As part of general background research on Frieda Harris, I’m reading her friend Lesley Blanch’s autobiography On the Wilder Shores of Love – A Bohemian Life. As I read about her early years in Chiswick during the early 1900s, I found myself thinking about my own childhood in Epsom in the 1960s. Oddly enough the first sensation that came to mind was the smell of the train carriage on a journey up to Waterloo. There was a very particular smell, as vivid as my image of the old slam-door train, carriages either walk-through, or carriage and corridor – always get in the walk-through carriage if travelling alone – windows you could open – and THAT smell. Rope-sided luggage racks over the seats rather than along the window line, lovely wood finish around the doors and windows. And the cautionary tales of not putting your head out of the window as you approached a bridge – “That’s how Mary lost her husband, you know. Never really got over it.” Well you wouldn’t would you, not if you were on the platform to wave him off.
Counting down the stations – Ewell West, Cheam, Motspur Park, Raynes Park, Wimbledon… And the closer you got to London, more and more terraced houses still in ruins after the War, with flowers growing out of the broken masonry. It was just “The War” to us, as opposed to the First World War; that was the past, the stuff of history lessons. The War was something our parents experienced, either as children or in some form of active service and rationing only ended the year my older brother was born. And the Americans were still here, on their airbases. I couldn’t understand why we were still occupied by our allies, when all the other occupied countries had been liberated! And then there was Vietnam – not so much a country as a conflict that had been going on my entire life. My fear of fire stems from newsreel footage of children burning with napalm. Another naive perception was that Communism was Wrong and therefore Good would prevail so it was a terrific shock when Saigon fell in 1975.
Reading about Lesley Blanch’s childhood – she was ten when the First World War started – it really hit home how this was the War that changed everything – society, political alliances, technology, transport and communication, dragging the complacency of Victorian Imperialism kicking, screaming and bleeding into the twentieth century. And we’ve never looked back: conflict after conflict, bigger and better ways of killing people, cleverer ways of separating ourselves from the actual deed of killing – as if that made it better – it certainly speeds up the process of wiping out millions of lives if you can just drop a bomb or send in the drones instead of slogging it out trench-to-trench across endless miles of terrain.
I have no idea how all this stems from the smell of a 1960s train carriage: a friendly, welcoming, going-on-an-adventure-up-to-London smell. At the time I was excited and I took the bomb-damaged houses for granted – just like the crater in Alexandra Recreation Ground, known as the Dump, or the blackened timbers in the attic where some sort of shrapnel – from a doodlebug, according to family legend – had come through the roof; before my parents moved in, I should add.
Lesley Blanch was born in 1904 and lived until she was 103. I cannot comprehend what it must have been like to be born an Edwardian and to survive into the twenty-first century. It’s hard enough for me and I’m only 60. Frieda Harris was born in the Victorian era and died at the start of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ – I thought that was extraordinary, but Lesley Blanch would have experienced even more extreme changes and developments. It would be like starting life as Newton and growing up into Einstein!
I imagine everyone looks back on their childhood and thinks that life was simpler then. For me, reading books, going to the cinema or, for a real treat, the theatre or ballet, three television channels, actually sitting down together as a family to eat the evening meal, playing in the garden or the local recreation ground, or going to friends by bike and nobody worried unduly about germs or dirt… I talk to my granddaughters and it’s so depressing that, for the younger one at least, her entire life revolves around her mobile phone. Much of her interaction with others is through social media and she’s ferried from one hermetically sealed environment to another.
I recently attended a talk by the wonderful Marion Green, a key figure in modern Western Magic and Mysticism, where she maintained that technology was destroying our relationship with the natural world. I’m not advocated going off grid and living in a yurt somewhere – anyone who knows me accepts my inability to rough it, which to me is any accommodation without en-suite fully plumbed facilities -but the increasing separation from real life, where everything is sanitised, packaged, outsourced, controlled or managed so that anything unsavoury or unnecessary can be avoided, isn’t progress, it’s an inability to accept and cherish what really matters – life, real life, in all its mucky, terrifying, exhilarating raw reality.