It’s not all…

...‘rose-tinted’ you know!

Now, I don’t often admit that I’m wrong, but way back in issue #05 I found myself bemoaning the fact that it seemed many aspects of modern life tended to get in the way of my children’s childhood, especially compared to the things I used to do in my own childhood. I’m now forced to rethink that thanks to a profound experience with a book.

One Saturday morning, the day before Remembrance Sunday as it happens, I made a visit to the local library so that the family could swap out some books and toys we had borrowed. On a table near the entrance they had put together a display of titles relevant to the following day; factual books about the First and Second World Wars, fictional books set during these conflicts, and various other tomes with ties to the period. One of these caught my eye; a book titled ‘Brighton Diaries’ by Ken Chambers. Aside from the relevance to my locale, it was the subtitle of the publication that interested me the most: “Memories of a Young Man in Peace and War 1929 – 1943”, so I grabbed the book and checked it out of the library, mainly to reference the photographs in the book to see what the author was wearing at the time.

It then sat on my shelf for more than a week or so before I finally picked it up and started reading. Only then did I understand the relevance of the book I was holding. Not only did Ken Chambers grow into his adulthood in Brighton during a period of considerable interest to me, he did so whilst living just two roads away from my own house! His experiences in the first third of the book centre around the very streets I walk everyday, to and from the office so, more than ever before in a biography or autobiography, I could place myself directly into the places he was describing.

Obviously some of the topographic landscape has changed since then but one of the things that struck me, more than just occasionally going “oh, that’s what that was before” was how little had actually changed. A number of the significant places he spends time are no longer there, the church hall, which is now a ‘60s built block of flats, the reservoir he has to patrol as a member of the Home Guard is now also a block of flats, but nearly everything else, his house, the pub, the church, the communal baths are all still there (perhaps not serving the same purpose admittedly).

Of particular interest to me is the fact that as teenagers, Ken, his cousin Cyril, and other friends frequently got on their bikes and rode over the top of the South Downs (we live at the highest point in Brighton) to a small village called Barcombe where they have befriended a local farmer and are allowed to camp and store their camping equipment on his farm. Barcombe is a favourite place of ours and we frequently visit for walks almost monthly during the Spring, Summer and Autumn. I often lament that the train line no longer runs through the area as it would have in Ken’s day (damn you Beeching!), but walking the abandoned lines is quite fun.


So it turns out that, even though 80 years separate us, (and 20 years in age) my family and I do nearly all the same things that Ken and his friends did, which goes to show you that not everything is different in the modern world.

The thing that really surprised me about Ken’s experiences was how ‘everyday’ things were at the time. It’s only with hindsight that we know of the horrors that people faced during the war in Europe and we forget that people on the Home Front where just going about their everyday lives as they had throughout the ‘30s. The occasional bombing raids and the pinch of rationing were just a nuisance and people honestly didn’t believe it would last as long as it did. During one trip into town for ice cream Ken recalls turning a corner to discover than the local department store had been hit by a bomb and for them it’s just a bit of a spectacle and they move on with their journey. It is only as the war nears the end of its second year that Ken and his peers come-of-age and decide to ‘do their bit’ by joining the forces, in Ken and Cyril’s case the RAF.

But even this doesn’t seem like such a huge leap for the young men and women at the time. I’ve always believed that, due to the schooling system at the time compared to now, the young people of both Ken’s generation and my own parents generation became what we would now refer to as ‘adult’ much earlier, Ken and his friend are around 11 and 12 when they ride on their own to spend their weekends camping and they had all left school and started working in jobs, most of which meant them travelling to other parts of the city or neighbouring towns at the age of 14 (the school leaving age wasn’t raised to 15 until 1947). I distinctly remember as a teenager thinking that I couldn’t wait to ‘get on with life’, and looking back on it now, I basically wasted time between the age of 16 to 22 without particularly learning anything that’s useful to my professional life right now.

The Cobden Road ‘Slipper Baths’ communal bath house was opened in 1894, closed in 1976




The ‘Pepper Box’ (or Pepper Pot as it’s now called) was used as an observation post during WWII

Considering this I felt rather jealous of the fact that at the age of 16 Ken left home and joined a scheme to learn farming methods at a farm in the midlands, then joined the RAF volunteer reserve, gaining active service when he turned 18. It was during this time that Ken met his future wife and eventually returned to Brighton after the war ended.

Ken’s experiences during the ‘30s and early ‘40s have got me thinking a lot about my life, my family and the current situation we find ourselves in economically and politically. The nature of news and media in general means that we are far more aware of the things that go on in the world today, and because of our added awareness of the tragedies of the first half of the twentieth century these things tend to overshadow our everyday existence.

In Ken’s day the only forms of reporting came in the form of nightly radio programmes, monthly newsreels at the cinema and the daily papers, and all of these were sanitised and protected the general public from the true horrors of what went on in Europe, even the older generation that served in the First World War never spoke of there experiences. So much was censored that most people just got on with their lives, it’s only on hindsight do we think “how did they cope?” but to them it was just as it always had been, they lived life within their means and to the constraints of the society they lived in. So, by all means be politically active, have opinions, fight for what you believe in, get angry, get passionate…but don’t let it overshadow the good stuff we have in our everyday lives, enjoy what you have and don’t be greedy.

As the warmer weather approaches, get out in the fresh air, put the technology aside for a while, go for walks in the woods, unpack your tent and sleep under canvas for a night. Just enjoy the simple things and leave the complicated stuff alone for a few hours. Tackle things when they happen rather than worrying about them before they do, stop complaining about life and start enjoying it for once! “Keep calm and carry on”.

Postscript: Ken Chambers passed away on the 19th August 2015 aged 93. The 19th August happens to be my birthday.





Mathew Keller is a graphic designer, photographer, writer, husband, father, modernist, history enthusiast, lover of pre & post-war design, collector of inter-war furniture & clothing and advocate of the retrospective way of life. You can follow his #retrospectivelife on Instagram: www.instagram.com/southernretro