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.



Chip D. Wood said...

There's something that happens in our brains as we walk through a continually growing, bigger world- the past grows smaller. As well as more "rosy".

It's akin, I think, to walking back into one's bedroom after that first semester of being away at college, and realizing you're not a kid anymore. Everything there seems smaller. Even the town itself seems to still have its training wheels on, where as we ourselves have been on the highway for several hours and have become "speed-blind" in a sense.

I think with it come those rose-colored glasses, that only reveal the better of our memories and tend to forget the times that weren't so good.

I've been thinking about this too, myself recently and have become convinced that wisdom is the only thing that keeps me wrenched in today's world, rather than one clasped to the past for that rosier image.

Frankly, I think it's a minor mental disorder that can affect large chunks of the population who can only see the good of, say, the '60's counter-culture, with the free love and the struggle against the oppressor.

Only to realize what that very free love has now wreaked upon humanity, now that they themselves have become those doing the oppressing.

Without a doubt the past has a tenancy to be rosy, or at least appear that way when we put on the glasses. The key is to know when you're doing it I guess ;).

@dwbudd said...


agree. I think that largely, the passing of time is a salve of sorts. The truly bitter and angry aside, we tend to forget the minor bumps and are left with something of an air-brushed view of the past.

What I wonder about is whether the process of nostalgia is stronger now than it was in the past.