ (!) black and white, and they normally only transmitted from early evening till before midnight. It was to be another 30 years before television was normally available all day long.

My family did not have a TV until 1955, and the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 could only be seen at my aunt’s house across the road, in company with many other members of the extended family. For most, TV was then quite a luxury – something that’s hard to imagine now.  My aunt excelled in her supply of sandwiches, cakes and tea that day!  I also remember the news that same month, of Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing reaching Everest’s summit.  Although the news was relayed to us by radio and newspaper, relative to how news is now transmitted, it almost seems that the news had come via bush telegraph! My great-grandfather’s highly extreme pre-WW2 dictum that "the civilized world ends at Dover" seemed to be still something like the pervading attitude in Britain in those days. Black and Asian people were hardly to be seen, and it seemed the Church of England was still the essential mouthpiece of spiritual wisdom!  Although the point did not occur to me in my earliest years, I later contemplated that the Church seemed to convey the impression that Christianity was somewhat divorced from other religions – that Jesus was, somehow, ’western’.  And was religion just for Sundays?

That period seemed much more innocent in character – perhaps more so as I was still a child! But, as already intimated, there was something of a sinister air in respect of what opinions were held towards ‘foreigners’ and other religions, and children were still "to be seen but not heard". As a child, however, the world then also consisted of a great deal of wonderment, and in respect of the locality I was brought up in, there was full opportunity to explore what then amounted to a countryside within suburbia – bricks and cement were still far from covering up the acres of grassland and trees that existed nearby. Later in life I was to discover that the author J. R. Tolkien lived part of his childhood close to the nearby Sarehole Mill, and I understand that his childhood playings there later contributed to his highly imaginative writings, such as The Hobbitt. Small wonder, therefore, that I was also imbued with wonderment at what I found, although by then that suburbia was not what it was in Tolkien’s day when the River Cole and its locality supported otters and other wild-life.

But I should not suggest that I only knew about the ‘good’ side of Birmingham. Many was the time we travelled to the north side to visit relations on my mother’s side, and passed-by the likes of Saltley Gasworks to get there (an experience that was repeated when I went to a technical school near Saltley in my teens).

In time, my father (as a bread-salesman) arranged for me to come and ‘help’ him on his rounds during school holiday times, and that experience became my one way of keeping close to my father until he changed jobs when I was eleven years of age. As with most fathers of that time, working hours were long and family life was an irregular aspect of our lives. On Sundays I was sent off to Sunday School, firstly C. of E., my father’s church, and later Methodist, my mother’s church; and then Boy’s Brigade. But my parents did not share church life with me, as Socialism was my father’s (and his brothers’) practical religion. Although from a keen church-going family, my mother had suspended her religious practice, but was a very open-hearted person with whom no-one could find fault. I was not, therefore, oppressed at home according to my parents’ perception of Biblical right and wrong, and the notion of ‘guilt’ was not as strong as with those brought up religiously, though it was present.

Even as a young teenager, and having read an encyclopaedic history of the Great War at my aunt’s house across the road, I wondered why my life was unlikely to require sacrifice to warfare in the way of those who fought and died in that War. Why should my life be clear of such commitment, and their’s not?  Was I supposed to ‘make up’ for this situation by taking on a conscience-driven life?  Did I need to justify my existence?  Was I supposed to fear God?  What was this Jesus crucifixion thing all about?

BIG questions for a teenager! But having been brought into the world of TV a bit late, and with no computers to take up my time, reading, playing and thinking were my main activities. It was about that time I seriously considered becoming a priest. Though I somehow talked myself out of that approach, my subsequent life was for many years a process of trying to sort out how to balance the business of living according to ‘normal’ values and Christian values. I did discern – in that very different age – that there was something vaguely different between what Jesus taught and what our supposed Christian country expected. I became aware that many people thought that there were intrinsic Christian values transmitted from their forefathers to enable them to live out their daily lives, but I felt that those incomplete values were pointing to something else. For a long time, I could not figure out what it was all about.

Yes, with rock music, they were changing times. It took until the 1960s before we saw a more full expression of the changes, many of which were positive, and the greater influx of peoples from overseas, bringing with them their very different religions and spirituality. And that period was the start of popular air travel as we know it today. But it was not until the 1970s that the subject of ecology and ‘green’ thinking seriously manifested itself.

The years just after World War 2 – before popular television – were the last years of the old world and its faults, and those years were perhaps the last time when young people were free of the pollution of excessive television, arguably one of the main faults – together with computer games – of modern life.