My story begins in the 1960s, only half a century ago, but in a world so different from today that it could have been a hundred years or more. This was a world long before the internet existed, before man set foot on the moon, before any serious thought had been given to the equality of women with men. In the UK at that time there was little equality for black or Irish people either. The Queen was head of the Commonwealth and the glory days of the British Empire were still lamented by those old enough to remember it. Now all that remains is the Queen. She was already more than ten years into her reign when Churchill died, the man who, we had been told, was responsible for Britain winning the war. Churchill, the man with a booming voice and a cigar and a hat – but all men wore hats then unless they were manual workers.
I dimly remember watching the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill on a small black and white television that my father had borrowed. The wobbly picture captivated all the friends who were squeezed around the set, because this was an event to be shared. The mood was sombre and the weather bitterly cold, even indoors. There was no central heating, warmth came from the old range that had to be stoked up with coal night and morning. We loved to see the coalman coming with his sacks over his shoulder, his hands and face grimy with soot and always a cheery smile for us. Today there was no visit from the coalman, nor the butcher, nor any other tradesmen, but instead the house was filled by the sonorous tones of Richard Dimbleby narrating the slow funeral procession. We lived too far away to make the journey to London, although huge numbers did, and those who could not were, like my parents, gathered around television sets.
This old man’s funeral near the beginning of the year seemed to be a significant landmark. Churchill spanned the Victorian and new Elizabethan eras, and two world wars in between. The 1960s promised something new. 1965 was the year of the miniskirt and the Beatles, and of the escape of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, a man who was viewed as something of a folk hero by young people. It was the year of the Moors Murders, crimes that made Myra Hindley and Ian Brady household names and the ultimate bogeymen for misbehaving children. It was the year when fuck was first said on television, following which, as if by way of reply, Mary Whitehouse sprang into censorious being.
At home my life changed too, as, much too soon, I moved schools to join a single sex secondary school. Younger than my peers by twelve to eighteen months no thought was given to the idea that emotional and intellectual maturity might differ, and that pre-pubertal children might not fare well when mixed with hormonally charged adolescents. Indeed the term adolescent had yet to become common currency. In an establishment comprised mostly of the daughters of local farmers or middle class professionals, the supposed educational benefits of a grammar school were subsumed to the social prestige afforded by such selection. The main expectations of the pupils were that they should deport themselves like young ladies and complete their studies satisfactorily to O level, after which they would generally meet and marry suitable young men, ideally a few years their senior. Many of these matches were made at the local Young Farmers club, or failing that the Young Conservatives. Only a small number of bluestockings remained at school for further education, and of these just a handful progressed beyond that. I was one of that select group and thus it was that I left behind my sheltered rural upbringing and travelled nearly two hundred miles to university and the middle of the seventies.