Sunday, 30 January 2011

Childhood illnesses

A post inspired by a mercifully short viral illness which confined me to the house yesterday and today; shivers - chills and fever and aching muscles. I slept it off (in bed from yesterday afternoon to midday today) and right now, I'm back on form, thanks.

While lying in bed, I remembered what it was like being ill as a child. I thank the Good Lord for a strong constitution and good health (at times like this I ask the question - am I healthy because I'm happy, or am I happy because I'm healthy?). Anyway, my childhood was infrequently punctuated by those illnesses that all children get - mumps, measles and chicken-pox, of which I remember only the latter (pink lotions and itching scabs). And more usually, flu, which would lay me out for several days.

When confined to bed due to a dose of influenza, my mother would look after me by bringing up regular food and drink to my bedroom on a wooden tray. Toast with Marmite, tea with honey and lemon (a taste to this day I associate strongly with illness), chicken broth with pearl barley or krupnik, boiled chicken leg with mashed potatoes or rice. And of course - gargling the throat with diluted TCP (ugh!) and drinking Lucozade (pronouced Lukozada by my mother, who'd Polonise brands shamelessly).

Now Lucozade deserves a paragraph in its own right. Back in the 1960s, this carbonated glucose-based drink was sold in glass 20-fluid-ounce bottles, wrapped in orange cellophane. Sweet, fizzy and bright, bright orange (it was coloured with Sunset Yellow, a petroleum-derived orange dye). The advertising slogan, famously displayed on a giant neon by the A4 and M4 flyover in Brentford, was 'Lucozade aids recovery'. This was dropped in the mid-1980s as AIDS began spreading globally - and more commercially - because manufacturer Beecham stopped selling it to ill people and relaunched it as a sports drink that 'replaces lost energy'. Sales tripled, but a childhood favourite, reserved for those sad times cooped up in bed, was lost. [Final note. My first summer job was working in the canteen at the iconic Art Deco Beechams factory in Brentford (£18 a week), in 1974.]

Wanting to keep me warm, my mother would bundle me up in bed with extra blankets and the nocny sweterek I mentioned in my last post. All this plus fever would mean I'd be sweating like an athlete in a sauna, turning over in my sleep, churning those multiple layers of bedding... In those days, there would be a bed sheet over the mattress, a second one separating the sleeper from the roughness of the woollen blankets of which there would be two, then a small eiderdown, finally a candlewick bedcover. Today's duvet is just so much more comfortable, cosy and convenient.

My temperature would be read using a mercury thermometer; it would take as long as a modern digital one for the right reading to appear (about 90 seconds held under the tongue), but reading it would be more difficult as you'd need to account for the parallax effect and the meniscus lens running the length of the thermometer.

In bed I would read; war stories, mostly. WWII was only two decades in the past; lying in bed I would thrill to the daring exploits of the RAF's bombing raids on German warships in Norwegian fiords or follow British commandos into the Burmese jungle to attack Japanese outposts. And when I'd be well enough to get out of bed wearing a dressing gown, these scenes would be re-enacted on my bedroom floor with little Airfix soldiers and Lego aeroplanes.

Later, when my brother started school, my mother returned to work and I'd be left home on my own when ill, my father would bring up the radio to my bedroom, so I could listen to pop on BBC Radio 1. This has proved a very useful memory aid; for example, I recall listening to The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, by Georgie Fame, which reached No.1 in the UK pop charts in January 1968. And, at the same time, Don't stop the Carnival by the Alan Price Set, which (see how powerful memory is!) this line, which I thought at the time to be so apt...
But this is England on a winter's afternoon
There is no sun, there's just a pale and tardy moon
And chivering sparrows on the smoking chimney tops
And all the children suffer from cold and flu...
Miserable old time of the year wherever - whenever - you are!

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