The phrase ‘austerity Britain’ has a familiar ring to the generation raised in the grim, grey dreariness of wartime, rationing and shortages... and no one knows that better than 80-year-old Hunter Davies.
The well-known author, journalist and broadcaster was born in Scotland but raised in an unheated, crowded council house in Carlisle where they had no hot water and his father’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis pushed the family of six to the brink.
Davies’ memoir of those early years should be a sombre lesson in hardship and survival but, in typical style and with his trademark self-deprecating humour, Davies instead delivers a captivating account of a tough life laced with glorious moments of colour and emotion and a beautiful portrait of a very different age.
This fascinating and affectionate memoir of growing up in post-war Britain is made even more poignant by the death of Davies’ beloved wife and acclaimed author Margaret Forster in February, just two months before publication of the book.
The couple, who both spent their childhoods in Carlisle, were married for 55 years and a large part of Davies’ memories here are bound up with his courtship of the clever, down-to-earth girl who would become a prolific and award-winning writer.
Davies’ father was a clerical worker at an RAF unit near Carlisle and although his parents struggled to make ends meet for their four children during the war years in the 1940s and early 1950s, life still seemed sweet to the young Hunter.
There was the fun of football with his pals, the freedom of being allowed to play outside for hours, building dams and dens, saving up to go to the cinema at the weekend, and looking forward eagerly to listening to the latest thrilling escapades of Special Agent Dick Barton on BBC radio.
Carlisle escaped the horrors of German bombing raids but the children still had to be fitted for emergency gas masks – ‘hellish to wear,’ says Davies – and everything was rationed, even their sweets.
Fruits like bananas were just a pipe dream and it was their arrival at the local Co-Op store, the first supply he could ever remember, that really marked the end of the war for the nine-year-old Hunter.
Davies’ early years were blighted by two separate home accidents in which one of his twin sisters and then his younger brother, were badly burned by boiling water and Davies himself suffered badly from asthma during his years at secondary school.
The onset of his father’s multiple sclerosis was a terrible blow for the family. There were no social workers or home helpers to step in and as his father grew increasingly immobile and irascible, it placed a great deal of stress on his mother.
His father was only in his early forties at this time but his devastating condition meant that Davies can only ever remember him now as ‘always old, always ill, and always in his pyjamas.’
But the young Hunter thrived at the local secondary school, entered the sixth form at Carlisle Grammar School and won a place at Durham University, while his girlfriend Margaret headed off to the dreaming spires of Oxford University.
By the time 1960 arrived, 24-year-old Davies had moved through several jobs in newspaper journalism and was now bashing away at his typewriter at the Sunday Times and anticipating his forthcoming marriage to Margaret.
The country was slowly moving towards a more prosperous future but as Davies reminds us, he was part of a generation that took rationing and deprivation as facts of life. ‘We didn’t miss what we never had.’
And perhaps the final irony for Davies is that today we are told that rations, restrictions and no cars kept them slim, fit and healthy, far healthier than any generation since. ‘Pity we didn’t know that then,’ he concludes, with what must definitely be a twinkle in his eye.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)