Third Age: Girlish Search for Chic in the 50s

My girlhood was so dull that I thought the girl who used two straws in her ice cream soda at the milk bar was the height of chic.

Ah, the milk bar. It was where young people met if they had a bob to spend. My suburb didn’t boast a coffee shop. It was the era of cups of tea, anyway.

Clive James, who is younger than I, and lived in the next suburb, Kogarah, writes about tea shops. But I don’t remember any in Rockdale. Kids liked anything cold: milk shakes, sodas and banana splits. Not many of us had refrigerators at home.

I remember our first: it was erroneously called Silent Knight. It made horrible noises, but we loved it. Some milk bars were vast palaces which no doubt came to life long after I had permission to stay out, but by day were havens for the cashed-up, after-school kids.

Craven A (or was it those packets that had black cats on them?) were sold from under the counter to adventurous school girls. Green-and-white was the favoured décor, with black knobs on the soda fountains. Our navy serge tunics did not add to any sense of gaiety.

Over our drinks, we mostly talked about our teachers, friends and homework.Occasionally there were ideas. I can remember having a debate that got a bit noisy about education versus friends being the most important thing in life. Oh, we were goody-goodies. We didn’t know any better. Our parents had control.

But fashion seen from afar in borrowed copies of the Women’s Weekly developed our notions of chic, I must say. The post-war New Look was exciting. It took up a lot more fabric, so mothers, who were our dressmakers, had to be persuaded. The saddest thing is that we let down our school tunic hems over our black stockinged legs. I should have got detention but I dare say the teacher had second thoughts that it might have been poverty and second-handedness that dictated what I thought was the New Look. I still have a picture of myself in the new look serge tunic: the original hemline brutally obvious.

I had some young visitors the other day (I nearly wrote young visiters, but more of that later). Not even in their teens, they were dressed in clothes of their own choice and looked wonderful. I felt a stab of envy. My old mother had a view that if you had “nice things” too young, you would not appreciate them when you were older. It was not very convincing blarney to stop me asking for stuff we couldn’t afford.

At university I couldn’t match the private school girls, of course, but I developed a bit of fashion cunning. I used my old school white shirts, worn back to front, to give myself a slightly clerical look above my jumpers.

I was at the time in love with a boy who said he would become an Anglican priest, and I could never resist mockery. I thought the look was admired, but self-delusion was probably at its height when I was 18.

As a nod to my roots, I still used two straws to drink my ice cream sodas. We had tremendous crushes on books at school. One was The Little World of Don Camillo. It was passed around my group of friends, just at the time we were questioning the Christianity we had all taken for granted. It was about a simple priest in conflict with a communist mayor in a small northern Italian village.

The other was the charming The Young Visiters, by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford, written in 1890, published in 1917, and discovered again since then every couple of decades. We girls in our mid-teens were inspired to write our own books, realising we were late starters compared with Daisy and knowing that Daisy’s charm would elude all but the best of us.

The Young Visiters was revived yet again earlier this year as a play in London. The book itself is not much read now, I think. After all, the amusing bad spelling would pass over the head of most young readers these days. And really I can’t be too fussed about that. How we adored Gaudy Night, the Dorothy L. Sayers mystery recently done over by ABC TV’s The Book Club (“I loved it” “I hated it” “Oh, how could you?” – the usual literary criticism of the show, except for Jason Steger’s).

We were on our way to university which we hoped would be like Harriet’s Oxford. It was not. How fiercely we debated the merits of Christie and Sayers, guided subtly by our wonderful English teacher, Miss Hilda Mackaness, MA, whose ghost is at my elbow as I write this. She is too aghast at my sentence construction to be pleased that we all remember her more than 60 years on.

That’s my youth. Now I have a question no one has been able to answer for me. How old are we in our dreams?

I am pretty sure I am never my present age. Two of my neighbors reckon they are always 24. Everyone else says: “Interesting question, how old are we?” but like jesting Pilate, do not stay for an answer. @mollyfisher4

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