I’ve just read Nick Hornby’s new novel Funny Girl in one sitting, because I just had to keep going. It’s a nice plot: likeable, good-looking Blackpool girl makes good in big bad Loondon with only wit, northern nous, and a longing to be on the telly to rely on. And it’s trademark Hornby: decent self-effacing folk triumph over tossers, amid lots of laughs and acute social commentary.
But the reason I wanted to stay in this book is because, whether by listening to his mum and dad a lot, watching loads of vintage British TV, or just good old fashioned research, Hornby was able to take me right back to the time when I was the same age as Barbara/ Sophie, lived in London, watched all those TV shows, was glued to the radio, and witnessed the emergence of London from its wartime privation to become the capital of cool. (Or what passed for cool in 1964)
By any standards it was a remarkable time I suppose, but then we boomers have no trouble asserting that our time was more remarkable than all the other generations put together. We absolutely refuse to move over gracefully, determined to wear our blue jeans, not our blue rinses, to the bitter end. And there must be a buck in it, because so many TV shows pander to us, and lovingly recreate the sixties in all their kitchen sink glory.
I reckon it started with Heartbeat, where the police chases are less convincing than the ones our son used to enact with his Matchbox cars and the crims only get caught because they are even slower than good old plod. It’s British fair play at its best. But clearly it struck a nerve because thanks to the likes of George Gently, (that’s Mister Gently to you), The Hour, and the earnest young Morse in Endeavour, beehives and Beatles hair, shillings in the meter and phones the size of small cars all glow under a patina of nostalgia.
Or is it the fug of cigarette smoke? Because in these brilliantly textured reconstructions, everyone smokes… all the time! How did any of us survive? Of course it took Madmen to make it all divinely stylish, even though the actors must have had a lung cancer clause in their contracts. What a simple, wholesome time it is in our memories. People were somehow more decent, and we can be lulled into the notion that maybe we were too. As well, giving our youthful naivete the vintage treatment makes it OK that our legs were permanently purple mottled in those white boots and minis (in winter!) with our panda eyes (watering from the cold) and ironed hair that we thought made us look like Jean Shrimpton…sorry Jean.
And at least it made us resilient. Imagine today’s young ‘uns permanently, wired to their networks, having to go down the road (in the rain) to the phone box if they want any life outside a front room confined to silence while Dad listens to THE NEWS.
But doesn’t every generation like to think they invented youth, and that those embarrassing old fogies gyrating in the corner and screeching She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah arrived in the world that way? They certainly could never have been the zeitgeist-savvy uber-coolies that each succeeding generation imagines it is. We all have our time to which we are drawn, and which becomes a kind of touchstone. Everyone feels that their young years were remarkable because they were the years of hope (and potential glory). Start playing a signature tune from any era, and watch the appropriate age group smile mistily and star bopping (or groovin’ or makin’ shapes) How many times have you smiled and nodded gamely at a party when the not-my-era song was shouted in joyous union by folk for whom it was embedded forever by the potent mix of youth and possibility?
OK, I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never wear those white boots again (Is that a collective sigh of relief I hear?) But some things are still possible. Let’s start with food: who remembers creamed rice (in a tin) or bacon sarnies (on white bread with HP sauce)? My tin of Ambrosia creamed rice is Britain’s answer to Proust’s humble madeleine, which was accorded iconic super-powers in A la Recherché de Temps Perdu…roughly translated as: to find again, times that are lost. One of the saddest lines in literature, especially as Ambrosia tinned rice is not available here in Oz, and I have to make do with Home Brand.
Here’s what the madeleine (dipped in tea) did for Monsieur Proust: And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me …immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents … and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine …in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.
But wait! According to a site called Poms in Adelaide Ambrosia creamed rice can be found in Foodland, Hope Valley! I’m in the middle of googling flights to Adelaide and then I think…do I really want to go back there? The equipment with which one first tastes something is so sharp and well-developed (and hungry, in a way I never am now). But that me whose taste buds (and all other faculties) were so acute, is no more. The tasting equipment is more than a bit clapped out from sixty years of constant activity. And even if I could get the taste back, all the other stuff…and the people that went with it…are gone forever.
OK Pass me the remote. Apparently they’re showing re-runs of The Avengers, and I’ll just wallow for a while in the nostalgia tinted version of how it all was…so much more flattering and comforting. And, you never know, maybe Foodland in Hope Valley do home deliveries.