‘I realised as I was writing my book, what a disappointment I must have been to my parents’ said Michele Hanson when I interviewed her about her latest book, “What the Grown-Ups Were Doing, An Odyssey through 1950s Suburbia” a lovely memoir about growing up in a Jewish family in Ruislip in post-war Britain, when childhood was far more innocent and the absence of TV and computer games encouraged creativity and more playing outdoors, picking blackberries, skipping, playing 5 Stones and Jacks.
Thwarting her elegant mother’s desire to dress her in ‘pretty frocks’, Michele was a tomboy preferring to dress in trousers – and who hated wearing shoes ( in part due to having large feet, the only choice other than men’s shoes appeared to be white patent leather, making her feet look even bigger!), preferring to play outside with her dog , pet mice and various friends.
Her father, who had left school at 12, worked hard and set up a thriving belt manufacturing business, but despite her artistic talents and flare for understanding what would work in terms of trends, Michele did not follow him into the family business, preferring to set her own course in life.
Originally starting out as a series of short stories, Michele was encouraged to develop them into a book. Drawing on the memories of friends and family ‘to fill in the gaps, and just to make sure I remembered it correctly’, Michele takes us through the highs and lows of living in suburbia, where the mother’s role was to ensure her family were clean and well fed while the father was head of the household and breadwinner. Where her family celebrated being Jewish, (but still ate bacon) and family bonds were strong.
Growing up in a more innocent age
A seemingly idyllic childhood, with plenty of friends Michele shares with humour, her thoughts and feelings growing up at a time when children had more freedom to play outside and explore, walk to school unsupervised, catch trains unaccompanied by parents. Cosseted in some respects but allowed greater freedom in others whilst knowing their boundaries, Michele’s anecdotes seem to indicate an age when children were allowed to grow up at their own pace, and ‘bottoms’ of the opposite sex remained a mystery! Schools were strict, but ‘playtime’ was for playing and friendship- in fact Michele is still good friends with people from her childhood, having formed strong bonds at an early age.
Looking back now, Michele says she can also see how jealousies and rivalries grew between the suburban wives, many bored with their lives but with no obvious route to independence should they even contemplate leaving their marriages. The 50s were an era of optimism, where people played hard but worked even harder. Where neighbours looked out for each other and each other’s children. Where teenage rebellions were far tamer than the rebellions of today! How lucky in some ways Michele’s mother was to only have to deal with shoes and clothes, and not the body piercing and drug taking of today’s teenage rebellions! Even the ‘outrageous’ music of the Rolling Stones had melody!
Her parents didn’t deserve her behaviour!
Looking back, Michele says she doesn’t think her parents deserved her behaviour. Not for Michele pretty dresses or marriage to a ‘nice Jewish boy’ as her mother had hoped.She can see now that everything was done with her best interests at heart. She was pleased to see her mother have the opportunity to have the pleasure, much later, of playing ‘dress up’ for hours with Michele’s own daughter. Similarly she says that she should have appreciated more the hard work her father put in to his business, and perhaps she should have taken more of an interest and helped and become involved – especially as it would have enabled her to use her artistic streak!
Michele hopes her teenage angst comes across in the book- being self conscious about her nose, her looks – if only she had appreciated her long legs at the time- as she says , when looking back at old photographs she had nothing to be worried about at all- and wasn’t the ugly person she felt herself to be!
All in all ‘What the Grown-Ups were Doing’ is a gentle step back in time, with great insights, of a family finding its way in post war England, memories of ‘the Hatch’ which seemed to be the centre of the home, family, friendship, mother/daughter relationships, the birth of the ‘teenage rebellion’, and much love and laughter. One holiday incident proved so traumatic, that Michele had erased it from her memory until her cousin insisted she included in her book – which you will have to read to find out more!
What the Grown-ups Were Doing: An Odyssey Through 1950s Suburbia by Michele Hanson is published by Simon & Schuster .