Romanticising the bad old days

A 1950s cigarette advert featuring a white man smoking a cigarette, wearing a white coat with a dark tie, with the slogan "According to a recent nationwide survey, More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette".
Cigarette ads of the time claimed they were healthy (this was American, but similarly misleading adverts were found here too.)

The other day I saw a meme which consisted of a list of what British food was like in the 1950s, presumably when the author was young, and it claimed that much of the food we eat now had either not been invented, had a completely different use or the word used for it meant something completely different. Pasta had not been invented, Curry was a surname, pizza was “something to do with a leaning tower”, prunes were medicinal, Indian restaurants were only found in India, sugar was thought of as “white gold” and cubes were posh, and muesli was readily available and called cattle feed. The last thing on the list is “the one thing we never had on our tables: our elbows”. This is clearly an attempt to romanticise the 50s as a time when things were simpler and people had better manners than they have today. However, these things aren’t true, and most of this list is not either.

To begin with: in the 50s, Britain was already changing and people had already started to move here from what was still mostly the Empire (the Indian part was already independent, but Britain still had its African and Caribbean colonies). We already had large Jewish, Irish and Italian populations. Pasta had, of course, been invented; it just wasn’t popular in the UK, other than, presumably, in the Italian community. Rationing, which had been imposed during the War, persisted through the Attlee years and was only abolished by the Tory government in the early 1950s, so the national diet was still somewhat restricted and the supply of things like fat was still very controlled and nobody wasted anything; my mother remembers her mother scraping every last bit of butter off the packet; sugar was only starting to become available again, hence its “white gold” reputation, and the negative effects of too much of it were not really considered (smoking was, of course, not thought harmful either, and both tobacco and alcohol were marketed as being healthy when they in fact were not). “Oil was for lubricating; fat was for cooking” the list says, as if we cook our food in the same oil we put in our car (though these days, we are starting to put cooking fat in our cars).

These days, we have a choice of ingredients and a choice of cuisines both to cook at home and to dine out on. Part of this is because we have a large population which came from the former colonies, and from Europe, and brought their cuisines with them, for their benefit rather than ours. They were not the first people to bring new foods with them, of course; such things as potatoes, peppers and tomatoes, things we could not think of living without today, were brought from the Americas by the Spanish colonists and spread throughout the world — we associate many Indian foods with hot chillis, but these vegetables are not native to India. And as wartime and post-war austerity faded from people’s memories and the country diversified and opened up, people found they liked the variety, and why wouldn’t they? People generally like variety, they like colour, they like things to be tasty and not bland. True, there’s an environmental impact to bringing exotic fruits like bananas and oranges to this country all year round, and we produce plenty of good fruit here, but this list doesn’t mention the environment; it just looks back to when “we never had any of this and we were strong” etc.

Britain was not a utopia in the 1950s. True, there was full employment because of the post-war settlement and if you were middle-class or ‘solidly’ working class, you would have had quite a comfortable life by the standards of that time. But if you were a woman, you were expected to stop work after you married (hence the home-cooked food and absence of ‘convenience’ foods); if you were Black, you could be discriminated against and had no redress; if you were disabled, you might well have spent decades in an institution and at best faced a world that made no effort to accommodate you; if you were mentally ill, you could also be locked up for years and suffer experimental treatments that might leave you brain-damaged. Why would anyone romanticise this era on the basis of what the average person did not have access to, what was bad about that time? Ultimately the message seems to be that Britain was better when it was a whiter and more homogeneous country and that the variety we enjoy now is the product of immigration and of the ‘softening-up’ of the population. Before you share a meme like this, please remember that it is essentially a racist message.

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