England in the late 1940s was famously grim. As I remember it, London back then was a very dirty place, from coal dust and smoke, from the grit stirred up every day by the jackhammers still clearing out rubble from the Blitz.
My father was edging his way tactfully out of the Communist Party, though he was still spending time at the Daily Worker. He was under constant surveillance by the Special Branch, whose officers followed him and tapped his phone from 1934 to 1954. Logs available in nineteen boxes in the public archives in the British Library disclose my first entry into the shadow of state surveillance in 1948 when, at age 7, I called my father at the Worker and asked him to hurry home to read to me about Christopher Robin.
No one had any money. Fun for millions was the weekly flutter on racehorses or football teams. “Is the Middle Class Doomed?” asked Picture Post in 1949, and answered its question in the affirmative. Labor’s National Health Service opened for business on July 5, 1948, and the great race for drugs, false teeth and spectacles was under way. Spending on prescriptions went from £13 million to £41 million in two years, prompting Representative Paul Ryan’s ideological predecessors to howl that the NHS was on the edge of collapse. More than my father’s articles in the Worker, the NHS helped the masses see clearly. Hundreds of thousands of poor people previously had recourse only to prescriptionless specs from the tray in Woolworths. Now they perched on their noses prescription lenses in the 422 Panto Oval frame, as did I, though it took John Lennon, fifteen years down the road, to endow it with retro-chic.
At the Worker, with or without prescription spectacles, there wasn’t much sign of the fabled millions in Moscow gold supposedly sent by Stalin to foment revolution. In practical terms the most important fellow in the office was a scholarly looking Burmese man who toiled away behind a vast pile of books and manuals. My father reckoned he was set to turn in a particularly meaty series on Burma’s prospects after independence, won in 1948 from British colonial rule. In fact he was the Worker’s racing correspondent, working up form for the coming season.
The Burman was red-hot as a tipster and soon had a wide following. Once my father found the Worker’s manager half-dead from apprehension. He’d put the entire office’s Friday wage packet on a pick by the Burman, in the hope of getting the comrades something decent to take home to their wives. “Should that animal fail,” he said, trembling, “the lads’ll about kill me.” But the tipster came through, and that week everyone got full pay and even some arrears.
The biggest day in the National Hunt Steeplechase in England is the Grand National, run at Aintree, outside Liverpool, typically in April; four miles, 856 yards, thirty fences, often lethal to horses and devastating to jockeys. In 1928 the winner, Tipperary Tim, ridden by Billy Dutton and carrying odds of 100 to one, was the only horse out of a starting field of forty-two that didn’t fall.