I’m going to be honest, writing this was harder than I thought it would be. Not because I had a bad childhood or lacked the cash monies that I thought I so sorely needed. But the complete opposite. Thinking about how hard mum and dad worked – dad getting up at 5am in the freezing winter to clean windows, mum working hour after hour hairdressing to bring in extra income – really makes me appreciate the small blessings I experienced as a kid. To know that people love and care about you – you, not what you have or what you own – is an incredible feeling.
I’ve put together seven things I remember having to endure at the time, living in a family that wasn’t by any means well off in any sense of the word, that I look back on with fondness. From making my own Pogs to the excitement of a bag of hand-me-down clothes and the ensuing lucky dip, can you relate to any of these?
1. Unexpected Present Day
My sister and I never made wish lists of stuff we wanted that our parents would then buy. We couldn’t afford much, with dad being a cleaner working three days a week and mum bringing in a small top-up income hairdressing from our bathroom. But damn it, mum and dad made every present they got us special. Some were big, like a full-on pink Barbie house, some were smaller, like those Disney books that had a button you’d press on the side that made a noise as you read. Every present was unexpected, totally unexpected.
Imagine coming home from school, getting changed out of your uniform and your parents asking you to come into the living room… then getting a beautifully wrapped gift. Like a Tap Tap hammer and nails set (so illegal in this day and age), or a record player toy (that hasbeen passed on to younger cousins and now my nephew).
Just because they loved us. No more. No less.
See also: Monthly Disney books delivered by Groiler, and trips to the library to pick out a book each.
2. Daydreaming about… anything
I suppose this is a generational difference, but wow was our imagination powerful. I’ve already told my mum and sister about a, er, magic carpet game I used to play when I got five minutes peace (in the bathroom… don’t ask). But when you’re at your grandparents’ house in the middle of the Norfolk countryside with 1. no signal, 2. the invention of the iPhone a decade away and 3. a grandfather who pretty much hated kids (I understand grandad, I truly do) then what is there to do? What is to be done? Well, read. And daydream.
I give full credit to Enid Blyton and her Faraway Tree books. It made playing in the garden with the rabbits and chickens magical. It made playing in the apple tree enchanting. It made learning grandma’s special recipe for homemade sausage rolls so much fun (because then you could sneak under the snooker table in the off-limits snooker room and snack away!)
Our imaginations were the most powerful things. They made the mundane boringness of day-to-day life tolerable. And I’m wholeheartedly glad we didn’t have the isolation of phones and iPads to take that away.
See also: creating our own newspaper stories and also drawing immense ant-human colonies with booby traps.
3. Brothers and sisters in shared misery
You know what’s really awesome? Having money to just buy the crap you want, and do the things you want, whenever you want. But my sister and I had to learn the patient way of getting something we wanted. For example, a telescope. A Celestron NexStar something-or-other-number. We wanted it. We sure as hell couldn’t afford it. We had to collaborate. It was expensive. Damn expensive. It took a full year to earn pocket money, run errands, barter with friends and basically scrape pennies from the street. And that’s where we bonded. We bonded in the collective misery of working so hard to scrape together the pittance needed per day to get our goal.
Believe me, it was well worth it. You know, I still remember the name of the shop we bought it from? It’s been just under two decades, but I still remember opening the box, looking at my sister, and realising all our hard work was well worth it.
See also: Cousins playing together at nonno and nonna’s finding our own way to make our fun (usually involving the garden).
4. Being handed down ‘cool’ brands
I remember the first designer item I had bought for me. I was perhaps 14, or 15. And it was a pair of Adidas poppers. I mean, they genuinely looked like the old blue and white stripey Tesco plastic bags. Tesco value inspiration, crazy designer price tag. My sister went for black and orange Kappa poppers – oh how cool we were! Before that, we didn’t get to join in with Nike trainers or whatever the hell else was en vogue at the time. I kinda remember these heeled trainer type things – blame the Spice Girls for the abomination of 90s fashion. For us, it was QD specials (and BOGOFs at that).
Aside from that golden pair of poppers, it was getting hand-me-downs from older kids, the lucky dip of someone else’s castoffs. My uncle’s sister (related by marriage) from Sicily gave my aunty a bag of clothes which was then in turn given to me and my sister. I still have a pair of super comfy purple knickers from that magical Mary Poppins-esque bag of treats.
See also: shopping for clothes at Sicilian markets purely as the exchange rate was divine and you could get knock-off Italy shirts for pennies.
5. Forget flying, we’re driving to our holiday destination!
Now, you might think that because we would go to Sicily once a year for like, six weeks every summer we might be rolling in dough. But really, those holidays were what dad worked for and I suppose why we were treated only every now and then. And the only reason we could afford it was due to my nonna and nonno’s small little apartment in their small little village which we didn’t need to pay for.
Oh, and we couldn’t afford a flight. There was no Ryanair thirty years ago. No no, we had the luxury of driving the entire journey, from Peterborough to Palermo, in our old Austin Montego. When dad was tired of driving we’d pull over in a lay-by and sleep for a few hours, then carry on. Two full days it would take, driving through England, then getting the Hoverspeed catamaran from Dover to Calais, then driving through France, through the neverending tunnel at Mont Blanc, then down through Italy. To distract us from the incredibly boring journey, we were given large A3 topic books to create our own travel journey. Receipts, tickets, napkins – all would be pasted into the book.
It was a holiday in itself! Aside from the journey back, which would see us sitting cross-legged the entire journey to make room for mum’s olive oil and dad’s smoked garlic.
See also: day trips to the park as a special treat.
6. Downgrading a legitimate hobby into an affordable one: rock collecting
I’ve always loved geology and gems. Mum bought me a book from some cheapo bring and buy sale once with pictures of different stones and gems, and it ignited my interest dramatically. At school, we had a kind of concrete edging to mark the barrier from the tarmac to the grass, and within that edging was a stone that I deemed valuable. It was white and slightly transparent. It was MAGICAL. In reality, it was shingle and concrete, but see the point above about imaginations.
One such holiday to Sicily we had to stop off in Rome to see family. A family member of some description had the most AMAZING stone polisher. It was big bucks, and due to most stones being, well, bits of gravel, you could pay to get stones of actual colour and polish them to perfection.
Now, we had no such polisher, and no such income to purchase interesting rocks. So, my sister and I did what was natural and created a small stone collection made of the shiny bits of gravel lying around. So we were stone collectors. Just, downgraded a bit.
See also: making our own Pogs.
7. The anticipation of an unexpected take away
Aside from being on holiday and the very occasional McDonald’s I don’t think we actually visited any restaurants in my hometown. I can’t remember ever going to one as a family, aside from Pizza Hut on the odd occasion. But take away was a special treat. Sometimes it was KFC, when we were older it was Chinese. It was SO amazing when we asked for take away and mum and dad agreed. The anticipation of deciding what to eat, the waiting for it to be cooked, bringing it home and salivating over the crispy seasoned chicken skin. Honestly, KFC has never, ever tasted so good. Because who knew when it would happen again?
See also: raiding the reduced section in Tesco Extra to get amazing posh treats.