Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Were the Good Old Days REALLY that Good?

Time waits for no man, as the saying goes, and thus I like everyone fortunate not to run into medical (or other) problems of a serious sort, confront the wonders of middle age.  In looking back at memories that grow longer from a life that grows shorter, I am often struck with nostalgia.

But I wonder... Were the old days really that "good?"

Case in point.  A couple of weeks ago, in travelling home from a trip to Hawaii, we stopped for breakfast in a restaurant in LAX called "Ruby's Diner."  For those of you unfamiliar with Southern California, it's a retro-themed diner that claims to be a purveyor of "40's style food and fun" (emphasis added).

I'm not sure, exactly, what "40's style food" is (my imagination is a lot of simple meat-heavy meals fried heavily in lard), but I was struck by the idea of  "40's style fun."  When I think of the 40's, I think of a terrible war, rationing, and austerity.

What of that is "fun?"

One might argue that the times were simpler (some aspects of that may be good, some less so), or that the movies were better, or perhaps the music.  But it seems more likely just an appeal to nostalgia.

I wonder if, in history, people have always been so eager to recollect earlier times so fondly?  I'm not talking about on a personal level - most of us who are over 40 recall with some fondness our youth, when we had less responsibility, less pressure, and perhaps less weight around the middle.

Retro-style seems to be omnipresent, whether it's the new wave of nostalgia for the 1980s that has arisen with Sony's announcement that it will discontinue the "walk man," or flashback music on the radio, or movies that paint the times of Queen Elizabeth I in soft-cell light (ignoring of course the abysmal hygiene and squalor that the time held for most).

I'm a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote light opera in the Victorian era.  One of their most famous works - a play that formed the subject of the acclaimed movie "Topsy-Turvy" about 10 years ago, is "The Mikado," a comedy ostensibly about Imperial Japan, but less obviously, a satirical commentary on Victorian England itself.  In the First Act, the Lord High Executioner has a song called "I've Got a Little List," wherein he delineates a group of people who, if necessity arose, would go onto his list of convenient "customers" whom society would not miss.

On his list is the

         Idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone.
         All centuries but this and every country but his own.


So apparently, at least these to recognised the theme of remembering the past as being better than it really was.

It's my opinion that at some points in history (the 1950s, perhaps) the focus was on the future and not the past.  It was the space-age.  Cars looked sleeker.  People envisioned space travel.    

Then again, maybe I'm guilty of my own nostalgic myopia.  The 1950s also was a time of yellow and avocado coloured appliances, polyester suits, and cars with monstrously ugly tail fins.

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