Were the “Good Old Days” Really Good?

Let’s Talk about the good old days. C’mon, you know what I’m on about. We live in times when even people in their early 30s preface their sentences with: “Do you remember when…?” When, what, exactly? When you were born and Thatcher was in power

Let’s talk about a certain epidemic sweeping through these isles. It’s a “selective memory” condition that reminisces about past times, carefully and skilfully leaves the bad bits out and focuses mainly on the good ones.

It is not an ailment that affects solely the Brits. I had the opportunity to see the same phenomenon in my country of birth when I visited last summer. Perhaps, because Castro’s demise was imminent, but I ran into people who went out of their way to romanticise a past they had only slagged off three years before on my previous visit.

The elements that make up this “golden era” evocation in the UK are different, though. We live in times when technology, to mention but one factor, has challenged normal conventions. Social norms, educational practices, human interactions, they have all been transformed. For many, these changes have been for the worse. Loss of manners, addiction to gadgets and lack of social etiquette are some of the side-effects of swiping and scrolling. It is natural, therefore, to look at the emotional spaces carved out in one’s childhood as a comfortable refuge to inhabit.

But beware. Bygone eras do not come all under the same banner and with the same content. Let’s talk about the good old days, but what years exactly? Before the 1910s, you say? If you were a woman you did not have the vote. If you were poor there was no free healthcare and seeing one’s offspring dying was common. 1930s? Rise of antisemitism in Europe, so, if you were a Jew, you were not safe. 1940s? There was a war going on. And whilst Britain fought on the side of what I call “the good guys”, the truth is that when your city is being bombed to bits (Dresden, since you ask), you do not look back on those days with fondness but rather with horror. 1950s? OK, I’ll give you that one, but only if you were not gay, you did not need an abortion and you were not black (the racially-motivated Notting Hill riots took place in 1958).

This is not to say that these eras lacked pluses. There were many: outdoor play was part and parcel of growing up, allergies were not as rife as now, dieting was mainly the preserve of celebrities and community carried a real meaning.

The danger is that as our future becomes more frightening we retreat further away from it. And by moving away we invariably drift towards that “past as a foreign country”. Of course they do things differently there. For starters, they have not got mobile phones. They did, however, cane you. Remember that?

Let’s talk about the good old days. But when we do, let us remember, too, that not everything was rosy pink. Outdoor toilets, bullying, bigotry, and domestic violence were so normal that people would not bat an eyelid if you brought these subjects up in conversation. That is why I think it is better to think that no era was golden. They all had their pros and cons and idealising them does no one any favours. Plus, at least we have mobile phones now, don’t you think?

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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