In 1957 there was big news on the home front when my sister Lindsay was born but around the world following the excitement of wars and revolutions in 1956 this particular year seems to have been less frenetic.
The Treaty of Rome established the Common Market, which was a deeply significant event that has shaped the recent history of modern Europe. This has become the European Union and has undergone a number of expansions that has taken it from six member states in 1957 to twenty-seven today, a majority of states in Europe. Britain joined in 1973 after a long period of being denied membership by France and in particular the deeply ungrateful and Anglophobe President de Gaulle.
Harold MacMillan became the new Prime Minister of Britain when Anthony Eden resigned over the Suez crisis debacle and this ushered in the baby boomer years of the late 50’s and 60’s when life generally improved for everyone. He led the Conservatives to victory in the 1959 general election using the campaign slogan “Life’s Better Under the Conservatives” and MacMillan himself is remembered for his famous personal assessment of these years when he said, “indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good.”
Most people were beginning to get television sets in the home and on 1st April the BBC broadcast one of its most famous ever programmes; a spoof documentary about spaghetti crops in Switzerland. The Panorama programme, narrated by Richard Dimbleby, featured a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest. It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry. Some viewers, presumably those who were daft enough to believe it, failed to see the funny side of the broadcast and criticised the BBC for airing the item on what was supposed to be a serious factual programme.
The home dining experience was much more limited in the 1950s and spaghetti you see was not a widely-eaten food at the time and this explains how the broadcast managed to fool so many viewers. In the programme Dimbleby explained how each year the end of March is a very anxious time for Spaghetti harvesters all over Europe because of the risk of late frosts and he also explained how each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of growers. An estimated eight million people watched the programme and hundreds phoned in the following day to ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC kept the joke going by advising callers to place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.
1957 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Boy Scouts which began in 1907 when Robert Baden-Powell, a Lieutenant General in the British Army, who had served in India and Africa in the 1880s and 1890s held the first Scout camp at Brownsea Island in Dorset. Since his boyhood, he was fond of woodcraft and military scouting, and therefore, as part of soldiers training he showed his men how to survive in the wilderness. He noticed it taught them to develop independence, rather than just blindly follow orders and so towards the end of his military career he wrote a book called ‘Scouting for Boys’ in which he set out the basic the principles of Scouting which were based on his earlier military experiences, and in so doing started the World wide Scouting movement.
I joined the Wolf Cubs when I was seven years old and after I had passed all the tests and received my Leaping Wolf Certificate moved up to the Scouts when I was eleven. At first I was in the Paddox Troop but later transferred to the Hillmorton, which was good for me because dad was the Scoutmaster, which gave me a bit of an advantage when it came to passing tests and getting badges. I liked the Scouts and the quasi-military organisation that came with it with the uniforms and the kit inspections, the law book and solemn promise and the fact that I could legitimately carry a hunting knife on my belt without being challenged. It was a bit like the Hitler Youth Movement but without the nastiness! Boys stayed in the Scouts until they were sixteen but I never saw it through to the end; dad fell out with the Group Scout Master, Harry Newman in 1969, walked out and never waggled his woggle again and that November I discovered girls and that hanky-panky was much more fun than gin-gan-gooly and that was goodbye to the Scouts, which was a shame because I was only a couple of tests away from my First Class Scouts badge at the time.
In a serious note there was a major train crash disaster in 1957 when two trains collided in fog which killed ninety-two people and injured another one hundred and seventy-three. I mention this because the accident was in Lewisham in south-east London and only a couple of miles or so from the town of Catford where my grandparents lived and who we used to visit regularly. I can remember the railway line that you could see from the bottom of the garden and I find it surprising that I was until now unaware of this fact.
In sport Stanley Matthews played his last game for England at the almost unbelievable age of forty-four. He has the record for the longest serving England career at twenty-three years and remains the oldest man to ever play for England. Let’s face it; it is completely unlikely that this record will ever be beaten. He didn’t retire from football altogether at this time though and he continued playing at the very highest level in the English First Division with Stoke City until he was fifty years old when he finally retired in 1964.
To find a player in the mould of Sir Stanley is almost impossible nowadays. With all the press and media hype that surrounds today’s celebrity players such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, Matthews was the first real football celebrity. Unlike any other players, he was able to maintain his professionalism at all times and lived only to play the game. Matthews at the time was only earning £20 per week in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of pounds nowadays.
I can actually remember seeing Stanley Matthews myself because from about seven years old dad started to take me to Filbert Street to watch Leicester City. I can recall quite clearly going to the matches because this always involved a long walk of about three miles there and three miles back. Very close to my grandparents house there was a bus stop with a direct service into the city but dad rather cunningly always started out for the match at a time certain not to coincide with the bus timetable. I never caught on to this little trick of course and dad had a very brisk walking pace that required me to run along side him just to keep up as he strode out ahead. Dad just didn’t like paying bus fares.
Football grounds were totally different to the all seater stadiums that we are used to now and were predominantly standing affairs. I was only a little lad so it was important to go early to get a good spot on the wall just behind the goal. This required an early arrival and although matches didn’t start until three o’clock dad used to get us there for the opening of the gates at about one. This must have required great patience on his part because two hours is a long time to wait for a football match to start standing on cold concrete terracing and I really didn’t appreciate at the time that all of this was done just for me. In the 1960s of course it was common to have pre-match entertainment when local marching bands would give a thirty minute medley of tunes up until kick off time so at least there was something to watch.
Footballers like Matthews were completely different from the prima donners of the modern game; they got stuck in and played like men with a big heavy leather football, shirts that became waterlogged and uncomfortable in the rain and the mud and boots that would have been more appropriate for wearing down a coal mine. What’s more it wasn’t unusual to watch the same eleven men play week after week because they just shrugged off the knocks that put modern players out for weeks. An injury had to be almost life threatening to stop somebody playing in those days. And if you don’t believe me, the 1956 FA Cup final, in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City 3-1, is famously remembered for Manchester goalkeeper Bert Trautmann continuing to play on for the final fifteen minutes of the match after unknowingly breaking his neck!
Off the ground there were two important airborne events in 1957 that were important for the future. There was the first flight of the Boeing 707 which was to become important in increasing travel opportunities and in the USSR the sputnik programme began with the launch of Sputnik1, which was an event that triggered the space race between the two world superpowers the US and the USSR both bursting with testosterone and competing with each other to rule the modern world.