‘All I want is the England I used to know, the England I remembered as a younger man. I don’t want anybody to be hurt, but so many things seem to have gone wrong. I just want things to be like they used to be – when there were no bombs, not so much sniggering and you knew where you were.’
That speech is spoken by a fairly loathsome and unsympathetic character brilliantly played by Denholm Elliott in the original once-banned 1976 BBC production of Dennis Potter’s ‘Brimstone and Treacle’. He says it with a sigh following a heated outburst over immigrants and proudly proclaiming his recruitment by the National Front; and he’s goaded into it by ‘Martin’, an intruder we are led to believe is a physical embodiment of the Devil. The context in which it is said by the Denholm Elliott character makes perfect sense to him and his world. The fact that his fully-grown daughter is brain-damaged following a hit-and-run accident and that he and his wife are as imprisoned in their home as she is in her mind leaves him desperately looking for scapegoats and reflecting on a time before life seemed so complicated and devoid of hope.
Even if the context the Denholm Elliott character speaks those lines in is exclusive to him, the sentiments will be familiar to anyone over, say, the age of around 40. It’s difficult to be detached in such circumstances, to be impartial, to judge whether these sentiments are a true reflection of the bigger picture or simply the consequences of having lived longer than those now categorised as ‘youth’. It’s impossible to air a derisive opinion on the present day and not be accused of being a boring old fart and viewing the past through rose-tinted specs. And yet…
I recently watched the first episode of a US comedy series called ‘The Goldbergs’. A friend stuck it on a memory stick for me and it came highly recommended. Admittedly, it had its moments and was quite funny. But the setting of the sitcom served as a deterrent to fully enjoying the series, as I have a natural aversion to the setting, having lived during the period in which it is set, i.e. the middle of the 1980s. This series is supposed to be targeted at me and people my age; it’s a fairly deliberate attempt to tap into anticipated nostalgia for the 80s, for ‘Knight-Rider’ and ‘The A Team’, for John Hughes movies, for shoulder-pads, big hair and…er…REO Speedwagon (it’s American, remember). However, although I fall into the correct demographic, I absolutely hated that period of pop culture with a passion – then and now. It didn’t help that it was also the most miserable time of my personal life. Therefore, it evokes no nostalgia whatsoever. In fact, it’s probably my least favourite period to have lived through bar the present day. And this is where the rose-tinted specs theory falls flat on its arse.
Anybody who lives beyond 21 will notice gradual changes to the template of the world as it is presented to the embryonic infant eye; it’s inevitable, especially given the pace of technological change that took place throughout the entire twentieth century and has accelerated since we moved into the twenty-first. But it’s not so much what appears during a lifetime that makes one conscious of change – more a question of what disappears.
My earliest memories are from the early 1970s. At the time I began absorbing my environment, aspects of it and the wider world were subconsciously imagined by me to possess a permanence they were never destined to have. I wasn’t to know then that not everything was cast from the same mould as Westminster Abbey. Elements that have subsequently vanished within my own living memory include such one-time staples as telegrams, the test card, the Cortina, the cine-camera, the seven-inch single, the video cassette, the X certificate, programmes for schools and colleges, the music press, Radio Luxembourg, the hovercraft, Woolworths, Top of the Pops, Concorde, the Dandy, the Iron Curtain…and, of course, I could go on. Was the world a better place with all of these things in it? Not necessarily where all are concerned, though the key issue is that the world made more sense to me when they were in it, because they’d been in it when I was introduced to the world. And that’s when the familiar sensation of bewilderment and not being able to get a grip on change comes into play. It’s like somebody gradually removing pieces of a jigsaw and replacing them with pieces from a different jigsaw; by the time one has survived half-a-century, the picture the jigsaw forms is not the same picture one was presented with in the beginning.
Persistent emphasis on the confusion and inbuilt insecurity change can engender often leads to the weary reminiscing so easy to parody – the whole ‘when I were a lad, you could go to the pictures, have a couple of pints, buy a packet of Woodbines, grab a bag of chips, catch a tram home and still have change out of ten bob’ cliché. These kind of sentimental evocations of a past long gone are a psychological comfort blanket for those who have witnessed so much alteration to their environment that their way of coping with change is to reject it all and retreat back into a world that appeared to be set in stone, even though it never was. Withdrawing into it remains a seductive anaesthetic to the puzzling panorama of the present day, to mistake familiarity for superiority.
There are many aspects of this century and this country in this century that are undoubtedly alien to me and I don’t care very much for them at all; then again, there are advantages to it, with this very medium of communication something I can point to as making the world a better place than it definitely was in the era of ‘The Goldbergs’. I try my utmost to resist the instinct to reject every new development merely because it is new; but I cannot deny there were elements of the past I’ve lived through that were worthy of preservation and should never have been allowed to slip away. Yet, there’s nothing to stop me picking and mixing, of taking the best of yesterday and combining it with the best of today. And if school days were not the best days of my life by any means, perhaps the best days are still to come. There has to be a silver lining somewhere, and at least I’m looking for it. That has to be a good thing. Otherwise, what’s the point?
© The Editor