Tuesday, 3 August 2021

The one thing I don't miss from the 1950's is polio - A guest blog by Richard Wilkinson

Over the past couple of years, I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing my recollections of the 1950's and 1960's in the Barnet Eye. I recently had a beer at the Mill Hill Services Club with Roger and a few other friends. It was the first time I'd been for a proper pint of beer for a very long time. It was most enjoyable. Although I have been double jabbed for a while now, I've felt safer avoiding crowded places. As the club on a Monday night is not too busy, it seemed like a good time to emerge from my shell. 

I always enjoy the ambience of the club, the pictures of Joe Davis performing snooker tricks on the wall, the clink of snooker balls in the background as the beers go down. Roger commented that the club was perhaps the last bastion of the pre Beatles era in Mill Hill. The panelled walls and the Union flag proudly flying have not changed over the years. Having said that, a time traveller from Mill Hill in 1957 would find the club to be a very different place. The first difference they would notice when they opened the door would be the absence of tobacco smoke. Just about every chap in the club would smoke back in the day. The cigarettes were Players and Capstans, usually without filters. There would also be the fragrent smell of pipes. Mill Hill had it's own pipe shop, The Elite, at no 51 the Broadway. 

The second thing a time traveller would notice is the clothing is verydifferent today. No one seems to wear a jacket, hat or cap when they go out. People wear trainers rather than shoes. I don't know if it rains less now, but I also observe far fewer raincoats on the coat rack. 

I can't recall the date when I first went into the club, sometime in the early 1960's. My father warned me to be on my very best behaviour. To become a member, you needed to meet the very strict requirements of the membership panel. You had to wear a tie and shine your shoes. The club was run by people such as Robin Elliot, who was a former Royal Naval Submarine commander. He took a dim view of people who turned up for interviews without shining their shoes. These were serious men who had paid their dues, some in two world wars. As far as they were concerned, being a member of the club was a privelige. It was a place where you could relax and enjoy yourself over a beer or a short, in the company of men. For entertainment, as well as snooker, there was darts, billiards, dominos and various card games. All of these were taken rather seriously, there was much kudos for the winners of the various club competitions and even more for teams beating rival clubs in the various leagues and tournaments that were part of the club calendar. Of course these still take place, but back then, that was the only evening entertainment to be had in Mill Hill and they were hugely popular events. Crowds would form to watch the darts team compete. I am sure our visitor would be amazed to see huge screens showing racing and football. Back in the day, this would only be on the radio, if at all. 

Our time traveller may also be surprised to see ladies in the club. Back then, it was a strictly male environment. There was a small, uncomfortable room where ladies could take a drink whilst their husbands enjoyed the lusher inner sanctum. It is fair to say that this wasn't particularly popular with the ladies. My mother once commented that the only time she'd been in was when she was caught in a cloudburst on Hartley Avenue, whilst walking to the bus stop with my father after church. It was the first and last time, not least as my father played snooker for a couple of hours, leaving her on her own.

We forget the downside of the era. As we emerge from a deadly pandemic, one that has seen me lose a couple of friends, my mind returned to the polio epidemic of the 1950's. Roger's elder brother Laurie, who is a contempory of mine, was a victim of the epidemic. Several children at the school we were at were stricken down. It was truly terrifying. We knew of deaths, of people in iron lungs, people being crippled. Laurie was lucky as he had a relatively mild case, which only affected his walking for a couple of years. When the government started a vaccination program, their was nothing but joy. We had seen the effects of ths awful disease first hand. There was no scepticism about the NHS or the scientists who developed these medicines. As residents of Mill Hill, there was nothing but pride that we had the National Institute for Medical Research in our locality. The eminent professors and researchers who were developing these were integral parts of our community. We knew they were serious people and we knew that their work was of immeasurable benefit not just to Mill Hill, but to the whole world. 

The work of these fine people meant that polio was eradicated from the United Kingdom. It has nearly been eradicated from the whole planet. I must confess I get quite angry when I hear people making ludicrous claims about the scientists developing vaccines. I believe that it is the height of selfishness and stupidity to refuse vaccination. I would hate to think I'd transmitted a deadly disease on to someone else and harmed them. When my children were vaccinated, I thanked the Good Lord that I lived in an age where polio, diptheria, measles, scarlett fever, rubella etc, were things of the past. I've hated the enforced isolation, not being able to see my children and grandchildren. I've missed the simple pleasures of a pint of real ale with friends. In the UK over 46 million people have been vaccinated as I write this. If it wasn't safe, we'd be seeing hospitals fill up. Instead, we are seeing hospitals starting to empty, as the vaccines do their job. 

I'm proud that Mill Hill was the centre of developing vaccines. There are many things about the 1950's I miss. It was an era when we felt proud to be British. Frank Whittle invented the Jet Engine and we'd see the jets land and take off at Hendon Aerodrome. Fleming discovered penecillin and we saw previously fatal infections banished. Mill Hill has changed beyond recognition, the services club being perhaps the last recognisable bastion of that bygone age, even if it has changed in many ways. Whatever we may or may not think of these changes, I for one, don't miss diseases like polio. I hope and pray that the lessons we've learned during this covid crisis mean that we have the tools to deal with the next pandemic before a million people die.  

1 comment:

Fraser said...

I too, was a child in the 50s. We moved out of London to Tadley, in the first house to be completed for workers at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. I never had any vaccines given for anything at all !! Of course as young children we knew nothing of disease, abd relied on our parents to "do the right thing". Polio was unknown to us, but I think I did get chickenpox. Maybe living out in the country kept us healthy. The one thing I did get was appendicitis, for which I was admitted to the Royal Berkshire Infirmary in Reading for about 10 days ! I must admit to enjoying my stay in the children's ward. I was 9 years of age.