Interviews

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number: Old People Give Us Life Lessons

How has life changed over the last century in Britain? We visited the homes of the people who lived through it all and asked them what we can learn.

by Milly McMahon
05 May 2016, 12:00am

Clive's dresser and pictures. All photos by Hazel Gaskin.

When our grandparents were growing up, they were hit by their teachers and their parents. When they left school, normally at 16, they were mostly conscripted into national service. Only a small proportion of people had ever been abroad or would ever go to university. Many people got married in their early 20s and only ever slept with one partner for the whole of their life.

What do people who grew up in that world think of how the world has changed? Of the progress in human rights and technology, and the new moral panics that emerged in the 20th century: divorce, drug culture, terrorism, binge-drinking, easy credit and materialism?

We asked five West Midlands retirees about the most important moments of their life, in the hope that their decades of wisdom and experience can tell us about the ways we are going wrong, and the mistakes we should avoid repeating.

MARY, 99, REDDITCH

VICE: What was your mother like?
Mary:
She was wonderful. She was in a house fire when she was small, she was the youngest of seven. It happened when her mother went to one of the children that was crying in the night and she tripped and her hair caught fire and then the blaze took the whole house. The firemen came in with a cart and a big can of water, no hoses, just buckets. Fortunately, they caught it early. The fireman kept shouting, "keep your heads out of the window". She and l were brought down from the top floor by a ladder, which to a child of seven was fun, l suppose. Her father had taken to the drink when she was younger and the boys all drifted away to Canada, South America, and the four girls, including my mother, had to go into a lodging house to work and earn their keep. She didn't get the education she would have liked. Education is so important. I think she was the sort of person with enough about her to ask questions, question people and to learn her own way. She was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

You were telling me you lost your dad at a young age.
Yes, I was six months old, then it was just me and my two brothers.

I think you look like him around the eyes.
My mother always used to say l had a look of him, around the eyes. His life was cut short. Just six years married, he was killed at 29 years old. War is so unnecessary, so sad, man and ego. I had a little friend with a father and when l saw him l would ask him to take me with him, because l was so desperate for a father. My brothers soon toughened me up and knocked the corns of me, though. They wouldn't let me be a sissy. I had to grow up tough with them.

What have you achieved in your life that you are proudest of?
Raising my three boys. l used to help them on the building site because they went into building and l would physically work with them. I rescue dogs also. l got into rescuing border collies. I had always loved dogs – l suppose being a little girl alone, a dog was something to love. We had a field at the back when l was little where l would find dogs to cuddle. The girl who had been rescuing the dogs with me, who got me involved, suddenly died of cancer and it broke my heart, but l thought l can't give up, she would have wanted me to carry on, so l did until my late 80s. l used to go down to Wales and fetch puppies that weren't wanted.

What kind of a mother are you to the dogs and your own boys?
Firm but fair, no is no, yes is yes, no frills.

What has being a mother taught you?
It's taught me that firmness and kindness must go together. l have never smacked or hit one of them, l used words and allowed them to just sit there until things sink in. It was difficult when my boys were very young, because my husband had come out of six years in the army and he began to suffer quite early on with Alzheimer's. That left everything on me with the children, so l was mother and father to a large extent for a good few years. Then he finally became very difficult to live with and they took him into respite for a week, and the morning l was going to fetch him out, the nurse rang me and she said you can't take your husband home, he had set about one of the nurses. That meant you could never guarantee he wouldn't behave that way even with me, so he was never allowed home again. So l moved to this bungalow, alone.

How did you deal with that?
I just sat and howled. l just could not believe it, because it just wasn't my husband's nature. So l thought, "This is the situation, l just have to get on with it, to run my home and keep myself." I used to do bed and breakfast for a while. Then l took in a lodger, a cameraman from the BBC. We had fun living together, that was that, that provided me with enough money. We don't have money like you do today.

What heals heartbreak?
My true heartbreak was losing my mother. She was 96 and l felt l was very naughty to grieve her at such an old age, but we had spent so much time together through the war and what followed. l looked after her and then suddenly l was quite alone and that was difficult to approach when we didn't have any backup with money. She left me with £100. My mother had struggled to save; l just had to put my back to the wall.

Of the things you've seen change around you, what has changed for the worse?
I have great disapproval of a lot of the young people that go out, half-clad. It's asking for trouble where men are concerned, if you ask me. I prefer a bit of dignity please. There are some good ones left, thank God.

How did you know you were in love with your husband?
We had met long before the war, working together, ice skating. We enjoyed a lot without thinking we needed to go to bed with each other. That romance is going today. My mother told me to make boys wait. But not all mothers do that, do they? You seem to go out and see these young people underdressed. Of course it's tempting, it's bound to be. My mother strayed once. One man was enough for me. He would go out with the horses and look after them at Ragley Hall and then he swapped over to tanks in the war. It must feel very strange to you young people to hear what we have been through.

What do you see when you look in the mirror now?
Not very keen. l don't bother looking. I look in the mirror and think what a shame! I'm 99 this June.

CLIVE, 82, KNIGHTON

VICE: What's the secret to a good marriage?
Clive: We have always been very open with each other and shared everything. In the days that we got married you just stayed married. That's not so popular now, people just have partners. I have had a good life and my wife Beryl has looked after me very well. I'm not averse to doing a bit of housework. That helps.

What have you achieved in life that you're proudest of?
Marrying Beryl first off and then the sense or good fortune to buy our bungalow. Prices were so expensive everywhere, then one day we were riding round and we found this plot. We contacted the building society, moved here and got a mortgage, and fortunately now it's worth a lot more than than the £3250 it cost. You can't even buy a second-hand car with that now.

What enriches you the most?
The allotment. It saves us quite a bit of money with vegetables and the exercise. You have to keep active, body and mind. l have kept diaries on everything from when l was five and first moved to Shirley. l did national service and l wrote about that.

Did you enjoy national service?
I didn't enjoy it when l first when into it. It taught me to be punctual. l have a thing with time. If l make arrangements with anyone to be anywhere, l will do my utmost to be at that correct place at the correct time. It annoys me if someone makes an appointment and they don't turn up and they don't communicate with you to say they won't make it. I had a good job when l worked in national service. l didn't wear a uniform, l worked in an army office in St Pauls, l had a little desk and leaned how to type on the old-fashioned typewriters. I got free tickets on the tube, from Rhyl to St Pauls.

Do you think people should do national service today?
I do, l really do. You never had all this vandalism when l was in my teens. I watched the television last night and there is some yob in a car park in Worcester and he's got his hood up and he went round all the cars and scratched all the bonnets and doors.

What's your biggest fear for future generations?
It makes you wonder how things are going to turn out with terrorists and one thing and another. You can't leave anything about these days unless it's tied to a tree or locked up. Something will have to be done to give these youngsters something to do. Perhaps national service isn't the answer. But you are frightened to go out. We are fortunate where we live – we don't get all the problems that they get in the town. There are very few burglaries, people never carry knives like they do now in towns.

Why is terrorism such a massive problem for society?
There's always been wars, but l can't understand how people can be educated and live in Britain and then leave to go to Syria or Iraq and return to blow us up. That doesn't make sense.

If we had rented, we would have had nothing

You ran a popular tearoom in a stately home. What did that experience teach you about the general public?
Well, we had some to-dos with the posh ones: "Do you have any elderflower cordial?" They would stick their finger in the icing and lick it off. "Is this the real essence?", they would say. Some of them would click their fingers up and l would get really annoyed, Beryl would have to roll up a tea towel and l would bite down on it. We could tell who was going to be trouble, by and large. We had quite a few well-knowns visit us, Jools Holland for one. He had an entourage and a fashion mac over his shoulder. They came in a big blacked-out SUV and paid by cheque, but they didn't pay for the driver, very mean. Put me off Jools Holland. They were coming from the jazz festival and they stopped by us on the way back. Prince Harry visited also.

What's your happiest memory?
I think the fact that we managed to celebrate our golden anniversary two years ago. We had a weekend in London and had a suite on the London Eye and when we arrived, there was a wedding cake. The Eye at night was just a glow of scarlet.

What's the best piece of advice you'd give to our generation?
Buy property instead of renting. If we had rented, we would have had nothing.

PAULINE, 75, DROITWICH

How did becoming a mum change you?
It was all l ever wanted. Both my children are adopted. Adoption has never been easy and it wasn't easy then. But to have my first child at six weeks old... I can't imagine life without them.

What have you achieved in life that you feel proudest of?
My son and daughter and my grandchildren.

Have you got a favourite age of your life?
If l said now, would that be silly? I think life is wonderful. I have a lot of holidays. l just want to seize every opportunity because l don't really know what is round the corner. I went to La Gomera in February and Majorca last week. lm off to Somerset on Sunday for a week. I go away a lot so when l am at home, l have a lot of catching up to do.

Do you think being young is more difficult now than it has been for previous generations?
It was much simpler in my day, but people have so many opportunities now. l visited one of the grandchildren at university and all of the facilities that they have access to... It made me realise that that's something l would have really liked to do but it just wasn't available to me.

How did you meet your husband?
We were at the same school, we were first loves. We have been married forever. l was 21 when we married, so 54 years together.

What's the secret to a good marriage?
My husband is good as gold. It's not always easy but l just wouldn't want anyone else.

Who have you been friends with the longest?
My friend Shirley. l met her when l first started working, aged 15, and we are still very good friends now. I feel very guilty for her – she has had a lot of illness and she can't get about too well. I feel upset that l can travel so easily the way l do and she is so incapacitated. She had breast cancer ten years before l did, and she was put on a programme for her treatment and it continued over the years. The treatment killed off a lot of nerve endings and she can't walk too well. But she is a positive person.

TREVOR, 82, MALVERN

VICE: What have you achieved in life that you are most proud of?
Trevor: It is yet to happen. Truthfully l live for the next day. My wife Anne and l enjoy our cruises, that's what we do for our holidays. I want to see South America and the Falklands. l would love to find out what happened throughout their history by speaking to the people there.

When was the first time you ever went abroad?
In 2000, l went to China, that was quite something. Beijing to Juan where the terracotta army is. It is awe-inspiring.

How did you find the experience of national service?
I didn't want to do it. None of us wanted to do it. It made me grow up very quickly. I went to a unit and hated everything about it until l took over ration distribution and achieved a couple of stripes. I was responsible for just about everything that moved on the unit: bedding, issues, food. I was a corporal for those two years.

Do you think national service should be reintroduced?
It should never have stopped. When you consider the transition for a lot of people going from school into adulthood and their first job, a lot of people are unable to get jobs or are refusing to take them.

When you look at young men today, do you notice a difference between them and how you were at that age?
When l was that age, there were teddy boys and rockers, slicked-back hair, and you didn't have holes in every part of your body that it was possible to stick a ring in. l certainly didn't go for tattoos, that's certainly something that l find very disappointing. I think because you have tattoos when you're young, not thinking of when you get old. Skin flops! People are going to be very disappointed. One of my daughter's boyfriends got her name tattooed all up his arm, then they broke up. I tell my daughters, if they get tattoos, then they are out of the will.

Do you think the world is getting better or worse?
At the moment we are on a downward spiral. We have too much foreign interference into our country. In 1975, Ted Heath took us into the common market which was going be a trading agreement. l voted to go in. Everybody did because it seemed like trading was a good thing. We didn't know we were going to get this type of interference from Brussels. Our country was run by non-elected bureaucrats wasting money, losing it, and we were one of the main contributors financially to Europe and l don't see the benefit to it.

So you think we should vote for Brexit?
Yes. It's changed beyond anyone's thoughts. l don't think it anyone thought it would become what is has now.

What's your biggest fear for future generations?
Probably for the sake of my grandkids, I believe our country is being taken over by totally different religions which would have a tremendous influence upon what we do.

You used to live in east London. What was it like then?
For 10 years I lived in Ealing. l used to work in Hackney, Bethnal Green and Dalston too. My first area l was given as a sales rep was the East End. The people were incredible. I was working in the area when the Kray brothers were the most operative. The East Enders were tremendous people. There were a lot of Welsh, there were dairymen, Jones the Dairy, Evans the Dairy, wonderful shops. There is a very strong Jewish community in Stoke Newington and having a fairly prominent hooter, l got on well with the Jewish community!

JEFFERY, 85, WORCESTER

VICE: Jeffery. What's your drink?
Jeffery: Beer only.

In your life, what did you do outside of work that you enjoyed?
A lot of cricket and football. l wasn't any good at it. When l was 35 l started playing bowls. l don't want to boast about it but when l was 40 l played for England. At one point we were scheduled to play a match in Ireland, but it was at the time of the Troubles and I was a married man with two children. l talked about it with the family and l declined, it was too risky.

What has been your favourite age?
When l was 40, it was a good time. l don't know what has happened to life since. Those last 40 years have just passed by so quickly. But life is fabulous. I love coming down the local ex-service social club. l don't go anywhere else. l haven't been anywhere else for 20 years.

What's your proudest achievement to date?
Having my first daughter. We went though a bit of a rough time, my wife and l. She had several miscarriages. Being a father didn't change me. We are all reasonably close. l have always done my best to be there for them, that's all you can do.

What fears have you got for future generations?
Well, l wouldn't want to be their age. It feels like there is no future. If they want to get married, if they can afford it, then they probably won't be able to own a house, and l think it's hard enough to even get a job.

Is the world changing for the better or worse?
For certain people, for the better, for certain people, definitely for worse. There is a fantastic divide between the rich and the poor. The rich benefit so much more than the poor. I've never seen so many people living rough as l do in Worcester.

What's your philosophy on life?
I'm a great believer in live and let live. l like to see people happy. I have had a good life. Happiness is important.

All photos by Hazel Gaskin

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