It’s very easy to be accused of donning the rose-tinted specs and wallowing in nostalgia if we are thought to be harking back to a halcyon, possibly hallucinogenic, past. ‘The good old days’, they’re sometimes referred to, a gentler era of perpetual summer, enlightenment and culture, that wonderful world of Louis Armstrong’s signature song. Everything was so much better then, or so every generation tells the next one.
Of course it wasn’t, really and what most of us really want is the best of both worlds. I’ll keep the cellphones, safer cars, satellite television and round-the-clock internet access but I want empty roads on which to drive my car please, those affordable house prices of yesteryear in which to watch my TV and do my internet shopping and a complete ban on terrible text message misspellings and bad grammar. And of course let’s not forget, necessity being the mother of invention that much of our technology has come about as a result of the changing world around us. Diverging demographics, the break up of the family unit and our scatterling culture has meant that the safe societies of the past where everyone knew everyone else are no more. In many places, it’s not safe to be out on the streets and breaking down in the middle of nowhere or in one of those dodgy ‘hoods is dangerous so we need more reliable transport and our handy cellphones to call for assistance. Multi-lane highways and increased traffic volume make driving a dangerous occupation, so cars now come standard with ABS braking, air bags and crumple zones. Our thirst for entertainment means that we’re no longer satisfied with terrestrial television channels that only broadcast for a limited time daily, hence our 24-7, multi-channel cable and satellite service providers.
Then there are the curious anomalies, the contradictions in terms. In the late twentieth century, air travel superceded the train and the ocean liner as the quickest means of long-distance travel but then a few deranged religious fanatics started blowing them up and sending them into tall buildings. So security at airports was stepped up so many notches that now you have to allow that many extra hours for the check-in procedures; it’s probably quicker by Shank’s pony.
It’s all swings and roundabouts and the good, the bad and the downright ugly. But rose-tined specs or not, some foodie things definitely were better in days of yore. Take milk, for instance. Supermarkets today will sell you what is labelled ‘full-cream milk’ but it’s a lie. When last did you see that cream rising to the top of the milk bottle? The answer is never because it’s been removed. The ‘full cream’ has been taken out. Yet when I was young and milk was delivered to the doorstep by your friendly neighbourhood milkman, you could clearly see the cream, which formed at the top of the bottle, hence it was also referred to as ‘top of the milk’. In our house, breakfast was a tactical war to see who could take the spoils. My mother, the earliest riser, brought in the milk and cunningly siphoned the cream off into a jug, which was placed in the fridge to be poured into her morning coffee. But us lighties liked it on our breakfast cereal so we’d carry out lightning sorties to seize it while her back was turned. Even better, when she’d ordered Channel Island milk from Jersey or Guernsey. It cost a little more but the cream was the colour of butter and the Weetbix tasted all the better for it.
Those were the days when a head of celery still came with a fist-sized piece of root attached, the sweetest part of the plant and a delicacy much-prized. When last did you see such a thing and what happens to all those tuberous pieces now that our celery comes washed and trimmed and stuffed into plastic pouches on the supermarket shelf?
And what of the bacon of my childhood? Though that too now comes in a plastic, vacuum-sealed packet, it used to be sliced from the large flitch of cured meat by the grocer or the butcher to the thickness of your choice and in the precise quantity required. It came smoked or unsmoked from pigs that weren’t pumped up with hormones and injected with water after slaughter to artificially increase the volume, so it held its shape and texture in the frying pan, instead of oozing out watery juices as our modern rasher does.