A strange feeling ticking past the 92-year-old mark and being reminded that when I was born electricity was a new and dangerous invention, radio broadcasting was in its fumbling infancy and not expected to survive and television was a ridiculous dream.
It’s a fact. I was close to 10-years old before the magical “electric light” found its way to my home in a small town on the edge of British Midlands “black country”. My first decade was illuminated by gas, burning bright in small “mantles” to provide just enough light to read – and available only in the town area. My grandparents, living just beyond the town boundaries, never had that comfort. For them the oil lamp was the after-dark comforter. As a child I watched with wonder as the “gasman” rode his bicycle down the street and via a long pole, carried like a jousting knight, reached up and flicked the spark to light the street lamps. His dusk routine was repeated as dawn broke and the street lights were flicked off.
My mother was afraid of electricity. It took her weeks to pluck up the courage to press the shining switch on the wall and flood the kitchen with light – and even longer to stop cautiously watching the elements in the clear bulbs flicker. She was convinced they were trying to get out and electrocute the family.
We didn’t get our first radio until late in the 1930’s – eight years after the Postmaster General of England issued the first permits for “vocal and gramophone selections and calibration signals for amateurs” to be broadcast via a transmitter at Writtle in the county of Essex. That was on Valentine’s Day 1922. In his book The Age of Illusion Ronald Blythe tells us the Writtle experiments led the newly formed British Broadcasting Company (later to become the Corporation –the BBC) to convince the public the new invention was more than just a new toy. In 1922 some 10,000 people paid for licenses to listen to far from reliable broadcasts. A year later in 1923 there were 500,000, in 1924 1,129,00 and by 1927, reports Blythe, “when the British Broadcasting Company became British Broadcasting Corporation and a moral force in the land it was estimated two and a half million had a wireless set.”
The Hume family was not among the license holders, nor were millions of other Britons still struggling to come to grips with the massive casualty lists of World War One. Few working class homes had been untouched by death or the return home of a shattered father, son or brother. It was time when the entire nation was suffering what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Compounding the distress was the world-wide Great Depression which saw the ranks of the unemployed in the United Kingdom swell to more than three million. My father was among them. My mother took in washing, cleaned houses for the well to do, lost three children to diseases which are curable today and somehow kept me and a sister from harm’s way.
The hunger and the shabbiness of the recession were replaced with the terror by night of WW2. But mother no longer needed to take in washing or clean the homes of other folk. Dad was working, sister was working, I was working, we had post office savings accounts – and food, clothes and anything that even hinted at luxury was either severely rationed or unobtainable.
That’s the way it still was in 1948 when I, newlywed, proud father of a first born son and encouraged by a brave wife made a break for British Columbia, Canada. There have been a few bumps in the road since that journey began, but a lot of triumphs, too. As a family we have walked through the valley of the shadow and emerged the stronger for the journey, as have so many friends and colleagues who helped me on my way.
I thank you all for your many kindnesses, your help along the way and your pleasantly surprising 92nd birthday greetings. It would have been a lonely journey without you.