There was a cul-de-sac on my estate lined with horse chestnut trees where prior to the expiration of the school summer holidays, hundreds of kids would gather with a collection of objects useful for hurling.
Wood planks with rusty nails, house bricks and broken bits of bicycles or go-karts would be airborne or else crashing to the concrete to the shouts of either annoyance or jubilation, depending on how many conkers it struck and successfully bought down.
Below the falling objects children gathered to collect the spoils, the hierarchy governed by age. Little ones hurried, looping through the legs of bigger kids, hoping to steal an unwanted conker or two. The older kids were the connoisseurs; they knew what they were looking for, the tell-tale signs of a potential “hundreder.” They would crack open the case and inspect the nut, roll it between their fingers prospectively.
I recall no adults ever present, if they knew where we were going they only warned us to be careful; supervision was not required and despite the fact that solid objects fell from the skies in regular abundance, I never recall any injuries worth noting.
We took the bags of collected items to Mum, who would sigh but still stop whatever one of the zillion jobs she was undertaking without the aid of technological kitchen paraphernalia, wipe her hands and get a baking tray to bake those conkers and get them real hard.
We lay on the floor by the heating oven, peering through its grease stained door, timing them to perfection while mum slipped her hands into her oven gloves to get them out. Now the tricky part, waiting for them to cool before we could raid Dad’s shed for a screwdriver.
We put the warm conkers on the patio slabs and sat on the floor, holding them steady with one hand and forcing the screwdriver through their centres in hope they wouldn’t crack. Every successful bore would be threaded with string and we’d tie a knot in the end. The job was complete, now for the challenge.
There was a whole technique to perfect with conkers and when the important elements came into play you had yourself a winner. Stance was fundamental; the ability to flick it from your fingers paramount, and aim, well aim was the last crucial component for a successful smash. If aim was in any way faltered you could blame your opponent for swinging his string slightly to avoid collision. You then had the right to touch his conker and align and steady it, otherwise you never touched another lad’s conkers. Unless you worked for BBC children’s shows it would seem.
It was at a time when the dustman would go through your back gate, pick up a heavy metal dustbin and fling it over his shoulder. He would march it out to the street and dispose the contents into the truck. Then he would walk your bin back to the garden, tip his cap and merrily greet your parents with a “morning’,” and shut the gate on his way out.
Things were the way they had been for generations in the early 1980s, little changed. The electronic milk-float replaced a horse and cart, lava lamps became old-fashioned, and that was about it. Then times moved on, Mum told Dad the house needed decorating. Chic contemporary design would replace the shockingly poor taste of the 1970s. Floral wallpaper was stripped and replaced with painted walls, music systems were replaced with hi-fi and we all had futuristic silver discs that we were told would last forever to substitute for jumping vinyl.
We had house meetings many-fold, in which we would try to convince Dad he needed to part with more money to rent technological gadgets and accessories for without them, we were doomed to live a life of 1970s humdrum. We begged for a video recorder and despite my father’s confusion as to why on earth we would need to hire a film or record a TV show if we were out, he got one. We supplicated him for a home computer, backing our pitch up with the concept he could control all his finances on it, organise his day. It worked and that Christmas we bagged a black rubber-keyed processor with a whopping forty-eight kilobytes of memory. We relished in the new terminology, RAM, ROM and whatever the hell POKE was.
And when Dad realised he had not the time or motivation to self-teach programing in order for this gadget to take over the organisation of his entire life, the machine was left to us kids to trade and swap games, none of which would load. For my mum it was infuriation; she wanted her television set back to watch Crossroads. So we went where only the elite 1980s families went, to the pinnacle of modern living; Dad bought a second television set and took the old one upstairs for us to use with the Spectrum computer.
And with these technological advances the country watched as the whole ethos changed. The country mutated everything that was sacred, in fear it was too risky and gradually we come to where we are today. My Dad took us on holiday in Cornwall in the 1970s, hired an estate car with my uncle and aunt. My Dad and Uncle sat in the front seats, which had seatbelts but no one used them. On the backseats sat my mum and aunt, without belts but with my baby cousin on my auntie’s lap. My brother and I were delighted to be in the boot, perched on seats loosely constructed out of suitcases, boxes and footballs.
So, where we are today, can you imagine taking the journey from Essex to Cornwall today in this fashion, would you conceive the possibility that you might consider loading your family in a car for such a journey? Would you allow your child to wander around lone on a street where it rained rusty-nailed planks of wood, bricks and metal parts of go-karts? Would you carry out metal dustbins when the house-owner has a perfectly good wheelie bin to save your back? You know, if you don’t take it out and align it in exactly the right spot, ensure the lid is not raised a fraction of a millimetre, it will not be collected. Not because the bin-men are obnoxious arseholes but because they have been conditioned by the terms of their contracts. If they break this in order to go the extra mile then on their head be it. They will not be covered if an accident happened.
This is the way of the world and some old folk need to keep up with the changes. I saw a pink stool sat outside an elderly person’s home, awaiting bin collection with a note saying “Take to tip.” I thought “Yeah right, like that’s going to happen, this isn’t 1977!” These older generation, still living in a time where, unbeknown how to our younger generation, people manged to survive against the odds and total lack of health and safety regulations. They hold on to the ideal that Britain is great and the only thing ruining it is the influx of people who are ignorant of our culture, our humble ways. But, unfortunately it is not those to blame; it’s us.
Our lives have been made so very comfortable, we need not worry as it is done for us. Providing we are wearing a high-viz jacket should any traffic knock us down they are liable, we will get paid out and hey, maybe not have to work for a living any longer. Britain has become lazy, lethargic and idle. We may never be able to work our way back from the mistakes of this week, unlike I believe our forefathers could possibly have…. unless we change our ways back to an age they lived, become uncomfortable again and with the rise in prices we will see over the coming years perhaps this will happen…maybe that is what the governing bodies want from us, but it is no walk in the park and walking in the park is about all we are good for these days.
Can we reduce our existence this low, now we are accustomed to all the 21st century has to offer? Can we find a solution to our problems by going back to a time when things were simpler? No, it’s all an illusion, a nostalgic flitter from your youth. You may have been having the time of your life but in reality, Britain was shit back then too.
We had recession, we had war, we had poverty and anger and hate, we had far right wing factions feeding on our rage, we had mass unemployment, we had people abusing their power, oppressing the poor, abusing children. We had serial killers, bogeymen. We had sickening underworlds of debauchery on every level. It was just your youth shadowing these things and it is this illusion which tells us we put the Great in Great Britain but we didn’t, we never did.
Get off your ego-trip and realise what the older generation and all those who followed them into the propaganda of the Leave campaign did this week, they did because they believe in a false concept, a fantasy that we still live, not in the Great Britain of yore, but a Great Britain from their adolescent minds which always fogs the hard bits and highlights the fonder memories. Watch out, that wooden plank is coming down from the horse chestnut tree and it about to smash us in the face and no high-viz vest is going to protect us. Will we ever get back out of this cul-de-sac?