The tyranny of nostalgia

Two lorries passed along the country road, one a greengrocer’s van and one from an oil merchant. The first was pale green with lettering in yellow, the second a deep red with blue and white detail, both probably dated from the 1950s. At a time of year when there are festivals and fairs all across the country, they might have been returning from a gathering almost anywhere, although at the speed at which they travelled, their presence had probably been in a field somewhere not too far distant. It would not be hard to imagine lines of vehicles of a similar vintage, and stalls where people might buy memorabilia and spare parts, and a show ring for the different classes of transport, and ice cream vans and chip vans, and a voice making announcement over the public address system, and white marquees and coloured bunting, and car parks filled with visitors.

Such gatherings are always a delight to visit, good days out, reminders of how things once were. Sometimes, though, there is the troubling suggestion that these things belonged to some lost golden age and that we are somehow poorer than those who rode around the country at thirty-five miles per hour.

My father, who was born in the 1930s, is sceptical about the enthusiasm for steam railways. “How many of those who are so enthusiastic about them had to travel on them?” The answer, of course, is very few; steam locomotives were withdrawn more than fifty years ago. “Steam trains were dirty and smelly, you brushed against one and you were covered in soot.” Perhaps there was a certain truth in the fact that the Somerset and Dorset Railway was known as “the slow and dirty.” People who had to rely on small and slow lorries for their groceries and their fuel would probably express a similar scepticism. Had such transport been reliable and efficient, it would still be in service.

Nostalgia is good for an afternoon out with a “99” cone and tea from a cardboard cup, it is not good when it becomes a mindset, when former times were always better than the present time. There has never been a better time to live than the present. Whether in the field of economic development, medical science, personal freedom, communications capacity, travel options, or any of a range of other measures, we are living in the best of times. Would anyone wish to return to the living standards of the 1950s, or the 1970s, or even the 1990s? Almost any index to which one might turn will demonstrate the past times were worse times.

The sight of sixty year old lorries travelling a country road should prompt a feeling of appreciation that we do not depend on technology of such an age.



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