When someone is told ‘you could drop dead any minute!’, it has a profound effect on that person’s life, and also on the lives of their family. To say that my father was frightened having just been told that by his doctor would be an understatement.
I was only six years old when he came home after that day after consulting his doctor about his severe breathlessness, but I well remember the fear in his eyes. Here was a man who had survived death daily when he fought in the trenches in France in World War 1, and here was death staring him in the face again. He was fifty seven years old, which, even in the 1950’s was still too young to die.
Remarkably I remember my mother being calm, and although usually a mild person she immediately took charge of the situation. Appalled that he had been offered no treatment she suggested that he saw her own doctor. His practice was at the bottom of the hill called Forest Gate, and we lived at the top of the hill. We had no telephone, so she went down to see him. After she had described my father’s condition to him, and told him what his doctor had said, he immediately said he would come to visit him at home as soon as his surgery was over.
After examining my father Dr Hardman agreed that his heart was in a bad way, but completely disagreed that nothing could be done for him. He started him on a new drug, a version of digitalis, (commonly known as digoxin), and he also said he would refer him to a heart specialist.
Dr Duncan, the specialist, lived not far from us on North Park Drive, opposite the golf course. He came round that evening. I remember his visit well. I was fascinated by some of the equipment he brought with him and I definitely remember him bringing in some large equipment with which I believe he took Xrays. As I write this now, I can’t help wondering whether mobile Xrays were commonplace in those days. I certainly haven’t heard of them in more recent years, and I would have thought they were highly dangerous. But unless I am simply dreaming, I have a clear picture in my mind of that Xray machine in my parents bedroom that evening.
This brings me now to where I began, by saying that the arrival of the NHS had a big impact on our lives. Because Dr Hardman, excellent doctor that he was, for reasons best known to himself did not join the NHS. He was one of the very few doctors in the whole country who remained private, and everything had to be paid for. Every appointment in his surgery, every home visit, (which was charged at a higher rate), and all medication had to be paid for. Of course, getting a home visit from a consultant so quickly also had to be paid for.
Dr Duncan asked many questions, and especially asked whether he had suffered form rheumatic fever as a child. When my father told him he had had diphtheria, Dr Duncan immediately said ‘That’s it! That’s what has caused so much damage to your heart.’ His diagnosis was mitral valve disease, and myocarditis. If he had been younger he would have offed my father an operation to replace the faulty valves. But heart surgery was still very much in its infancy in 1954, and sadly he said my father, at 57, was too old too attempt it. However he did hold out hope that the condition could be helped with new drugs, and that was correct as he lived for another thirteen years, although he could never work again, remaining breathless on the slightest exertion.
Whilst my father was working finding the money was no problem. But suddenly he was unable to work. He had a market garden with many plants needing attention, and which my mother did her best to cope with, spending hours there packing lettuces for the markets. No further crops were planted, and the business had to be sold. This proved to be very difficult, and it was a long time before any sale was completed.
Suddenly money became a huge issue. He was able to claim some sickness benefit, (which he hated having to get but necessity demanded it), but it was nowhere near the amount he had been earning as a market gardener. In addition to doctor’s bills, Marjorie and I went to the little private school near our home, so there were school fees to pay as well. My mother had a little money inherited from her father, who died a couple of days after I was born, so that tided us over for a while, but my abiding childhood memory is of constant anxiety over money.
In spite of that, we never went without a meal – we were never hungry. This is entirely due to my mother’s careful book keeping. She had an exercise book in which she recorded every penny that she spent. In fact, not just pennies, but every halfpenny and even farthings, (which I believe were in existence until about 1956.) Nothing could be spent that had not been strictly budgeted for. She never had to ask any shop for credit, and never ever borrowed any money at all.
Unfortunately my father had only in the previous twelve months negotiated a business loan. Such loans were very difficult to get in the 1950’s and bank managers would only allow them to be awarded to their most trusted customers. This debt was a huge source of worry to my father has he no longer had the income to pay it back. Eventually the business was sold, but it took nearly three long years before that finally happened.
I am convinced now that most people had no idea how poor we were. We were fortunate in that the house belonged to my mother, because if there had been rent to pay it would have been impossible. But gradually the interior of the house began to show signs of shabbiness, carpets were thin and threadbare, the thin curtains on the south facing window at the back were in ribbons before any money was found to replace them. Only one room in the house was heated, which was this south facing room, as that was the warmest room to begin with. The rest of the house was perishingly cold, for like many other houses in those days there was no double glazing or central heating.
Being the second child I hardly ever had new clothes. Instead all my clothes were those worn previously by my elder sister. I also got some from the vicar’s wife who had a daughter the age of my sister. I think she was one person that had an idea that money was scarce, and she passed clothes on to me. It didn’t worry me. I wasn’t particularly interested in clothes.(In face I have never been, and still not that interested in clothes.) I certainly never complained about the things I had to wear, but the money problems I was aware of from being six years old did cause me a lot of anxiety.