Cod-Liver Oil and Orange Juice

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Virago has just brought out Truth, Dare or Promise as an e-book. It was published originally in 1985, and reissued in 1993, but has been out of print for the last 10 years or so. Its reappearance is timely.

The idea for the book was prompted, in the early 80s, by my sense that for those of us who had grown up in the new world of the Welfare State, in the wake of the Second World War, a conception of the future had fundamentally shifted. We’d experienced the progress that extended educational opportunities beyond the privileged, and that saw the health and well-being of all children as important. We’d continued expecting things to change for the better and became a generation politically engaged to that end, on the left and in the women’s movement. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and, for the first time in our lives, we were faced with the undoing of that progress.

I wondered about how the 1950s had shaped our lives, and what, with hindsight, it had meant to be a girl then. Through my own and other women’s childhood stories I wanted to explore what we had in common in that social and political landscape, and what bearing it had on our individual and very different realities as children. So I asked 11 other women to contribute to a book that might reflect a range of childhoods and class backgrounds: urban and rural, in the North and South and Midlands of England, in Scotland and in Wales. Besides myself, the contributors are Alison Fell, Harriett Gilbert, Alison Hennegan, Ursula Huws, Gail Lewis, Julia Pascal, Stef Pixner, Denise Riley, Sheila Rowbotham, Carolyn Steedman and Valerie Walkerdine. We had benefitted from the 1944 Education Act and the subsequent expansion of higher education. We had all started out with free cod-liver oil and orange juice, and a better chance of thriving in life than any generation before us.

In 1985 the book struck a chord. It was widely and favourably reviewed. That was nearly 30 years ago (something that’s hard for me to believe). But a lot of people seem to remember it and younger generations have recently been showing interest. Perhaps it’s because, as they witness the welfare state being dismantled or privatised out of existence, they want to know about its origins. There’s also a welcome resurgence of feminism among young women. The contacts they’ve made with many of us and the conferences and debates they’ve organised suggest they are curious about the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. I thought it was time for Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the 50s to be given a new lease of life. Fortunately, Virago agreed.

Some reviews of Truth, Dare or Promise

‘This is a marvellous selection of autobiographical recollections… haunting and vivid essays of the way things were.’ Beryl Bainbridge, The Guardian

‘Again and again, the writing calls up splendidly vivid images, audible voices, places and people that have the special looming, close-up quality that belongs to childhood experience…. It was the orange juice, the schooling, the access to higher education that enabled these women to find ways of living and working so different from their mothers’…. The quality of the writing in itself suggests how valuable, how much of an investment, those “free” things were.’ Lorna Sage, The Observer

‘Some of the writing is exuberant, some ironical, some hedged about with pain, but all is deeply expressive and unsentimental… It is compulsive reading.’ Olivia Harris, New Statesman

‘Truth, Dare or Promise gave a dozen versions of autobiography, a dozen versions of the 50s – evocative, too, for men who grew up in that decade.’ Malcolm Imrie, City Limits

It’s available from Amazon


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