(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, December 24.)
They say that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not so sure. It can be instructive from time to time to recall how things were in the past and to ask the tricky question, is life better now?
Consider the following:
I remember when my home town, with a population of 3000, had its own daily paper and everyone read it.
I remember when primary schoolkids got the strap for minor infractions and secondary schoolboys were caned.
I remember a time when there were no human resources departments.
I remember when some state highways – the road from Napier to Taupo was one – still weren’t sealed.
I remember when you pushed button “A” to be connected when making a call from a public phone box.
I remember when people travelled to and from Britain on ocean liners with exotic names like Flavia and Arcadia.
I remember party lines and three-digit phone numbers.
I remember when the title of professor was one that automatically commanded respect.
I remember school dental nurses.
I remember when newspapers routinely referred to married women using their husbands’ initials and surname. (My wife would have been Mrs K du Fresne.)
I remember when only sophisticated people drank coffee.
I remember when we ate roast mutton on Sundays.
I remember when politicians didn’t have press secretaries and prime ministers almost never spoke to reporters.
I remember when the serial prison escaper George Wilder was considered a national hero.
I remember when no one knew what an avocado was. Or lasagne. Or Pad Thai.
I remember when the road toll reached 843 in a single year.
I remember hot pants.
I remember when boys were obsessed with World War Two exploits and amassed cherished collections of War Picture Library comics.
I remember when the local cop was regarded with respect (not always deserved) and sometimes fear.
I remember Telethons.
I remember when people arranged their holidays through travel agents (okay, some still do).
I remember when farmers could afford to buy flash new cars - Chevrolets, Dodges, DeSotos - because of the demand for wool to clothe American troops in the Korean War.
I remember when most towns had a pie cart.
I remember when a public bar was a mysterious place with frosted glass windows that were open at the top so that a fug of beery fumes and tobacco smoke could escape, and where the hubbub within suggested men having a good time.
I remember when only corner dairies and service stations were open at weekends.
I remember when bad boys were sent to borstal.
I remember the 1987 stock market crash, and the shock it caused to inexperienced investors who didn’t realise share prices could go down as well as up.
I remember when you had to catch a ferry to get across Auckland Harbour to the North Shore.
I remember when New Zealand Forest Products was the country’s biggest company.
I remember cranking the telephone handle to get through to the local exchange and being asked, “Number, please”.
I remember when bottles could be returned to the suppliers for a small refund and bottle drives were a popular method of fundraising for clubs and schools.
I remember when television came to my home town and I would ride my bike around the neighbourbood gazing enviously at houses with aerials.
I remember when everyone watched serious current affairs shows such as Gallery.
I remember when private hotels, which provided food and beds but no liquor, were a popular accommodation choice and motels were still a novelty.
I remember when no one had heard of sun block.
I remember when the state-owned New Zealand Listener sold nearly 400,000 copies a week because it had a monopoly on publication of the week’s TV programmes.
I remember when the only restaurants in provincial towns were dining rooms attached to fish and chip shops.
I remember when pubs had ladies’ and escorts’ bars and no barmaids.
I remember when radios and TVs needed a minute or so to warm up after being switched on.
I remember walking more than a kilometre to school each day from the age of five.
I remember the occasions when kindly Mr White from down the road gave me a lift in his Austin 7 and no one assumed he was a paedophile.
I remember newspaper honesty boxes.
I remember seeing a picture of the Beatles for the first time and thinking they looked weird.
I remember when flying to Australia was an adventure that you dressed up for.
I remember childhood friends dying from illnesses which today are easily treatable.
Back to that question at the start: is life better now? The only possible answer is yes and no.