When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams

‘All retail’s fucked,’ my daughter said to me this morning when I mentioned the fact that the book store, Readers Feast, is closing down. Not just book stores it seems. People buy on line or they go to markets for their fruit and vegetables.

To me this is all about change – relentless, ruthless, inexorable change. Sometimes it excites me, other times it terrifies me.

One of my daughters is leaving home today, for good you might assume. She moves into a small apartment near the city with her boyfriend.

How different this is from my day when such an arrangement would have constituted an act of living in sin. Now it’s commonplace for couples to cohabitate well before marriage, and often times without marrying at all.

When I think back to the changes that have taken place throughout my relatively short life time my first thought lands on our shopping arrangements.

When I was a child in the early sixties we did all our shopping around the corner at the local shops. The grocer, Mr Brockhoff, owned the corner shop, where we bought flour, rice, soap, toilet paper, the sorts of things you buy at supermarkets today. Next door to him stood the butcher, then the greengrocer and milk bar. The chemist and newsagent were opposite on the other side of Canterbury Road along with a women’s clothes shop and another milk bar. There was a toy shop, which also sold books and there may have been the office of a lawyer or accountant as well – the composition of our local shopping centre.

Occasionally my mother took the bus to Camberwell to buy items that could not be found locally. To me a trip to Camberwell was like a trip to the city, up and down the Bourke Road hill the shops seemed as grand as I imagined were the shops of Europe.

Bourke Road is still a shopping precinct but few of the shops, few if any of the shops, in existence today were there fifty years ago.

‘When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams’ my husband jokes whenever someone complains about things not being the same as they once were. As if the past were preferable.

The biggest changes occur in families. One daughter leaves home and another who left home a long time ago has given birth to a beautiful son, a second son whose name is Art.

I resist the temptation to write about my children. They prefer to stay out of my ramblings, but I cannot resist a word or two that acknowledges this change in the composition of my family.

My mother loved having babies. It has always been the hall mark of her life. She measured her worth in the number of children she brought into the world.

And so we get into the habit of counting. My mother’s seventh great grandchild from among her twenty three grandchildren and her nine children.

She prides herself on the fact that none of her offspring or the offspring of her offspring are on drugs. I am not sure why drugs feature so heavily in my mother’s imagination. In her mind it seems, drug addiction is the worst thing that could ever befall a person.

There are one or two or maybe even three in my extended family with significant alcohol problems, one or two with significant social problems, one or two or three or four or more whose marriages have fallen through or whose marriages are about to fall through or will one day collapse but my mother focuses on the absence of drug addiction among her progeny and that is proof enough both of how fortunate she is and a measure of her good enough parenting.

It is easy to boast about our children, to see ourselves reflected in their glories, to feel a load of pleasure in their achievements as if they are our own, and to avoid looking too closely underneath to know that our children also suffer.

I hate to hear my mother talk about her children’s achievements, including my own, because I know that none of these so-called achievements have been without effort and pain and struggle and yet when my mother talks about them it is as if she believes they reflet her goodness and nothing more, her goodness and our father’s stellar intellect, for that is the one thing my mother will lay claim to for our father – his intellect, as if her were a genius, which he was not.

It is a good thing that babies come together as the product of at least two sets of genes initially and further back the product of two sets of grandparents on both sides going back in multiples of four. It makes for each baby’s uniqueness.

Art means ‘little bear’. I think of our little Art and his big brother Leo, who at three and a half is still little, whose name, needless to say, means lion. The lion and the bear, even a little one. Magnificent animals and if they had been born girls would we elect to focus on such strong animal images from their names. I wonder.

I heard recently about a couple in America who are trying to bring up their child in a gender neutral environment and how their neighbours and the media have vilified them.

It puzzles me how this couple can manage to do this when gender is such an inescapable biological fact of life, and the influence of socio-cultural constructions and the like are equally powerful.

In the end I think I’m glad for gender but I wish sometimes we were not so polarised into masculine and feminine. I like to think of these gender types across a spectrum with fluidity between not one category and the other, as if on a continuous line or even a circle that moves around with varying degrees of masculinity and femininity and all the variable ways these two broad genders types can manifest themselves in between.

40 thoughts on “When pies were sixpence and we used to swim in dams”

  1. I'm thinking all around these things you write about. Grandbaby on the way: 13 weeks in the womb. What will shape her/him, what will s/he shape in us? I'm completely smitten with the new possibilities. I'm grateful for this day in which we can so freely maneuver along the spectrum of feminine-masculine, accomplishment-fulfillment, etc. It's a good day for a child to be born. And yet . . . there is so much amiss. We still, humanly, hope.

  2. when you use the term 'drugs' am I correct to assume you are referring to illicit substances?

    That is how I read it to have meaning, that drugs meant illicit "drugs". I get the feeling her pride would not be affected if one of her children used an inhaler for asthma twice a day religiously. There are numerous other "drugs" that opinions may differ in regards to assigning more in depth meaning as to the drugs exact nature, like prozac for example.

    there are many many many persons whose quality of life is greatly improved due to the use of "drugs". Except that in today's common way that a word's meaning tends to drift while still sticking to the original definition. As for asthma drugs, a more accurate word to describe albuterol would be medication. An a more accurate word to describe novacaine when not used for dental procedure would be cocaine.

  3. This is fun, I note the date on your post and see that it is "tomorrow" already when we haven't finished "today" yet. *smiles*

    I lament some of the changes as well.. like going to the grocery store only to buy milk when, as a child, it was always left there on our front porch by the milkman. There are many others, though I must say I do like having the convenience of a garage door opener. I was the "opener" when my father drove.

    We have good friends, former hippies, who tried to raise their daughter in a gender neutral environment. Fearing she would be typecast into traditionally female career potential, they bought her Tonka trucks and building sets to encourage her interest in more male-dominated interests. But what did she prefer instead? To "put on a frilly dress and twirl"! And as an adult she made the Seattle Seahawks football teem cheer leading squad. So much for gender neutral.

    Waves to you from the far side of the International Date Line.

  4. At least in the 60's and 70's when you called spade a spade it was exactly that and everyone knew what you were talking about unlike the gibberish spoken today :-).

  5. I remember the smaller shops that preceded supermarkets. I also remember the baker coming around daily with his horse drawn cart, and the iceman who came weekly to deliver huge blocks of ice for the iceboxes that preceded fridges.
    I remember the fish'n'chip shop next to the milkbar along the road parallel to the beach, best milkshakes in town. I remember pies being a shilling and a squirt of sauce was free, icecreams were sixpence, a double icecream was a shilling. Sixpence worth of chips wrapped in white paper was more than enough chips and we'd tear a hole in the top of the paper to eat the chips, because they stayed hotter that way and didn't drop on the ground either. Only "posh" people sat at the tables outside and unwrapped the chips properly.

  6. The differences in the genders was a big thing for me growing up, all, of course, to do with the Bible’s views of what the role of women ought to be – “I suffer not a woman to teach” and all that jazz. My father was very much the head of the house and subjugated my mother for her entire life. Every now and then I hear him in some of the things I say to Carrie and shudder. Not that I’m anything like him – as much as I longed for his approval growing up I always wanted him to approve of me for who I was and not for effectively mimicking him – but I still hear his tone every now and then. Carrie shrugs it off – she grew up in a family where she was the only girl and very much a second class citizen and yet, ironically, she is the one who became an engineer like her father and is the one now he realises he ought to have been more proud of growing up – besides she never takes of my any half-hearted attempts to assert my masculinity seriously because they’re not serious.

    I still can’t shake the not-quite-rightness I feel when I encounter a woman in a position of power though. (Actually out-of-placeness is probably a better term, a pleasant unexpectedness.) I have no problem working under women – I actually prefer it – but I find it odd, like women wearing tops where you are supposed to see their bras. I don’t get that. Okay on one level I do get that but I grew up around women who dressed modestly – there were no miniskirts in our congregation – and just to see a bra through a woman’s translucent top was something memorable.

    If you said to my father that he was treating his wife like a second-class citizen though he would have objected, no, he was simply giving her her place as “the weaker vessel, the feminine one” but that’s just semantics. Gender exists, that is a fact, although I suppose what I’m really saying is that sex exists: I’ve always struggled to see how masculine and feminine is different to male and female. I’m not sure when the meaning of gender changed but to my way of thinking a lady-fireman is no less a woman than a househusband is a man: you can’t be more of a woman and less of a man – it’s an either/or situation.

    I’ve never been especially fond of the company of men. As the song goes, you will always find me in the kitchen at parties . . . because that’s where the women were. Despite looking unmistakably male I’ve never shown much interest in traditional male pursuits (sport, cars, drink) and in that respect my wife has always preferred the company of males (not that she’s especially interested in sport, cars and drink either) but you’d never mistake her for a bloke. A few years ago my wife and daughter decided that I was an “honorary woman” and I never get tired telling people that. What has puzzled me is that my daughter has hooked up with – and will shortly marry – a very male man someone who is interested in sports, cars and drinking. I can’t see what she sees in him. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a dead nice bloke (I’m not saying he’s not good enough for my daughter or anything) but he’s not the kind of person I might have expected her to pick. But what do I know?

    I am proud of my daughter. She is very much her own woman and she’s never been afraid to stand up to me not that she’s ever had to much. It would be stupid for me not to take some credit for who she is – and she’s too much like me to try and wriggle out of that comparison (actually she’s always expressed pleasure in our similarities) – but there comes a time when you have to acknowledge that what’s going right or wrong in your kids’ lives is all their own doing and nothing to do with you. We reached that stage about ten years ago. My daughter will be thirty-one very shortly. I also don’t talk much about her online. She’s never asked me not to but I prefer not to.

  7. Great piece. Oh I used to love all these shops in a time when people all knew each other and shops were a meeting place. Now it is all so inpersonal. Most dutch mothers are proud. The Dutch are very family oriented and there kids are very important.
    About gender. I agree about the spectrum. I find as I get older that my other gender type comes out more.lol

  8. i like people and find that gender is often more of a literally skin-deep space than a deeper and more meaningful representation of the presence of the person. i'm comfortable with roles melding to the degre that is necessary.
    change: there was a time when people didn't go to shops at all. then there were shops. then there was online. i wonder what will arrive after online? that interests me. change interests me because it tells stories about the culture it comes from as well as about the future becoming present. steven

  9. I do like the connections and the coverage of this. So much does continue to change. It’s in the second half of life the change really hits, when there is a memory of what was did, or there before. I enjoyed…

  10. I don't know if it's the reaction you wanted, but I'm amused at your mother's pride that none of her children take drugs. I'm guessing your mother raised her children during the 1960s? I imagine it's because the counterculture was in all the papers. If she had raised her children in the 30s, 40s, or 50s, I wonder if she'd be half as proud. Looking at it objectively, I'd have to say alcoholism is something of an improvement over an addiction to illegal drugs. Either way you can destroy yourself and the lives of those around you, but with the former you at least don't have to worry about going to jail.

    As another male with little interest in cars, sports, and (not much these days) drink, I heartily agree with you about the fluidity of gender. The problem seems to be the human need to catagorize each others behavour. Fluidity just doesn't lend itself to catagorization all that well. You would know more about this more than me, but didn't even Jung feel the need to divide humanity between introverts and extroverts?

  11. Dear Elisabeth – I would be sending you this message via email if I knew where to send it! Just wanting to let you know that I have incorporated two of the lines you contributed to my 'Waters I Have Known' project last year in a short film. The film ('It Is All One Water' has as its narration, a collaborative poem constructed from various texts from our blog community.). I trust this is okay with you and that will like what I have put together. . . If we get a place in the film contest (Possible Futures), the winnings will be distributed to all who contributed to the vid! Many thanks – and here's the link so you can have a look-see. Hope all is well with you? I am behind with everything at the moment, esp. my blog reading, Hope to catch up soon – Claire


  12. I agree Ruth, a good day and a troublesome one on which our babies are born. I suspect this applies always and everywhere to varying degrees. Congratulations on grand-motherhood ahead, assuming it's your first. Otherwise you're an old hand. It matters not, every new baby is a new adventure, experience and person – all equally wonderful.

    Thanks, Ruth.

  13. I am referring to illicit substances, Who – Dusty, and you're right indeed. My mother's fears are most likely based on the experience of the 1960s when me and my siblings were youngsters threatened by the hippie life of drugs and free love.

    We tend to use the term drugs for illicit substances in Australia. Other more legal forms are referred to as medication.

    Thanks Dusty.

  14. A milk bar, Elizabeth is perhaps the same as your drug store, though it is not licensed to sell medication and alcohol.

    Essentially it's a place where you buy bread and milk, cigarettes and other basic essentials.

    As a child it's the place where we bought what Australians call lollies and the Brits call sweets, as well as ice creams and chips, which I think you might refer to as crisps.

    It's amazing the number of different terms that apply to foodstuffs across the English speaking world.
    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  15. Greetings to you Robert, from across the date line.

    We also had our milk and bread delivered when I was a child. There's a new service that has spring up here in Melbourne called 'Aussie Farmers' which also delivers milk and bread and much more besides to your door. It's designed to encourage the purchase of local foodstuffs. A great initiative.

    Thanks Robert.

  16. I'm not sure about everyone calling a spade a spade in the 50s and 60s, Windsmoke. Sure some things were more clear cut apparently, but I suspect there might have been other obscure things. It depended perhaps on the family you grew up in.

    One example comes to mind from my family, where it was wrong, though we were never told as much outrightly, to utter the word pregnant. Our mother wasn't pregnant, no, she was 'expecting'.

    Euphemisms abounded as much in those days as they do today, different euphemisms perhaps but nevertheless potent.

    Thanks, Windsmoke.

  17. I loved the fish and chips you ate from the paper, River and can still see the stream blowing off the top.

    Your memories are so much like mine, very Australian in the days of pounds, shillings and pence.

    Thanks, River.

  18. ……. and the grocer would ask such as, "Do you neeed 'such and such' this week?" just in case it had been forgotten on the shopping list. I did enjoy that sort of shopping, but there are still some shops here that are small and family owned, so I am not totally deprived.

    Do you think that each generation, as it ages, both welcomes and is terrified by changes in life style and communication that occur?

  19. I get the feeling, Jim, from your comments online that you might be a bit of a so-called SNAG- sensitive new age man. I dislike the term but it sometimes works to describe a gentle, thoughtful and intelligent soul who is not into all that machismo type of stuff.

    On the other hand you seem aggressive enough, on the page at least, and therefore you don't quite fit the category for me.

    I often think of Ursula Le Guin's comments on what she one described as father tongue and mother tongue. I'll quote myself and LeGuin from elsewhere here to save myself the effort of paraphrasing. Forgive me if I've said it before but to me it's important.

    'Father tongue, the language of the academies, is as Ursula Le Guin writes, the language of public discourse, the language of power, the language of the outside world. Such a voice is essential to the development of technologies, science and the humanities. It presupposes that a common language can be spoken in laboratories, in business and governments everywhere. And ‘those who don’t know it or won’t speak it are silent, or silenced, or unheard’ (LeGuin, 1992, p.148). Mother tongue, on the other hand is ‘always on the verge of silence, often on the verge of song’ (p. 153). It is ‘an excellent dialect,’ Le Guin writes. Father tongue is ‘The language of thought that seeks objectivity’ (p. 148). Our public systems, the political and legal, our education and culture depend on it. Its ‘essential gesture… is not reasoning but distancing- making a gap, a space between the subject or self and the object or other’ (p. 148). It can be ‘immensely noble and indispensably useful, this tongue, but when it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive’ (p. 149). It is the voice that suppresses the mother tongue.

    Mother tongue the language that greets us at birth reminds us that we are human. The mother tongue, that we unlearn in the academies, is conversational and inclusive, the language of stories, ‘inaccurate, unclear, coarse, limited’ – mother tongue breaks down dichotomy and refuses splits. ‘It flies from the mouth on the breath that is our life and is gone like the out breath, utterly gone and yet returning, repeated, the breath the same again always, everywhere, and we all know it by heart’ (p. 149).

    Mother tongue is the language of story telling, the language of children, the language of women. Mothers speak and teach it to their children as they in turn learned it from their mothers. Mother tongue is binding. It does not contradict but seeks to affirm. It repeats, it explores in its very subjectivity the nature of our lives but it is not generally an acknowledged language. It is a language reserved for playful times, chaotic times or desperate times when life cannot be taken too seriously. It is the language we meet in infancy on our mother’s lap. It is the language that migrants hold closest to their hearts, especially on arrival in a new country.

    Neither mother tongue nor father tongue alone are enough. We need to integrate both voices into what Le Guin calls our third language – ‘native tongue’, which involves ‘a marriage of the public discourse and the private experience’ (p. 155). Le Guin wrote her paper in 1986 as a plea to a group of young women from Bryn Mawr University to value their perceptions and their own voices and not to adhere to the privileging of father tongue, as it exists in literary canons. These days the English language itself tends to be privileged above all other languages, another factor which can all too easily be ignored in our efforts to deal with those from migrant backgrounds.'

    I'm interested in what you write here about your daughter's choice of partner. It reminds me of the fact that my mother's second husband was never the one I'd have chosen for her. How funny it is that the one's we love should choose partners we'd never choose.

    Thanks Jim.

  20. Some of us get more open minded as we age, Marja and some of us more rigid. You sound like one of the more open minded soups.

    That's not surprising I suppose, given your origins. Still I find the Dutch such an odd mixture of progressive attitudes on the one hand and conservatism on the other.

    Thanks Marja.

  21. Thank you for visiting my blog.

    It is interesting that the older generation see things differently. However, something that does not change is the preference for boys.

  22. Your mother had 9 children? So you have 8 brother and sisters – such a large family. I have none. I did get another grandson last Wednesday, 13 July. He is my 3rd grandson; the others are 4 and 2 years old. In May I went to France and visited my cousin. She lives about 45 minutes south of Paris. In that little town there are still butchers, bakers, bookstores, flower shops and twice a week a market on the market place. This has not changed since I was a child.

  23. Gender and change seem to be interlinked, Steven, as you imply. Although they are both the great inexorables: change is inevitable and gender differences are a biological fact, this is not so surprising.

    It helps for these things to proceed in a fluid-like manner, though I suppose bumps and catastrophes are also inevitable, judging by the past.

    Thanks, Steven.

  24. From the time I turned forty, Anthony, I noticed this different pattern of life to which you refer.

    Before then, my interests tended to be more with the here and now. But by the time I hit forty I found myself reading the obituaries.

    Thanks, Anthony.

  25. I agree, Kirk, we love to categorise and to order. It seems to start young. I can dstill see my youngest dughter as a three year old ordering the buttons in a friends button box into colours and size.

    As for my mother's pride at our drug free state, I agree, she must have been influenced by the sixties counter culture and, like you, I imagine that alcohol is a less serious evil than illicit substances, but there are others who would disagree.

    I still enjoy wine, so perhaps it's my way of rationalising my weakness.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  26. Thanks, Claire.

    I came, I saw and I voted.

    I hope your film wins, if not that it does well. I'm sure it will.

    It's inspiring. I managed to register my vote in the nick of time.

  27. And today, Aguja, the grocer's question about whether that will be all might be interpreted as 'up-selling'.

    Yes, I agree: with each new generation, we reverberate uncomfortably to change.
    Thanks Aguja.

  28. I agree with you, Cheshire Wife, if by 'preference for boys' you mean a sort of patriotism. It's still there, even in western societies post feminism, but still
    it's shifting.

    It's lovely to see you here and thanks, Cheshire Wife.

  29. Ah Vagabond, so our grandsons were born on the same day. What synchronicity.

    They will be creatures of the same generation, global cousins, even on opposite sides of the world.

    I wonder what the world will look like for them when they become men.

    Thanks, Vagabond.

  30. Bob Dylan had it right: "The times they are a-changing."
    Pies for sixpence and swimming in dams. The former, uneconomical; the latter, too dangerous. At least by today's standards. Sigh.
    I remember growing up in an era of little shops. A few years ago, I was back where I had grown up. Our modest little home had been torn down and replaced by a castle. Most of the little stores I knew were gone.
    Sic transit gloria mundi.

  31. Nothing like a Latin quote, Rob-bear to remind us pf the passage of time. I learnt Latin at school and even for a year at university, but my ability to translate today flags.

    And yes, Bob Dylan continues to get it right – the times keep a'changin.

    Thanks Rob-bear.

  32. my dad….like most of my friends parents…grew lettuces and beans and cabbages in out tiny garden when i was growing up…when I left home we none of us did any gardening let alone grow produce, we did weekly shops from large supermarkets and then we started having it delivered …..but now we're back in the mud all growing tomatoes and rocket and corriander…I myself have pots of chilli and basil and beans…hey-ho!!

  33. Back in the mud sounds like a wonderful place to be, Young at Heart. Amazing how the cycle moves round. It reminds me of the bread making process. How it started off grainy then they took the grain out to make white refined bread then they added fibre in white bread to cater to tastes for the refined and now they go back to grains. We need more lumpy produce, I'd say.

    Thanks Young at Heart.

  34. I had experienced so many changes in my life back in Russia, that I created a theory that nothing is stable, and nothing is forever. When I say to my Russian friends that my dentist appointment booked ahead of six months, they were asking – How would you know you would be available at that time?

  35. How extraordinary, Olga. To not know sufficiently far ahead what you will be doing in six months time such that you cannot set a dental appointment surprises me.

    And yet if I think on it I recognize that when we make such appointments we rely heavily on things maintaining a certain stability.

    The truth is we can never be certain of what might intervene.

    Thanks Olga.

  36. The old-fashioned way of shopping still seems pretty common here in Geneva, Elisabeth. Supermarkets are here too, of course, but apartments tend to be small with very little storage and locals shop every day for what they need that day and like to visit the baker, the butcher, the greengrocer, the wine store.

    As for me, with no car and a long walk to the supermarket with a nanna cart I am seriously thinking about ordering my groceries online. Living on tinned tomatoes, UHF milk and potatoes makes for a heavy load.

    As for the drug issue it's a theme with my mother too. That and the fact that we all got a 'good education'.

  37. I can understand your desire to buy online, Kath. It must be very hard to be stuck without daily necessities.

    I haven't been busy blogging so much of late but I think of you often, you and your family living the new life in Geneva.

    It must be quite an adjustment. It seems so far away from inner city Melbourne, you and your litter collecting duties and your desires to end your daughter to the local high school. How things change.

  38. My mother's point of pride is that not one of us 3 girls had a baby out of wedlock. No embarrassing teenage pregnancies….
    She already knows her girls took illicit drugs and still turned out to be responsible citizens. She just prefers not to know the details…and I'll spare her my acid-trip ramblings.

  39. Sorry for the late response here, TaraDharma. Your mother's point of pride in no daughters with embarrassing pregnancies out of wedlock was also one of my mother's aims.

    How times have changed. She wouldn't bat an eyelid today, as long as the parents love one another.

    I wonder how much my children spare me their 'illicit' activities as I too spare my mother, and vice versa.

    Thanks, TaraDharma.

Leave a Reply to River Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *