Books Monthly July 2020 - the most colourful page in the magazine - and just look at those fabulous Annual covers...
  Books Monthly Nostalgia
More reminiscences of life in the 1950s...


Growing up in the fifties - Entertainment Part 1

We've touched on the subject of entertainment in the fifties and the sixties briefly in the past - last month I mentioned Listen With Mother and Children's Hour. There are plenty of books about the fifties and the sixties but you'd have to read countless biographies of various famous baby boomers to get the full picture, because these books (some good, some very bad, like the Chris Tarrant one I spoke about last month) are limited in what they can say, and there are inevitably some sweeping generalisations. For example, I can only speak as someone who was brought up with a radio (firstly a large radio that sat on a table in one of the alcoves, the one to the left of the fireplace in the lounge; secondly a transistor radio of which I have spoken before; thirdly a radiogram), and no television. Lots of baby boomers will tell you "in those days we made our own entertainment", and in the case of my family that was certainly true. In fact, our family bore more resemblance to the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice than to a typical 1950s family, in that my mum played the piano, my dad played a variety of stringed instruments, most of them very badly, my sister Jean played the piano, whilst I started off with the recorder, graduated to the violin, and then after the incident with the violin teacher, who was a forerunner of the modern paedophile, I graduated to, and taught myself, the guitar.


We made music as often as we could, especially when we had visitors, because uncles played banjos and mandolin banjos, other uncles played mandolins; we had, in our possession, too, a piano accordion, and we knew people who could play the dulcimer and the banjo. A great uncle could play the spoons, others had served in the army and could play a snare drum. We made an almighty racket, but it was fun, and funny - you should have heard our rendition of Franz von SuppĂ©'s Poet and Peasant Overture - the Portsmouth Sinfonia had nothing on us, we invented the bad noise! Individually, we were all competent players. Much of the trouble stemmed from the fact that I heard people like Django Reinhardt playing a "standard" like "Lady Be Good", and I wanted it at that speed, and with those instrumental breaks so that I could show off my guitar-playing skills... when we all played, it was chaos. When we had a full house, everyone wanted to hear "standards" like the Stephen Foster songs (Camptown Races), or the ones Connie Francis was making famous (again) like "Who's Sorry Now", right back to old turn of the century music hall songs like "She Was a Sweet Little Dickie-Bird, Tweet, tweet tweet, she went..." It was a cacophony, a cacophony my Dad once managed to capture on reel-to-reel tape. I don't know why it was called reel-to-reel tape as though there were other options - there was no other method of recording around at that time!


Ok, we weren't unique - lots of families had pianos in their homes, we just happened to use ours a lot. When there was nothing to do, I would sit at it and pound out "The Old Rugged Cross" because it was a simple enough tune, one that I could just about manage with a made-up left hand accompaniment of my own. Chopsticks was too easy by far, but it required two people. It wasn't a prerequesite in the 1950s that a daughter should be able to sing and play the piano, but my sister Jean could play Schubert's Marche Militaire, and various pieces by Chopin very well indeed, as I recall as well as lots of other pieces, e.g. The Wedding of the Painted Doll. My Mum was a kind of precursor to Mrs Mills (look her up - she was at one time almost as famous as Winifred Atwell (look her up, too!). The radio was on from morning till night, because there was always something on. I was brought up listening to the radio - if Mum was in the kitchen preparing that evening's family dinner, and she didn't want me under her feet, she would put me in the front room in front of the radio and I would listen to Listen With Mother, once the announcer had assured herself that I was "sitting comfortably". In 1956 or 1957, when I was ten years old, Acker Bilk brought out a recording of Marching Through Georgia. By this time I had been exposed to various great recordings of the 1930s on 78rpm shellac records of bands like Harry Roy, Cab Calloway, Jack Hylton, Ambrose, etc., etc. My Dad had 78s of the Quintette Du Hot Club de France that simply blew me away. And then there was Chris Barber's Jazz Band, with Petite Fleur and Whistling Rufus.


And then Acker Bilk. I was sent out to the city, on the bus, to the Bon MarchĂ© department store, to seek out a copy of Marching Through Georgia - or it may even have been Under The Double Eagle... Anyway, I was entrusted with the family's funds to purchase this record, and I managed to return home with Chris Barber's Petite Fleur... It was daft, really, because I liked Acker Bilk's record better - it made no sense, unless that particular record had not yet reached Gloucester. Radio was universal, piped into every home in Britain, but deliveries of certain commodities didn't always reach "the sticks", i.e. rural Gloucestershire, for quite some time after they were played on the radio. Ah, yes! The radio. We had the radio to listen to, and we also had a wind-up gramophone, of course, to play those 78rpm shellac records on, and a never-ending supply of needles - they wore out quite quickly, you see. I would spend hours playing jazz and big band records on it - and my Uncle Ernie also gave me opera and symphony sets to play on it as well. Tosca occupied twelve 78rpm records, I think, if not more. Chris Barber and Acker Bilk came on the blue Pye Jazz label as I recall. I remember buying The Kingston Trio's The Ballad of Tom Dooley with money given to me as a kind of consolation when my beloved Gran died - I was sent to spend the day with Jean at her place of work in Cheltenham on the day of her funeral, I was eleven years old. I'd been to visit Gran in hospital, a huge ward with beds lined up on either side against the wall, austere and unwelcoming. She never came out of hospital and the day she was buried I was given a ten bob (fifty pence) note and we went off to Cheltenham. I found a record shop, and a bookshop, and I bought Tom Dooley in the first, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the second.


Shortly after that I spotted a radiogram outside Currys in the Oxbode, Gloucester, and nagged and nagged and nagged until my Mum caved in and put a deposit on it, the rest to be paid in instalments over six months. It meant that we would be able to play modern records, 45s and LP records! And it had a better radio. Our old radio struggled to find Radio Luxembourg - all crackles and hisses as you turned the tuning dial, and then eventually you got Bob Monkhouse and Dennis Goodwin playing records that people hated one last time before they smashed them audibly in the Radio Luxembourg studio. Naive as I was back then, I believed that you would never have to listen to that record again because it had been smashed to smithereens live on air... My love affair with radio began with Listen With Mother, but soon I was listening to everything while my Mum did washing, ironing, cooking etc., Woman's Hour, Housewives Choice, Children's Favourites, Life With The Lyons, The Clitheroe Kid, Much Binding in the Marsh, Workers' Playtime, A Story, a Hymn, and a Prayer, The Goons, Mrs Dale's Diary - later, when I was in my teens, I would race home from school (a long enough journey, seven miles, first by a sequence of buses, then as I became a teenager, on my bike), getting home just in time for Mrs Dale's Diary: "I've been so worried about Jim lately...". My first teenaged crush was on Jenny Dale, Mrs Dale's daughter, for the simple reason that I fell in love with her voice!


How often have you heard people of my generation say that we made our own entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s? It was true. If there was nothing on the radio, you'd head outside for a kickabout up the recreation fields (weather permitting); if the weather was foul, you'd find a comic or a book to read. Homework? No one I knew ever spent more than an hour on homework after the first novelty of being told to do some as the first few months of Grammar school wore off in 1957. Minimum effort went into homework - you did enough to get by and no more. "Could do so much better" was a regular comment on my end of term reports. If I never ended up outside the top three boys in my class, why would I bother to do more? There was too much other stuff to do, but for me it centred around the radio, with its endless music and radio plays, or else football or adventure games, or reading. Many's the time I asked if I could go to bed early so that I could sit up in bed on a summer's evening and read until it was time for sleep. I had toy cars and lorries, but no model railway, and no building bricks, although I did have Meccano. The beauty of Meccano was that our indoor market in the city sold individual pieces of Meccano so that you could add easily and cheaply to your collection. And then Airfix kits arrived on the scene. The first ones were 2/6d, or half a crown. They sold them in Woolworths, of which there were two branches in Gloucester, one in Southgate, one in Northgate. At the age of eleven (1957 - the same year I started at the Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester), my Mum and I walked down the road to the post office in Ermin Street, which doubled as a newsagent, and she asked Mr Lees if I could be given a job as a newspaper delivery boy.


I don't know what the law was back then regarding working age for children, but I got the job and from that day I never ever got out of bed later than 5 o'clock in the morning, often completing two delivery rounds before taking home my Dad's Daily Telegraph home, having my breakfast and setting off for school at around ten past eight. I have never liked the Daily Telegraph, preferring my Uncles' Daily Mirror, with its saucy Jane cartoon, or the Daily Sketch, which I think had a pull-out children's newspaper back in the fifties. I liked the idea that an adult newspaper thought enough about children to give them their own version of the news. It was in that pull-out that I started to notice advertisements: for children's books, of which I already had a growing collection; and for bicycles. As a respected newspaper delivery boy I desperately needed a bicycle. In fact I desperately needed a four-speed Raleigh with drop handlebars and nothing was going to stop me getting it. Upstairs in Currys I'd seen my dream machine, and the money I was earning from my paper rounds would soon provide me with enough money for the deposit. Except my dream collapsed overnight when Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, clamped down on hire purchase by doubling the amount you had to pay for a deposit, and, I think, reduced the time you had to pay the balance. I had set my heart on having that bike, and although I did get it, with the aid of contributions from Mum, Dad, Jean and my various Uncles, I hated Macmillan and the conservatives from the moment that hire purchase announcement was made, and I've hated them ever since, for a variety of reasons.


My bike was the envy of the neighbourhood. It was richly decorated in black and yellow, and with its four gears, was already one better than every other boy's in the street. The ginger haired twins who lived next door rode it first. My previous bike was a Tri-Ang tricycle with a huge boot and a notch in the boot into which could be inserted a pushing rod. When we went on family walks up Green Street to Cooper's Hill, My Dad would push me on my trike, and our sandwiches and pop would go in the boot. I craved that new four-speed BSA in the same way that I simply had to have that radiogram, which still needed a new needle every now and then, but probably only once every six months, rather than every three or four records! But I couldn't ride a two-wheeled bicycle. Not yet. It took hours and hours of practice, up and down Boverton Drive, day after day before I was competent and could ride my own bike. Looking back, I don't think I ever mastered the gears, but simply ended up pumping my legs faster and faster, which is why, I think, I have legs like tree trunks. But the bike allowed me the freedom to explore where I lived to an extent that I had only ever dreamed of before. Riding my bike was entertainment on a completely new scale. I was free to ride all around the village and beyond - I even cycled to Churchdown one day to meet Jean at her Secondary Modern School and ride home with her - a day off from the Crypt for some reason, and it was an excuse to get the bike out. Punctures were few and far between, and I only ever remember my chain coming off once in all the time I had the bike. I took it with me when we moved to Stevenage in 1963 and explored the whole of the New Town on it, but then I got home from work one day and discovered that my Mum had given it away to a local lad who didn't have a bike, because she thought I no longer used or needed it!


On the radio, Brian Matthew was lighting up our lives with the Saturday Skiffle Club, with groundbreaking records like Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan, and records by Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey. By the end of the 1950s, we had a small collection of "modern" records: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was the first ten inch LP I ever bought, on the Embassy label, which was Woolworth's own label. I'd heard it on the radio and had to have it. And then I started to buy 45rpm singles - Connie Francis, Russ Conway, etc., etc. and then the Beatles happened. It's a story I've recounted before but it's worth repeating... in next month's issue. (September 2016)

Robert Opie: The 1950s Scrapbook

 Published by Museum of Brands 26th February 2020

A nostalgic glimpse of a bygone age. Provides invaluable source material and is a definitive collection of printed ephemera of the past. Continues in the immensely popular Scrapbook formula which, collectively, have sold over 250,000 copies. Superb value and an excellent gift idea. After ten years of austerity, the early 1950s saw rationing draw to an end. Gathered together in this colourful creation of over 1,000 products and images, The 1950s Scrapbook conjures up the life and times of the decade. From the Festival of Britain and the Coronation of Elizabeth II to the abundance of toys and television programmes, every facet of the era is covered. Memorable and evocative, The 1950s Scrapbook illustrates an extraordinary period of British history, from rationing to rock'n'roll, from Archie Andrews to the Mini Minor.

I was late finding out about this book, but better late than never! I have to admit to being biased when it comes to nostalgia, because the 1950s are my absolute favourite period to remember, having been born myself in 1946. So the 1950s were my most formative years, and although the 1960s are very important to me (after all, it was in 1964 that I met the young girl who has been my wonderful wife for the past 54 years), it's the 1950s that seem to me to be the most colourful, something that appears to be borne out to perfection in Robert Opie's latest nostalgia offering. This book has only 58 pages, but they are pages that are crammed with just about everything you could think of that you were familiar with at the time. This is a large book, in fact it's scrapbook-sized; everyone had a scrapbook in the 1950s - we were encouraged to have them, and to put in them anything and everything that we might want to refer to at a later stage in our lives. I don't recall ever thinking about how old I would get to be when I was living through the 1950s, but now that I am mid-seventies, the 1950s have become clearer and sharper in my memories, and I relish the thought of being able to pour over this wonderful book. There's very little text: it's a visual feast of what made the 1950s what they were, and so there are pages setting the decade in context, such as the Queen's coronation, the great exhibition of 1951, etc., etc., and there are pages devoted to such artefacts as chocolates and sweets, books and comics, foodstuffs, cleaning agents, cigarettes (we were encouraged to smoke during the 1950s, cigarettes were considered beneficial to your health in terms of calming nerves, and it was certainly considered cool to smoke, because all of our favourite cinema stars did it, and they were uber-cool!). There are double-page spreads of rail travel and seaside posters; double-page spreads of airliners etc., and throughout the book there is an overwhelming sense of colour and vibrancy. The page on chocolates and sweets - look at how many bars and brands are still around today! The page on books and comics is stunning, but as I've pointed out before, it's sad to realise there are simply no comics around like the ones we had in the 1950s. And as for annuals - our annuals had over 150 pages and they were crammed with picture stories, comic strips and text stories from start to finish, together with quizzes and factual information. The "authors" of today's piss-poor annuals would be hard put to write the first sentence of a story. This applies equally to young children's comics as much as to teenagers' comics, and it's a sad indictment of various educational experts who have failed to match the spectacular reading and writing successes across all age groups and intelligences that were achieved in the 1950s decade. This is a book that captures to perfection the first full decade through which I lived and the one in which I achieved so much... started primary school, learnt to read, write and do sums, including mental arithmetic; started grammar school and a sound education that still sees me in good stead when it comes to such things as answering TV quiz questions; started my broad, comprehensive reading and general arts appreciation - it was an all-round good decade, one when we had a good sense of what was right and what was wrong, a healthy respect for the police, our elders and our betters. Fun as the 1960s were, they saw the beginning of the decline in standards that has continued to this day. It was a decade when all politicians seemed to be decent people, even the tories. Sadly that's no longer the case. The 1960s turned into the 1970s and the complete worship of self, with its accompanying disregard for authority that was borne of that spawn of Satan, Thatcher. If I had the opportunity to return to a decade of the past, I would have to choose the 1950s. And Robert Opie's magnificent 1950s Scrapbook enables me to do it in spectacular style. Normally I have to rely on my appreciation of the 1950s by getting hold of the very same annuals and books I used to own as a child. Now I have a superb book to refer to as well. Let joy be unconfined! This could well be my book of the year for 2020!

Paul Feeney: A 1950s Childhood

 Published by History Press September 2019

Do you remember Pathe News? Taking the train to the seaside? The purple stains of iodine on the knees of boys in short trousers? Knitted bathing costumes? Then the chances are you were born in or around 1950. To the young people of today, the 1950s seems like another age. But for those born around then, this era of childhood seems like yesterday. From waking up to ice on the inside of the windows, washing in a tin bath by the fire and spoonfuls of cod-liver oil, home life was very different to today. This delightful compendium of memories will appeal to all who grew up in this post-war decade, whether in town or country, wealth or poverty. With chapters on games and hobbies, holidays, music and fashion, the wonderful memories and delightful illustrations will bring back this decade of childhood, and jog memories about all aspects of life.

Paul Feeney's book covers exactly the same period as the Robert Opie book above, but it couldn't be more different in its approach. A 1950s Childhood is a personal journey through the decade, and I suspect the bulk of Paul's memories refer to an inner city childhood; I also suspect that his memories are coloured by a slightly more deprived childhood than my own, because several times he refers to "lucky" children, for instance when he refers to those of us who had Hornby train sets, bicycles and other similar childhood benefits. The photos are terrific, as are his memories, but they don't echo my own, because my childhood was in a small village at the foot of the hill down which they roll the cheeses at Whitsun; and I was one of the lucky ones who passed the 11+ exam (at the age of ten) and went to a more privileged education (in my opinion) at one of the oldest grammar schools in the country (The Crypt Grammar School for Boys, Gloucester). I really enjoyed reading Paul's memoirs, but although I didn't have a television until we moved to Stevenage New Town in 1963, I did used to watch Robin Hood (on my great Aun't television, because I was obsessed with Robin Hood) and he was played by Richard Greene, and not Richard Green, as Paul's book has it spelt on more than one occasion. Sorry, Paul, I always look for and find spelling errors in books, it's a compulsion of mine! A brilliant book, but unlike the Robert Opie book, this is a very personal memoir.

Yours Retro Magazine - the latest issue - out now!

The June 2020 edition starts with an  in-depth look at Marilyn Monroe's first husband, Joe Di Maggio, and how, although they were only married for just over a year, they remained friends until Marilyn died and Joe arranged for flowers to be placed on her grave for at least twenty years afterwards. Also in this month's splendid issue: Growing Up In Daddy's Shadow - a look at the children of the famous Hollywood stars such as Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (Jamie Leigh Curtis); Ryan O'Neal (Tatum) etc.; Ocean's 11 and how good a film is is and how it came to be created; the story of the making of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, featuring the legendary DJ Kenny Everett; how Hollywood portrays our royals on screen; Land of the Giants; Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull; and so much more. This magazine just gets better and better. For me it's the very best magazine on the market - I suppose I'm biased, because nostalgia in all its forms is most important to me - but the photogrtaphs, the layout, content of this superb magazine are absolutely brilliant!

 (Note to self, May/June 2016 Archives)

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its 22nd year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email at and I'll let you know where to send it.

  Home Page

  Children's Books

  Fiction books

  Fantasy & Science Fiction

  Nonfiction Books

  Acker Bilk Sleeve Notes

  The Stephen King page

  The Enid Blyton page

  Pen and Sword Books

  Email me

As this is the Nostalgia page, and it's all about what happened in the old days, I'm publishing part three of my memories of the 1950s, together with a couple of 1950s books that have recently come my way...