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A bag of Monster Munch declares the spirit of the age

Rachel Johnson celebrates the return to the rubbish holidays, bad cars and basic food of the 1970s. Scrimping is more fun than splurging

22 April 2009

12:00 AM

22 April 2009

12:00 AM

‘Nice car,’ said my host approvingly, as he saw me off after Sunday lunch last weekend, as the blossom hung heavy on the bough and all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire chorused in the sunshine.

I opened the door with pride. At this point I should boast that the vehicle in question is not some hybrid, some gleaming marque of prestige. It’s my husband’s R-reg VW Passat. I swept the litter off the seat on to the floor with a fine, careless gesture before taking the wheel and accepting the compliment with a smile. The car’s air conditioning is broken, it has many more miles on the clock than Madonna, and it has a sudden tendency to cut out like Devon Loch in the final furlong of the Grand National — in fact, you couldn’t pay someone to tow it away, but none of this matters. All this makes the old Passat, as Vogue cover lines like to say, ‘right for now’.

So the fact that we don’t have a Prius but a Passat actually counts as a plus because — you must have noticed it too? — everyone is absolutely loving going back to the Good Life we remember when we were children: days when all cars, especially those made here in the UK, were basically crap and broke down over long distances, so at some point, any given journey featured a trudge to a telephone box to summon the local garage, and generally ended with the whole family squashed into the cab of a tow-truck, fighting over the last Rolo, listening to Donny Osmond.

When all holidays were basically rubbish, too, of course. Emma Kennedy, the writer/presenter/whatever, has a hit on her hands with a memoir called The Tent, The Bucket and Me, which is all about growing up in the 1970s, and peeing al fresco, when no one had mobile phones and the Sony Walkman hadn’t been invented yet, when a summer holiday didn’t mean a villa in Tuscany or theme park in Florida — it didn’t mean flying, period. It meant heading to a caravan park in Rhyl in the rain for a week (or two if you were really unlucky), or to a B&B in the Lake District.

When we never went to restaurants or drank wine, not much anyway. We ate in, and what we ate was meat loaf, spag bol, chilli con carne, sausages, always sausages; fish was for Fridays and a roast was for Sundays and every housewife cooked from their stained copy of 100 Ways with Mince and would not even know the names of the ingredients (quinoa, Camargue rice, argan oil, etc) of today’s culinary fetishism.

This whole dreary way of life is now the height of fashion. Vogue has brought back its ‘more dash than cash’ feature; wearing hand-me-down clothes and Freecycle are cool; Gwyneth Paltrow auctions her gladiator sandals on eBay, Michelle Obama has an allotment on the White House lawn, and we all want to grow our own. Woman’s Hour on Tuesday had a long item about how it’s important that even those who live in flats grow lettuce in their window boxes, which was very Dig for Victory, and everyone of course has a copy of the wartime Keep Calm and Carry On poster Blu-Tacked to their walls.

Dreary it might be. But admit: it’s making us all so happy. We’re much happier believing in yesterday, rather than endlessly trying to pretend that it’s getting better all the time; or even grimmer, thinking about tomorrow, which is what the Labour party and Fleetwood Mac tell us to do. Thinking about tomorrow is frightening and unpleasant; and keeping up with the Joneses when it comes to holidays, clothes, children, cars, career, kitchen, is expensive and exhausting. But going back to the devil we used to know (being too poor to eat out, holidays in Butlins, secondhand everything) is proving to be a real tonic.

My friends have been never happier than since they ditched trying to have colour-supplement photo-shoot lives with fake friends, and started living frugally instead, as our parents did, in the days when you couldn’t dream of borrowing ten times your income and getting a mortgage for more than 100 per cent of the value of the property.

This week, the Daily Mail gave over a double-page spread for celebrities who peaked 30 years ago to go down the memory lane of the 1980s, when Mrs T was the boss (and how we are all swooning over the 30th anniversary of her accession). Nigel Havers of Chariots of Fire (1981) contributed. ‘We were doing up our new home in Wandsworth, south London, but had so little money we had to move into my parents’ house,’ he recalled happily. So did Michael Fish, of 1987 hurricane fame. ‘Even though I was a “famous” weatherman in 1982, I was employed by the Met Office and on a civil service salary, so my abiding memory of that year is of struggling to pay the school fees for our daughters, Alison and Nicola, who were then ten and seven, and pupils at a London prep school.’ Those days, scrimping rather than splurging — when it came to one’s own money at least — was the norm. Everyone did it, because we were all so poor and the standard of living was so gloriously low.

Now, of course, the Labour government is trying to jump on to this retro band- wagon, as we can see from its doomed attempts to micromanage 1970s-style bail-outs. I am writing this pre-Budget, but I predict the party in power will fail to feel any benefit from harking back to bygone days of bell-bottomed yore with its effort to buck the market by featherbedding some industries over others.

Labour has, you see, made the cardinal error of saddling itself with the dread label ‘New’. This is a toxic brand when everything ahead of us looks grey and grim, while everything behind us is currently bathed in a rosy glow.

And whatever it does is already too late. The election looms, the horse has bolted, and consumers and voters are already reliving the sunlit uplands of the past. When it comes to product — consumer, political — the only way to sell is to tell the potential purchaser that it’s not the horrid, new type of thing, it’s the lovely old sort. I can prove this.

I was eating some pickled onion Monster Munch, and idly reading the packet. I noticed the word ‘NEW’ had been crossed out, and underneath that was the word ‘OLD’ in shouty capitals.

This seemed to me significant, especially in the light of the return to our confectionery shelves of the Cadbury’s Wispa, not to mention the fact that Branson is selling us Virgin Atlantic with an ad that harks back to the era of shoulder pads, Farrah Fawcett hair and trolly dollies. Telly producers are on trend too: it’s almost impossible to get a new telly series commissioned or broadcast unless it’s set in the 1960s (Mad Men), the 1970s (Red Riding) or the 1980s (Ashes to Ashes). If it’s in the Nineties or the Noughties, the era of Blair and Brown — no thanks. We’re not buying.

As for the new/old Star Trek movie, this is also capturing the same zeitgeist. As one critic raved this week: ‘J.J. Abrams had come up with a tremendous idea, inspired no doubt by the success of Batman Begins and Casino Royale, both of which had reinvigorated tired franchises by recasting and going back to basics.’

Ah, back to basics. All this tells us, so much more than any opinion polls, that New Labour is toast, and the Conservatives will soon be voted the best thing since sliced bread, because when it comes to outstanding prequels (and remember, we’ve all just been fainting with pleasure as we recall the 30-year anniversary of Thatcher), it’s the Tories that always get the Oscar.

This weird wormhole of a moment we’re in is a reminder that this country has never really gone for change for change’s sake, and still holds dear the days when, yes, things — especially cars, especially my father
’s Opel Kadett — were a lot more crap than they are now, but they were also a whole lot less nasty and consumerist. So all the evidence points one way. We are to boldly go forward to the past, not back to the future. Remember what is says on the packet of pickled onion Monster Munch, and mark my words. Old is the new new.

Here’s football’s Glenn Hoddle on the 1980s, before I rest my case. ‘I didn’t live in a massive house — we had a modern three-bedroom house on an estate, and only later would move to a bigger country house in Epping,’ he said. ‘At the time, I was driving around in a snazzy sponsorship car — a pale green metallic VW Scirocco — and life felt pretty good.’

And so it does. Life feels pretty good, in a you-never-had-it-so-bad kind of way.

We have the Passat to prove it.

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