I drove up the King’s Road the other day and noticed the hundreds of tiny boutiques and independent shops that line the road. It made me reflect on the changes that I have seen in the high street and beyond over my lifetime.
I was struck by the amazing creativity that has happened in this country and the extraordinary choice of products and services we now have. Thinking back to the High Street of my 1950s youth, there was a dullness in the displays, the products, and few of the services, personal or professional, that are now on offer were available then.
This was emphasized again when David and I went into Winchester last Saturday to take his granddaughter, Bo, to the panto – Peter Pan. On every street corner there was a band or a choir, stalls selling home-made food and crafts. The colour, care and creativity of these community groups and individuals was startling. And, of course, the pantomime was fantastic – up-to-date with its Brexit jokes but timeless in the “oh yes we do” and “it’s behind you” that sent the small children wild with delight.
I remember my mother doing some AmDram with her Women’s Institute group, and there were cakes and jams but now countless small towns have Literary Festivals, Poetry Festivals, Music Festivals, Open Mic poetry evenings. Every village has it book groups, meditation groups, yoga, mindfulness and therapeutic workshops. The choice is staggering when you add to that the U3A and other local courses and education. And choirs and rock groups. Wow, aren’t we lucky?
I used to set my workshop groups an icebreaker to draw something that made them go wow. Some things are changeless – a sunset or sunrise, a child, the moon, a tree, nature, birds. Others change all the time and many that make me go “wow” today were not around in my parents’ day. SatNav, how cool is that to have someone tell you in good time which way to go in complicated cities and one-way systems? He occasionally has a mad moment and sends me somewhere ridiculous but most of the time he gets it right. Even in the remotest winding country lane in deepest Wales, Scotland, Eastern Europe and almost anywhere on the globe you no longer have to prop a map dangerously on your knee and try to fathom out where you are. And he will even read me my text messages.
My mobile phone amazes me daily with what it can do and what it can tell me – and I can bet you that even then I probably only use 5% of its facilities! The apps that my 6-year old granddaughter uses to learn, to write computer programming script and improve her maths are so useful, and creatively programmed to be entertaining as well as educational. There are emails and skype to keep us in touch with family. friends and work colleagues who may be far away (or sitting next to you!). And the internet, mainly a source for good though, like human society in general, also a source of evil. It can bring together communities in compassion and altruism but also in terrorism or paedophilia. But that’s humans for you.
In moving house we have had the help of Jayne and Maria, M&J Home Solutions, clever declutterers who have been a huge support in focusing our minds on what needs to go to charity or the tip, how to clear the house to show it at its most attractive and appealing to those who might look around. I don’t believe my parents would have been able to avail themselves of such a service.
There are dogwalkers, homesitters, people who will cook and deliver you your everyday meals when you are working hard. And food that you can actually eat! We weren’t allowed in pubs in my childhood, there was no decent coffee and mostly only disgusting food. Now every other shop is a café or patisserie and the food in the UK has improved beyond measure. If I dare to say so, I find it even better than the food in France these days, where the menus have hardly changed for forty years. In England you can find food from every part of the world and also a wonderful creative fusion – even in provincial towns. Pretty much impossible in days gone by!
And as I waltz around our lovely warm home and look out at the pretty but chilly frosty garden I remember times before central heating, when a home would have one warm room with a radiator, leaving the rest of the house freezing. We would get dressed beside the radiator but shiver when we had to go down the corridor to the loo. No more dangerous geysers in our bathrooms to asphyxiate us. And we are finally learning from our mistakes to seek more sustainable methods to keep ourselves warm in winter and cool in summer.
My mother had to struggle with twin-tub washing machines and hand wrangles. My young adult days were spent at the launderette – the fact that there are very few of these on the high street these days speaks of the fact that most people have their own washing machines and probably tumble driers too. Previous generations have had to hang their washing on freezing cold or damp washing lines or string it around the house. The carpet sweeper was pretty exhausting, too, in comparison to a Dyson … and that’s not to mention the hours one would spend washing up the dishes!
And that is not to begin on the medical front. That is truly a wow. My mother’s generation were enraptured by antibiotics, penicillin and vaccinations because before these so many children died. People forget how medicine has transformed our lives. And now we have MRI scans and the technological innovations that have been invented over these decades and it is quite astonishing what hospital doctors can do to save people and make their lives better, even in the most difficult circumstances. People who would inevitably have died in earlier times are kept alive. What we now have to tackle is the terrible human tendency to live somewhat unhealthy lives of too much eating and drinking (oops, Christmas is coming…oh dear, note to self).
Air travel was only for the wealthy – the route from London to Nice was one of the most expensive in the world but today one can get a return for £50 at some times of the year. And cars are so much more reliable – I recall more-or-less every journey having some breakdown with the cars we drove in our early 20s.
In 1969 I remember standing in the garden with my father when the first man landed on the moon. My father was delighted and would have been thrilled to watch the antics of Tim Peake on the space station and gain the knowledge of the universe that we have gained since that time, thanks to photographic technology and the ability to transfer data home from outer space. Near miraculous as far as I am concerned!
I have booked myself into a spa in January – another thing that was few and far between for my mother’s generation. I ought to be booking in for a diet programme but actually am taking the time out with a girlfriend, an old schoolfriend, to enjoy hydrotherapy, massage, warm baths, swimming, and manicures. What a luxury. I come from a generation that grew up doing our own nails but judging by all the nail bars on every high street obviously this is no longer the luxury it was for me. There were no credit cards, of course, and very little credit despite astronomic mortgage rates.
Inevitably all this is relative and difficult for younger generations to compare. But I hope that those who are young today will be able to look back in a similar way in forty years time to stop and notice the improvements that have occurred in their lifetime. It’s too easy to get into pessimism and become blind to what is all around.
And so, as we head up to Christmas, I wanted to remind you, remind myself, of how much our lives have become more comfortable and how important it is not to take it all for granted. Keep looking and noticing because there are so many people in the world who do not enjoy these things that used to be luxuries but are now commonplace experiences of our every day life. There’s nothing commonplace about them – they are amazing and are the output of human creativity, teamwork and ingenuity. So we can choose to focus our eyes and minds to appreciate and be grateful for all these incredible advances that make each day easier and more enjoyable for us.
Happy Christmas to you all and I wish you a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2018!