Aah, the 1970s. I only have to hear the theme to Van der Valk or imagine a bowl of butterscotch Angel Delight to think wistfully of when I grew up and appreciate some of the benefits it bestowed. For sure, the era wasn’t all sweetness and light. There are hundreds of aspects that would shock today; thousands a woke teenager could take apart in seconds. But in these days of AI and algorithms, covid and cancel culture, I look back at my own childhood with a certain nostalgia.
Take TV. OK, it wasn’t the on-demand, multi-channel affair it is now but the popular shows were pivotal in family life. We all watched them. Properly. Not while distracted by individual devices. They punctuated our week: Top of the Pops (Thursday); Starsky & Hutch (Saturday); and The Big Match (Sunday, ‘shhh, Dad’s watching Arsenal’). Saturday also meant Sale of the Century with its signature intro: ‘And now, from Norwich, it’s the quiz of the week…’ Not Vegas, you understand. Norwich. We never understood why the East Anglian city lent particular weight to the proceedings but we went along with it anyway. Game on.
We did have virtual reality of sorts. It was called using your imagination. And you had to dig deep. Dressing up required creativity, ingenuity and the excavation of cupboards and trunks, not donning a readymade outfit made in China, delivered to your door. Nor did we have a schedule of organised activities. We weren’t endlessly ferried to cello and cheerleading. We spent summers lying in whispering grass watching passing clouds, cycling up and down the same old street for hours, catching stickleback in the shallows, swinging on tyres and pretending we owned ponies, to the point we believed we did.
We had no smartphones or tablets. Our only social medium was interacting face to face, immersed in real-time, real world exchanges. Every moment wasn’t pictured, every move wasn’t posted, every silly, youthful mistake wasn’t set in digital aspic to be picked over later. Even people’s holidays remained largely a mystery, except to the neighbour who fed your cat.
Another memory; we weren’t all winners. When I entered the high jump, the top and bottom of it was I came bottom. And that was fine because others had jumped higher in a competition constructed solely to measure who could jump the highest. Watching a ribbon pinned to a rival’s chest, I felt a momentary sting of defeat. But I had to get over it. Or get over it higher next time. It encouraged me to try harder. To respect talent. And to switch to javelin.
I didn’t receive avalanches of praise when I did triumph. One year, when I came first in just about every school exam, my parents told me I shouldn’t get ‘too cocky’ because I wouldn’t always be in top spot (see above). Now, when I hear of kids negotiating gifts in advance of academic glory, I laugh that my prize was being hit over the head with the humility hammer.
My generation had less say re food, with portion control often out of our hands. In restaurants, fruit juice was considered a starter! The waiter would deliver the diminutive glass of orange, grapefruit or tomato with quite the flourish. The knock-on effect? In my twenties, when I went to America and was served a copious salad, I passed it round the table, only later realising it was my own personal side.
Fizzy drinks were an occasional pleasure (and we recycled by returning the glass bottle to pocket the deposit). As for Lucozade, you only got to sip the neon nectar whilst ill. Elaborately wrapped in cellophane, it was Champagne for the poorly. Doubtless, elements of our diet were nutritionally crappy but when I see great pillows of multi-pack snacks and rows of carbonated drinks the size of scuba tanks, I realise restraint was once an easier concept to apply.
Then there was the music. Buying an album in Our Price Records was an event, taking it home to play, an almost spiritual experience. Nothing came at the touch of a button. You had to plan your gratification if you wanted to live your best life set to a soundtrack of Abba and Bowie, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
Because in our heads, we drove the American freeways, sweeping past those alluring green signs, elbows out of windows, wind in our hair, even though in reality we lived in small semis near Woking. But those semis weren’t half bad. My family and friends weren’t rich. We weren’t poor. We were average. And in retrospect, being average in the 70s made us very lucky indeed. I might even thank the heavens by whipping up an Angel Delight.