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My mother died recently. She was 93 and was in residential care. There was no house for disposal, only some cursory business and the sorting of papers, photographs and letters but that task reminded me sharply of how the world has changed in her lifetime.
My unmarried grandmother was pregnant in 1916, my grandfather serving with the Black Watch. My grandmother approached my grandfather’s father and my grandfather was summoned home for a rapid marriage. Duty was enforced, even on adult men serving in the armed forces, by their families. It was a brief marriage. He had that leave and one other before embarkation. He was killed when my mother was 10 months old.
Wars also brought to the fore the postcard, the letter and the telegram. In my mother’s bundle of keepsakes were postcards from the 1914-18 front from her father to her, her mother and his sister. They were brief, terse and curiously impersonal. One, to my grandmother, started ‘Dear Wife’ and contained no more than an intimation that he was posting home clothes he did not require: no affectionate signature, no intimations of concern.
My mother’s education was limited. She attended the local junior secondary until, aged 14, she could leave and enter the linen factory but she spelled accurately, was a regular reader of books borrowed from the public library had a perfect head for arithmetic. She wrote daily to my father throughout the war. On two later occasions, my father’s work took him from home for extended periods. Again she dutifully wrote daily. By the later of these separations I was nine years old and took as the norm that I also would write to him each day. I remember these letters. They were careful, reflective works, an hour in composition, and for which best handwriting and spelling were essential.
There was also a powerful formality in written communications. I found two bundles of cards, one from my parents’ wedding, one from my birth. Almost half of those in respect of the wedding were addressed, not to my parents, but to my grandmother, and followed the pattern of, ‘We hope that your daughter and her husband will accept…’ The unmarried woman seemingly belonged to her parents. The other outstanding feature of the various correspondences to my mother, as well as those to my grandmother prior to my grandfather’s death, was the form of address. My grandmother was Mrs Walter Fowler, my mother Mrs Alex Wood. The married woman belonged to her husband, taking not merely his surname but his forename, a far cry from today but also from the early 19th century when, in countless Scottish records, including baptismal registers and wills, the woman retained her own names, fore- and family-, even after marriage.
It was a world where church-going was the norm, a social ritual perhaps even more than a religious one. Almost all marriages were religious. Infants were baptised; children attended Sunday school. In 1920 her town had four Church of Scotland churches, four United Free churches, a Congregational, an Episcopal and a Catholic church. Today there are two Church of Scotland churches, an Episcopal, a Catholic and a Baptist church. My mother and grandmother had little conscious theology but a deeply ingrained sense of sin and their own unworthiness.
My mother left the UK only twice. In 1930 she and her mother visited her father’s grave in France. In the late 1970s her and my father’s holiday was a cruise on the Rhine. She had little interest in the wider world, had a deep seated suspicion of foreign food and remained comfortable only with the familiar.
My mother’s photographs illustrate a childhood and youth which, despite poverty, was sociable, gregarious and organised, girl guides and ranger guides, the YWCA and its choir, the dramatic society and the tennis club. The photographs of the YWCA change as 1938 turns to 1939 and the young women are entertaining passing troops, one of whom was to become her husband and my father, heading to who knew where. For my grandmother social life centred round the Co-operative Guild, the Kirk, playing whist and visiting relatives. I doubt if my mother and grandmother were unusual. Radio and the cinema were the closest things to mass entertainment. Beyond them, entertainment and social life were local and enjoyed with friends known since childhood and in extended families.
Yet it seems from these personal shreds of social history that the great changes have occurred, not over the 93 years of my mother’s life, but over the last 50 years of mine. Communications have been revolutionised and although I am uncertain as to how more meaningfully or more effectively we communicate, the stilted formality and the cold language in which even the closest conversed, has largely disappeared. Travel has shrunk the planet but the fear of the unfamiliar and the foreign remains powerful. What has disappeared is the web of social organisations, which bound a locality and its population and created connections beyond that locality.
Even as a boy the scouts, the church, the local dramatic society were also milieus which I inhabited: my mother’s world of the 20s and 30s was not hugely different from mine in the late 50s and early 60s. I would not return to a world dominated by imposed duty and respectability and loyalty to God and the Queen. Yet I watch with trepidation. A new generation, bright and enthusiastic as young people are by nature, is caught in social settings shaped by the shallow and vacuous values of the market-place. They are judged by fashions worn and commodities purchased. It is the disappearance of that innocent fun, unsullied by judgements of material success or affluence, which I see in these photographs of the YWCA and the guides and remember from my own youth, which I unreservedly mourn with my mother’s passing.
The above article was first published in The Scottish Review on 23 July 2009:  It was also published in The Scottish Review anthology of 2009.

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