When I was growing up in the '60s, my mother used to read Good Housekeeping magazine.
This is amazing in several ways:
One, that my mother had no idea what good housekeeping was.
Two, that any kind of frivolous magazine habit seemed very remote from my mother.
Three, that I never saw her with the magazine actually in her hands.
Notwithstanding this set of circumstances, I did discover the magazine through her: there were untidy piles of it, several years deep, on the G-plan shelves in the kitchen, and at a moment of curiosity one day, I rumpled through the pile of magazines and started to read through them. That's when I discovered that Good Housekeeping had short stories. There were also some articles that stimulated curiosity and anxiety in equal measure; but let's start with the stories...
We didn't have a television, so books and the radio meant everything to me in terms of external stimuli; and holding the shiny pages of Good Housekeeping in my seven-year old hands, I felt as though I was entering a very new dimension...slightly adult; slightly out of my reach; slightly naughty.
I remember two stories effortlessly from that time. Firstly, a story about a woman who was dissatisfied with her life/relationship/marriage, and who starts to fantasise about how her life would have turned out if she had got together with her first crush, a man called Commander Wilson. This man worked in her pre-marriage office workplace, and through the progress of the narrative, the woman reminisces about the time she worked with this tall, handsome former naval officer; how he dazzled her; and how poorly her husband compares with this paragon.
I remember nothing about the middle part of the story at all; but the fulcrum of it emerged when the woman had a Damascene moment - maybe the husband bought her flowers, or maybe, in an unlikely way for a 1960's father, he suddenly became enlightened and did some housework/childcare; whatever the catalyst was, the woman protagonist suddenly realised that she had been displacing all of her
life-dissatisfaction into the idealised memory of Commander Wilson. She finds herself staring at a dead fly in the kitchen (I can just imagine the orange wall tiles, cork-tiled floor and formica worktops in the background) and says out loud: 'Commander Wilson is a dead fly'.
It's not Shakespeare I grant you; but something about the emotive subtext and the well-paced narrative definitely grabbed seven-year-old me, and that line has stuck with me for fifty years.
Another short story from that time that has adhered to my memory, was about two sisters - a definite eye-grabber for me, since that's my own sibling configuration - who were markedly different in looks and character from each other: René, the older sister, was beautiful and much admired by many young men, whereas Trudy, the younger sister, was a bit quirky-looking, had no young male admirers, and felt over-shadowed by her older sister in every way.
As I read on through the narrative about René and Trudy, I was rather delighted to discover that René marries young, has a baby early, has to have a caesarean (I wasn't sure what that was, but did pick up that it involved stitches and was painful) and starts to look miserable and tired, with ugly stretch marks. Whereas Trudy 'acquires a becoming sun-streak in her hair that summer', and starts to interest the boys with much more effect. The story had a kind of balanced ending, in that everyone ended up happy; but the journey to that place fascinated me greatly.
Apart from worrying a lot about myself that I can still remember the names of these characters fifty years on, and even some of their narrative, I'm intrigued to know why these stories have stuck in my mind so firmly. The only answer I can come up with is that the quality of writing was really good, and that a few of the characters were recognisable to me in some ways; even the ones that weren't recognisable, were interesting because they were outside my immediate experience, and that shone a light on a whole new world, beyond my immediate surroundings.
At some point I progressed from the stories to the articles; and that was rather more unpredictable in terms of my response: in one of the the medical columns there was a feature about childhood depression, which puzzled me because I had no empathy for such a condition; but the article about appendicitis in young children filled me a pathological terror of being carted off to hospital with exploding innards, something that remained a bit of a phobia for years afterwards.
Possibly the article that affected me most though, was one that described child abuse by parents of a young child in New York: the article detailed the rehabilitation work being done by a psychologist after the child had been recovered from its horrific circumstances.
So far, so good; but when I read that the neighbours of this family had finally been motivated to do something one day, when screaming heard in their apartment building had become too much to tolerate; so rather than just complaining to each other about the constant bawling from apartment X, they had broken into it to discover the parents attempting to fry the child in a pan.
It's hard to describe the shock and revulsion I felt. I had known nothing other than kindness and love in my life; and it simply had not occurred to me that people could treat a child with considered, planned cruelty; so to read this description was beyond harrowing. The psychologist in the case, Dr de Bono, described the physical injuries and burns sustained by this poor child, but also the psychological ones too. In fact, I believe he ended up adopting her, because the extremity of the case had affected him so dramatically. I wondered ever after what happened to the child.
Then there was an article about a child who had been born with no capacity to feel physical pain. I remember saying to my mother that this sounded rather a good circumstance to be in; but as she pointed out, and as the article verified as I ploughed through to the end, this was a condition of terrifying hazard, because the subject had absolutely no sense of danger at all, and would put herself into ridiculous levels of peril through simply not grasping what consequences were occasioned by risk. Endless accidents and injuries were described in the article, which of course gave me cause for further anxiety, because I had not known that such accidents/injuries were possible. Further cause for sleepless nights...
I think I may have quite enjoyed the more frivolous side of Good Housekeeping too - the fashion pages, showing the gloriously over-the-top bouffancy of '60s hairdressing and a slightly watered down version of '60s couture - shortish skirts, but not 'mini', as the magazine would have been targeting the middle-aged female of thirty five.
And there you have it really: in that decade, you were middle-aged at thirty five as a woman; and although I think the magazine was very good in a number of ways - not the least because it went beyond knitting and recipes, thereby indicating that women had more on their minds than Hubby's Christmas pullie or the kiddies' din-dins - it was definitely perpetrating the myth of a woman's life working to some kind of planned obsolescence. Years later, I did observe a connection with the original version of 'The Stepford Wives' when I saw it.
My father used to read Private Eye, and his copies of the magazine were piled up on the cistern in the upstairs lavatory. I understood almost nothing of what I read; and I'm certain that the idea of satire was so far above my head that I would have missed the point completely; but I do remember my first encounter with Barry Mackenzie from that august organ: Barry somehow ends up in Buckingham Palace, where HRH is suffering from severe constipation (I did know what that was) and was sitting on the 'throne'. Barry, unsure of where he is in the palace, bursts into the Royal bathroom, and 'scares shit out of Her Majesty'. Words indelibly burnt into my brain.
I had never encountered irreverence before, and as I was the product of Convent school education at that stage, being 'good' was the encouraged target of all pupils; so reading tended to follow rather prescriptive lines. It's taken decades for me to fully appreciate the full range of Barry Mackenzie's humour; but there's no doubt that in terms of expanding one's appreciation of comic breadth, the upstairs loo had the edge over the G-plan kitchen shelves.
I did have a brief flirtation with Good Housekeeping as a subscriber myself in the 1990s, after my son was born; but my life didn't seem to fit with the prototypical Good Housekeeper of that era: the 1960s compromise on female fashion appeared to have moved far more vividly into the very expensive end of the market, but in an extremely reactionary way - lots of expensive, but conservative brands, modelled by women with identical blonde bobs and lantern jaws; and the articles seemed no more than anodyne at best. I'm sure the short stories were good enough, but none of them grabbed me in the way that the 1960s ones had.
It's interesting to consider what the difference in my outlook on life might have been, had my mother been a consumer of The People's Friend, or my father had subscribed to Auto Trader.
I might well have ended up better equipped in the boring-but-practical-and-necessary areas of life; but I would have missed out on hours and hours of reading stuff that had absolutely no relation to my life contemporaneously, but which can still bring a smile to my face fifty years on.
Here's to Commander Wilson.