The soul songstress Gladys Knight once recorded a beautiful version of the song The Way We Were with a heartfelt spoken introduction about our nostalgia for “the good old days”, including the suggestion that there will come a time when the present (which we are to assume is frankly rubbish because it’s not “the good old days”) will be our children’s “good old days”.
I have no quarrel with Gladys. She was a diva at a time when that meant something other than a demanding, self-regarding non-talent with an ego the size of Kim Kardashian’s bottom. Indeed, one of my early ambitions was to be a Pip, shimmying around behind Gladys and chanting “Superstar but you didn’t get far” at the appropriate point in Midnight Train To Georgia (and any other time I thought I might get away with it). But I have to take issue with her on the subject of “the good old days”.
Because if the frankly rubbish present is always destined to become the next generation’s “good old days” this implies that life on Earth is steadily getting worse. That developments in art, science and medicine are gradually eroding our quality of life. That improvements in human rights, hard fought for, won and defended over centuries, are essentially a bad thing.
During the earliest period of human existence, men would go out hunting and gathering, while the women stayed at home and made babies (and presumably kept the cave clean). If the men failed in their hunting and gathering, or were killed and eaten by something faster and fiercer, everyone starved. These were apparently “the good old days” to later, better organised, societies.
In 15th century France, Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake and everyone was totally fine with it. They even cheered and took their children along for the entertainment of watching an innocent, if misguided, young woman die in agony. There must have been a huge wave of nostalgia for the days of burning at the stake when the practice was abandoned centuries later.
In the early part of the 20th century, British women campaigned for the right to vote, ultimately resorting to illegal acts in support of their cause. These women were arrested, imprisoned and often force-fed before finally achieving their aim. I have never yet met a woman who would consider that period to be “the good old days”.
Following Gladys Knight’s logic, one day we will look back at this era of Donald Trump, endless argument about Brexit, and UKIP still being a thing and find ourselves longing for “the good old days”. It doesn’t work for me.
So in an attempt to put an end, once and for all, to this ridiculous idea that things can only get worse, I offer to you my personal list of things that were around when Gladys recorded The Way We Were (which should now be “the good old days”) that I don’t miss. Even a tiny bit.
Allowing 28 Days for Delivery
It’s so easy now, isn’t it? You log into your Amazon account, order with a couple of clicks, pay by credit card and your shiny new gizmo arrives the next day. If you live in a major city and order in the morning you might even get it that evening.
Compare this with what it was like in the 70s. You spent hours looking through a catalogue (or several), filled in an order form, wrote a cheque, then walked down to the end of the street to post it. Then you waited. And waited. And waited. This was called “sending off for something”. And it was slow and frustrating.
Okay, so it didn’t usual take the full 28 days but it certainly felt like it. But those were “the good old days”.
Any millennials of a sensitive disposition should look away now. A flexidisc, for those who genuinely don’t remember them or have successfully blotted their existence from memory, was a record made of thin, flexible vinyl. It was usually given away free with a magazine – my sister occasionally used to get them with Jackie (a rather jolly magazine for teenage girls) and I remember one that came with a 1980s edition of Smash Hits (I will not hear a word of criticism of either of these august journals).
Flexidiscs usually contained a couple of otherwise unreleased tracks by a favourite band or artist of the time. Trust me when I say there was a reason why these were unreleased.
And the sound quality was pants. Even for “the good old days”.
Yes, I know Blue Peter‘s been around forever and it’s an institution and the Christmas Appeal raises loads of money for worthy causes. But seriously – did any child really like it? Other than the ones who grew up to be contestants on University Challenge – the ones who look nothing like any student I have ever seen and can identify a Wagner opera from one chord. Oh, and my brother and sister.
I have two abiding memories of Blue Peter. One is of its scheduling clash with The Tomorrow People on Mondays. The aforementioned brother and sister wanted to watch Blue Peter. I wanted to watch The Tomorrow People. They were older. And there were two of them. Blue Peter was thus allowed to blight my life and prevent me from joining in playground discussions, no doubt contributing to my lifelong feeling of not really belonging. Thank you Valerie Singleton.
But if Blue Peter blighted my life, that is nothing compared to the effect it had on the poor individual who will always be remembered as Daniel the Blue Peter baby (DTBPB). From late September 1968 (not a hit for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) baby Daniel Scott made regular appearances on every child’s favourite TV show so we could learn about baby care and child development. Mainly by watching John Noakes and Peter Purves trying not to drown him. At least there was no Tomorrow People for it to clash with in those days.
After two years, DTBPB was quietly dropped, presumably because he’d grown into Daniel the Blue Peter toddler and if they didn’t get rid of him quickly they’d end up with Daniel the Blue Peter teenager on their hands and nobody wanted that.
But that was not the end of the story. Daniel’s parents split up and he later went off the rails, getting involved in drugs and petty crime. I can’t help suspecting that the pressure of having once been DTBPB was just too much for him and led to his fall from grace. Maybe I’m being too imaginative, but I picture him now in a lonely old house, wearing dark glasses and a silk dressing gown, smoking a cigarette in a tortoiseshell holder and growling, “I AM big – it’s Blue Peter that got small.”
It’s official. Blue Peter wrecks lives. Biddy Baxter – I hope you’re proud of yourself.
I know we’re all supposed to have re-evaluated her and realised that she was a saint and saved the Universe and everything, and I’m only glad she’s dead because I can’t imagine she would have wanted the life she had at the end. But she stole my school milk.
I loved my school milk. Somehow it didn’t taste the same as a glass of milk at home. Maybe it was those peculiar little bottles it came in. Or the fact it was always slightly warm (but not as warm as actual warm milk). Or it might have been the novelty of drinking it through a straw. But school milk was the best and Margaret Thatcher took it away.
I WANT MY SCHOOL MILK BACK.
The Threat of Imminent Nuclear Annihilation
Okay, so this was a few years after Gladys Knight told us we were living in our children’s “good old days” but back in the Golden Age of the late 70s and early 80s global nuclear war seemed like a definite possibility. The TV films Threads and The Day After attempted to depict the effects of a nuclear strike on the UK and USA respectively. Kate Bush released Breathing, a terrifying song from the perspective of a baby about to be born into a post-holocaust world. Duran Duran wanted to make the music people danced to when the bomb dropped.
For a long time, nuclear weapons filled the space in public consciousness later taken up by vampires or zombies – the big scary thing that popular culture embraced and used for inspiration.
But it was far more serious than that. In late December 1979 (still not a hit for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Relations with the west became seriously strained, the second Cold War began, and the threat of nuclear war seemed very real.
Fortunately we made it through those particular “good old days” and even with Donald Trump in the White House and Kim Jong Un playing with his toys in Pyongyang, at least for now, things don’t seem as frightening as they did back then.
So thank you Gladys but you can keep “the good old days”. I’ll take the present. And if I’m around for the future I’ll take that too.