I have been trawling through the files in my archives again and the story below rose to the fore and demanded to be read. Just a timely memory I thought I’d share. I promise not to include too many of these ‘down memory lane’ extracts but sometimes it’s good to look back and remember how it was.
The couple in this tale are the same couple who appear in Nappy cakes, picnics and popcorn by the way.
Let there be light
When I think of the 1970s, I remember the cheerful fashions, wonderful films like ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘The Sting’, good music and long hot summers with clear blue skies and of course, being a teenager.
There was another side to the 70s though.
In the early part of the decade, The National Union of Miners had held the whole country to ransom. Coal supplies at the power stations were at an all-time low and an Emergency situation had been declared. Wherever your sympathies lay, there was no escaping the grim reality of the three day working week and the constant power cuts.
Walking home from school along the darkened streets could have easily become a nightmare. Luckily, showing a unity of spirit for which they have been famed in the past, the British public came to the fore. When the power failed, the candles and hurricane lamps were lit. Walking down the streets was like taking a trip through fairyland as the flickering lights twinkled from behind the darkened panes, curtains left undrawn so that passers by could be guided home.
As we shivered and pulled our overcoats closer we were cheered to see that some enterprising souls had lit bonfires in their gardens (even though it would be a while until Guy Fawkes’ night) and were happily roasting potatoes and baking sausages in the embers.
There was a kind of camaraderie built up as we queued to buy candles, night lights and oil lamps from shops displaying hastily erected signs advertising the arrival of new stock. The humble white kitchen candle became a much sought-after item, whereas the fancy Christmas variety from the previous year burnt far too quickly.
Shopping itself became an adventure during the power cuts and not one to be entered into lightly, given the likelihood of accidents as bodies bumped and collided with one another in the gloom.
The young American couple who, a while before had moved into the house adjacent to our own, must have wondered what on earth they had come to. R was in the U.S. Navy and had been posted to England with his wife V and their baby daughter. We had met them a few times and my sister and I had baby-sat for them. My father chatted to R about cars and such. For a while R’s car was the talk of the neighbourhood, being a red and white Mustang, far wider than any car we were used to. We thought it was amazing.
Someone else must have thought the same, for one night in November it was stolen.
R reported the theft to my father, who happened to be a local policeman. Always ready to help anyone, my father drove R around the local streets, convinced that it had been snatched by a joyrider and would have been abandoned intact. He was right. They found the car parked in a side turning right next to the local police station of all places.
Meanwhile, we were having yet another power cut and V and the baby had come round to us to share the candlelight and use the gas stove, since they had an electric oven. The talk turned to Thanksgiving and V invited us to join them for their Thanksgiving dinner in a couple of weeks. We were pleased to accept and intrigued as to what it would entail.
We, who in those days rarely ate turkey at all outside the Christmas season, found it strange to find V preparing a large bird for the table at the end of November. My sister and I went round early to help look after the baby while V busied herself in the kitchen. To keep us going she had baked a plate of brownies, which we gratefully demolished.
As we sat on the rug building bricks for the baby to knock down, the smell of the roasting turkey assailed our nostrils and we sighed in anticipation. At 4.40 p.m. it was quite dark outside. At five o’clock the lights went out.
This power cut was quite unexpected and had caught all of us on the hop.
“Don’t move!” V’s command reached our ears.
A series of thumps and bangs from the kitchen conveyed to us that she was searching the cupboards for candles – by touch. The search was not very successful and once our eyes had become accustomed to the dark, we picked up the baby and made our way to the hall, where one of us had thoughtfully stashed a torch. No one went out without one at that time.
Light at last! The beam was not brilliant but using it we managed to locate the candles and illuminate the rest of the room.
“Well that’s good, but what about the turkey?” wailed V when we had placed the last candle on the mantlepiece. The solution was obvious. Our house had a gas oven; we would take the bird over there to finish cooking.
Wrapping it in tin foil and placing it on a tray, we shielded it from the rain with an umbrella, and carried it, not without a struggle, to our own house. We left V trying to salvage the rest of the dinner as best she could.
By the time we returned, V had unearthed the primus stove and was cooking the vegetables on that. At seven o’clock a phone call from my mother confirmed that the turkey was ready.
“Take the pram!” V admonished, removing baby and blankets in one movement and replacing them with a large tray. Amidst much giggling and joking, my sister and I pushed the empty pram around the corner to where my mother waited on the doorstep, the enormous bird on the side table. We carefully sat the turkey in the pram, covered it with the apron and pulled up the hood before dashing back around the corner lest it should get cold. I often wonder what a surprise some well-meaning old lady would have had if she had peeped inside to admire our “baby”!
The dinner was a great success, the candlelight making it particularly special. The highlight of the evening, however, came when the power returned and R jumped up to show us how popcorn was made. None of us had tasted salted popcorn before let alone seen it popping in the pan. (If it was in the shops we frequented, we certainly had not noticed it.) R had bought some from the naval base as a special treat. I can still see the enormous mixing bowl into which he tipped a mountain of glistening, white, freshly popped corn.
The firelight flickered in the grate and played strange shadows along the wall as we relaxed in the chairs and listened to Don McLean on R’s reel-to-reel, of which he was inordinately proud. Much later, when we had talked the night away, R gave us a tin of unpopped corn to take home with us.
Those days are far behind us now and reel to reels have been replaced many times over. It’s funny though, I still like to keep a supply of white candles in the house, just in case.