A dip into the past

I was thinking the other day about the difference in our island population now and in the 20s and 30s. Then, foreigners, either resident or visitors, were as rare as weeds in a near perfect garden, yet today we are so polyglot that we have translators in our schools. What started this was a conversation I had with a plumber, he was working and I asked him, ‘Can you whistle and ride? It was a phrase that my grandmother used to use. On Saturday mornings it was my job to take a board covered with a leather sheet, and Carborundum powder, to clean all the knives, which were pure steel, and bring the blades back to their pristine shininess. Stainless steel cutlery was still a thing of the future. She would ask me that question, because I had to stop work to talk to her, and she was suggesting that I should talk and work. I started thinking then of a wider range of words and phrases that have long been lost. There was a bit of doggerel which went like, ‘Swap me bob, me mum’s a snob, me father takes in washing, me sister drives an omnibus, and me brother mends the stockings’. This was a relic of the First World War, and the music halls, sending up the fact that all the men had gone to the front, and life at home was virtually upside down.

There used to be a phrase in the Navy for free time that was called, ‘Make and mend’, because that was when Nelson’s sailors repaired their clothes, as there was little else to do at sea. The phrase was still in use in World War II That phrase also applied to the home, where, when things went wrong, they were repaired time and time again, and gypsies would go round the streets, sitting on the kerb, repairing holes in saucepans. Those were frugal times, when people couldn’t afford, as they do now, to throw away something that could be repaired. I don’t suppose it even dawned on people, other than the very rich, to even consider it. Of course life was also much more routine, and much more simple. Holidays abroad didn’t become a regular thing until about 1935, when a lot of the secondary schools sent parties of children on a collective holiday in the summer or at Easter. There used to be lexicons devoted to phrases which were common in different eras, and available in public libraries, whether that is so now I doubt.

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