Thursday, 24 December 2015

Secret Santas

Bullets 1658 (1948)
Tiptoed upstairs expertly!
Perhaps it’s a wicked deception perpetuated down the generations that has left whole populations traumatised with the memory of how their own parents lied to them. Or it’s a marvellous story of kindliness; a shining example of the power of fantasy and imagination to bring a little magic into a cold world. But whether he’s an irresponsible con or a great white lie, we all come to realise sooner or later that Father Christmas is not real.

In a classic example of us adults inflicting our own childhood traumas onto our unsuspecting children, we go to remarkable lengths to keep the fraud alive. Egged on by commercial interests, we drag the little ones to grottoes haunted by resting actors in detachable beards, who hand out pound shop toys with jaded jollity. Unless, of course, we are lucky enough to stumble on a quality performance from an alumnus of the Ministry of Fun’s Santa School which has been offered every year since at least 2005. There’ll be no half-hearted Ho Ho Ho from this skilled technician, and he’ll have the professionalism to know that he shouldn’t ask what the little treasure wants for Christmas (because he already has their letter about that).

Even the might of the US security services has been co-opted into the fib. In 1955 a misprinted telephone number in a Sears and Roebuck Christmas ad led to children calling what they thought was a Santa hotline. In reality, they were getting through to an organisation known as the Continental Air Defense Command or CONAD which had a mission in those Cold War days to track the movements of Soviet aircraft. In a festive mood, the staff there decided to play along, and they gave their young callers what they said was updated information on Santa's progress from the North Pole to their town. As is the way with the military, CONAD morphed into a different acronym - NORAD or The North American Aerospace Defense Command - who continue to provide a Santa tracking service to this day.

But forming the bedrock of great gestures such as these in the cause of the great myth are the efforts of Fathers (and I suppose mothers) in millions of homes who leave half-eaten carrots, dregs of whisky and sometimes snowy footprints for the amazement of their credulous offspring on Christmas morning. Even when the spell is broken as teenagerhood looms, the evidence of Santa and Rudolph's visit is still left by the tree or the fireplace. It might be met with a shrug and a 'meh' by the gangly child, but they'll learn when they turn adult that this is a story you can never really let go.

Happy Christmas to all the Rabble and their offsprings

Family Corner:

Did Dad do Santa?
Did you ever catch him at it?
Did they do the extras - like the carrot with a bite out?
When did you find out the awful truth?

Friday, 11 December 2015

Wedded Bliss

Bullet 1650 (1949)
Just before the Second World War, the agony aunt at the Daily Mirror, Dorothy Dix, imagined what would happen if Adolf Hitler had married Mae West, and Mussolini had got hitched to Marlene Dietrich. The conclusion common to both was that great romantic gestures and fiery temperaments would have to yield to the daily grind if there were to be any chance of conjugal bliss. Romance and reality did not mix and she had a word of warning for the dictators – ‘after the rhetoric comes the rolling pin’.
Dix was writing at a time when her working-class readers were finding more opportunities to get a taste of the glamorous life. Cinemas and dance halls – like the 101 on New York Street in Leeds, where the nightly seven-piece were advertised as playing ‘sweet and hot’ – provided for the first time places that were both public and intimate, and where courting could be done away from the family gaze. 
Bright lights and smooth talk may have turned young heads, but Dix found her postbag full of letters from disillusioned new brides. Advising one wife of 8 months in 1939, she suggested that the husband’s offhand manner was probably due to his having a hard day at work. To make the marriage successful, the wife should learn to love him with all his faults. The worst thing she could do was leave because then she would have to support herself through work and, in a nightmarish twist, she would find that “bosses are just as irritable as husbands – so you may as well stick to the job you have undertaken”.
The war and direct encounters with American culture accelerated the development of affordable night life. But, although the war saw women occupying male positions - labouring on farms and milling machine parts for planes and bombs - without the world coming to an end, their status in relationships and marriage was slow to change.
It could be that this was more to do with centuries of immovable tradition than active male oppression. Everybody knows that couples argue, but there existed an ideal of the harmonious marriage that came about through the forbearance of each party (but mostly the wife’s, I suspect) of the other’s foibles. It is an ideal that was celebrated in the ancient ceremony of claiming the Dunmow Flitch. Any couple who could swear to the satisfaction of a jury that they had not argued in one year and a day of marriage could claim the flitch of bacon. Originally, the couple would have to make their oath while kneeling on sharp stones set at the doorway of the church. The award is still offered, but nowadays you can apply online and applications are open for 2016.
By the time this Bullet was written, a slow evolution in ideas about relationships was taking place. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the perceived ingredients of a good marriage shifted subtly. In her book The English in Love, Clare Langhamer identified a change in what people were looking for by studying thousands of ‘lonely hearts’ ads in publications such as The Matrimonial Post. While in the 1920s, advertisers wanted partners who were “steady and homely”, the 1930s saw people looking for “loyalty and affection”. By the mid-1950s, the majority were trying to find “soulmates”.
But who is the ‘winner’ here in Dad’s effort? The most obvious interpretation would be Mum, because she drew the prize that was Dad. But it could be read as Dad being the winner because he was ‘picked’ by Mum.
Unusually, all the Bullets on this scrap are written in capital letters. Some of them are marked ‘KEPT FOR OWN USE’, which implies that the others, including this one, were written with a certain Mr C R Saville of Newport in mind. Perhaps a mix of domestic bliss and upbeat ambiguity was the kind of thing that appealed to the agent.

Family Corner:

  • I know I've probably been told this before, but how did Mum and Dad meet?
  • As far as any of you were aware (being children and all) what was Dad's take on the roles of men and women?
  • As a general impression (though specifics would be helpful if you can remember any) do you recall Dad as angry, jokey, dull or any other overall characteristic?
  • Were there lots of/very few rows?
  • Were there lots of/very few signs of affection between Mum and Dad?

Any comments on this subject would be good - and remember that you can just email me if you feel anything you have to say is too personal to our family.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Coming and Going

Bullet 1649 (1949)
My Grate Suggests “Migrate”!
This nifty pun is one of the more immediate Bullets, because I can imagine that wherever in Christchurch Street Dad was pondering his solution, a coal fire would have been in his line of sight. They were laid every morning in winter by Mum shunking out the clinker and improvising kindling with pages of the Daily Mirror twisted into loops that looked like boy scout neckerchiefs.
Central heating was unknown in the Victorian terraces that housed the working classes across the country during the 1940s and 50s, only really becoming common during the 1970s. With no such thing as double glazing either, the cold air would insinuate itself through every misaligned sash or door frame. No wonder so many thought of emigrating.
In the immediate post-war era, it would have been a very easy thing to do.  With a crippled economy and decimated housing supply at home, the British government established a scheme in 1947 offering British citizens a passage to Australia for £10, instead of the nearly £120 the trip would normally cost. Incredibly, the scheme officially ran until 1982 and over that time more than 1.5 million people took advantage of it. Not all of these emigrations were successful, though, and a large number returned to Britain after spending the 2-year minimum in Australia that was a stipulation of the deal.

For the Australian government, the Ten Pound Poms answered a problem that had been encapsulated by the Bullet-like slogan “populate or perish”. In the late 1940s, what this really meant was ‘populate with white Europeans, otherwise we will be swamped by less desirable sorts’ - or as immigration minister Arthur Calwell put it "We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us."
Various pieces of legislation dating back to the Federation of Australia in 1901 had sought to limit entry into the country. Collectively these acts became known as the White Australia Policy. Attitudes liberalised in the decades after the war, with the crucial blow to the policy being struck by Harold Holt’s Migration Act of 1966, which gave access to non-European immigrants, including refugees fleeing the Vietnam War.
While the first of the Ten Pound Poms were embarking on their new adventures, in the year before this Bullet was written, a ship left Australia bound for Britain via the Caribbean. When it called at Kingston Jamaica, the SS Empire Windrush took on board 492 passengers who had paid around £28 for the journey as well as several stowaways. On 22 June1948, she docked at Tilbury and, just as the Ten Pound Poms were discovering sunshine and wide-open spaces, so the Windrush Generation were about to come up against grey skies and draughty houses.

Family Corner:

Did anyone else ever see mice run out of the grate some mornings when the fire was being set?
Did Mum and Dad ever consider emigrating?
Did anyone in our family know anyone (e.g. a school friend) who became a Ten Pound Pom?

Friday, 13 November 2015

Puffing Billy

Bullet No.1649 (1949)


Scarce – I’m “puffing less”!

Over the last 40 years or so, fags have gone from harmless comfort and sophisticated accessory to outright poison. Chat show hosts no longer routinely light up to give their guests a sense of ease, a visit to pub or cinema doesn’t impregnate our clothes with the odour of ashtrays and there may even be a decline in kids hunkering behind the bike sheds to share a crumpled JPS. Rugged lung-filling has been replaced with the effete sipping of the vapeurs. It is amazing how quickly one of life’s everyday details is becoming an anachronism.

This Bullet’s reference to the scarcity of cigarettes is an indication of their luxury status in the immediate post-war period. Not being essential, tobacco was not rationed. Ironically, this made it harder to get, the rationing of essentials being based on supply levels that were limited but guaranteed.
In the 1940s and 50s, smoking was still promoted as essentially healthful. But while people generally may not have been aware of the disastrous long-term effects of the habit, there was plenty of comment on the more superficial symptoms. This Bullet plays on the dual meaning of “puffing” as the act of drawing on a cigarette, and the shortness of breath caused by over-indulgence.

That acknowledgement of the unpleasant side effects of the enjoyment of tobacco was echoed in some of the advertising. The example here comes from a 1933 copy of John Bull, and its boast that Craven A cigarettes are made to prevent sore throats is only a backhanded way of admitting that smoking any other tobacco causes them. That same copy of the magazine also contains Bullets competition No. 921 with a first prize of £500 plus 100 cigarettes per month for life; an award that may well have turned out to be spectacularly self-limiting.

Family Corner:

How much and for how long did Dad smoke?
What did he smoke?
How many of the Rabble smoked?
What did Mum think of smoking?
And any other smoking related titbits.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Dentists and Drivers

Bullet No.1644 (1949)
Tactlessness – Doors marked “Pull”!
The waiting room may have comfy chairs and creased magazines stuffed with celebrities and recipes, but there’s no getting away from the reality. On the other side of the intercom, dentists offer a whole suite of cruelties to their hapless clients involving drills, scrapers, needles and pliers.
This is one of the more accessible Bullets, Bill’s riff being obviously on people arriving at the dentist not wanting to be inadvertently reminded of what they are about to endure. I can’t help thinking, though, that in his mind there may have been another, more direct, relationship between doors and teeth.
Dentistry has always had its amateurs, from the barber surgeons of the 18th century to those who today are priced out of the surgery and into the pound shops for a DIY filling kit. But the classic home remedy has always been the old string door slam.
This is one of those things that makes you wonder if anyone, other than Laurel and Hardy, has ever actually done it. In fact, it seems to be fairly common, especially among youngsters wanting to help a wiggly first tooth on its way. Their orthodontic antics have even become a faintly disturbing YouTube genre with some downright dangerous variations, including a tooth tied to the back of a car.
Family corner:
Did Dad like Laurel and Hardy? 
Is it true that the dentists on Parsonage Street used to deliberately drill holes in our teeth when we were kids so that they could let students practice filling them up again (I think Mum told me this)?
What toothpaste brands did we use? 
Did any of us have braces?

Send me your comments. 
Bullet No.1644 (1949)

Licence costs us “Crown”!
At the time Bill was thinking this one through, the UK had only recently returned to requiring a full licence based on a competence test for drivers. The first licences had been obtainable from 1903 by simply popping along to the Post Office and paying 5 shillings (otherwise known as a Crown), without the need to prove that you knew how to control a car.

Given that in the mid-1890s it was estimated that there were about 15 cars on the roads of Britain, a figure which had risen to about 800 by the turn of that century, this was probably not too much of a problem. But by 1934, the chances of clattering into a fellow motorist had dramatically increased, with 1.5 million cars on the road. In 1935, the first driving tests were introduced as a precondition to getting a licence.
Four years later, the tests were put on hold. Perhaps fearing that apprehensive novices struggling to double declutch on a wet hill would hold up troop movements around country lanes, the only licences issued between 1939 and 1946 were provisional, untested licences. Tests were resumed in 1947, but as Bill’s Bullet suggests, the cost of a full licence seems to have remained one Crown.
Family corner
Did we have a car/cars? 
Could Dad drive/did he ever try to learn? 
How did we get around the country?

Send me your comments.