Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nostalgia Trip: The keys to freedom

One of the things I dislike about modern Britain, apart from the fact it has become so pretentious and self-absorbed, is the way so many people deride other periods. All periods have bad points and good points, but from the way many of these people go on you would think that life in previous decades was just one disaster after another in virtually every field. Politics, culture, fashion - you name it and these people will pull it apart and tell you how much better it is today. You won't be surprised to find that the people who are most likely to do this are those that I dislike more than any other - liberal progressives.

Perhaps one of the most mocked and derided decades was the seventies. The success of the BBC series Life On Mars brought this to light when the way the seventies - and the people who lived back then - were portrayed as dull, seedy, unimaginative and rather stupid. I enjoyed the series, but being someone who grew up in that decade - the period when I went from being a child to a teenager to a man - I have to tell you that, from my point of view, it was a fantastic time and not a bit like it was in the TV show.

Maybe it wasn't so good in other parts of the country or for other generations, but I know from my parents that they rated it as among the best of times too. For them, like many parents, the seventies was a time when they could enjoy increasing freedom and leisure.

The freedom was provided primarily by the motor car which, before that time, was still not something enjoyed by everyone and certainly not by many people who were - as we were - working class.

It was at the start of the decade, in April 1970 when we, as a family, acquired our first car - a 1957 sit-up-and-beg Ford Popular 103E. It was slow, crude and basic - with a single windscreen wiper which, when it worked, would barely cope with anything more than a mild drizzle. The car would usually start on the button, but on the odd occasion it didn't we had to resort to cranking the engine with the starting handle.

For all it's faults, though, this car gave us a freedom we had never had before. Previously, if we had wanted to go anywhere we had to go by bus or train - or foot. Even though buses back then were regular and plentiful, they didn't always go where we needed to go. I used to dread trips to see my maternal grandmother as these involved a short bus ride followed by hours of walking along dangerous roads, across mountains and deserts - at least that's what it felt like when I was seven (in reality it was no more than a twenty minute level walk from the bus stop).

The Ford Pop changed all that. Now we were free to go where we wanted when we wanted. It wasn't just my immediate family either. Many a time we would embark on a trip to Maidenhead or Slough town with mum in the driver's seat, my aunt beside her, her youngest on her lap and four or five of kids crammed in the back. Parking was always easy and cheap (often free), other drivers were generally courteous and the roads were rarely in the sort of condition they usually are now.

We still used buses and trains - for us as kids the buses in particular were vital - but the freedom that our first car gave us was something special. Within a year my eldest brother had passed his test and we were a two car family. By the middle of the decade I was zipping around on mopeds and then motorbikes and, before the decade was out, I was a car owner myself.

As I look back on those days and some of the simple things that I enjoyed - like lying on the back seat and looking up at the streetlights over head or sitting facing backwards in the luggage area of my uncles estate car - and I consider how we are moving to an age where every trip we take will be monitored and tracked, where every mile will be charged, where we must all be strapped into our seats like fighter pilots. where our children have to perch on booster" cushions and are constrained from doing what kids do (moving about) in the interests of "safety" I can't help feeling that the freedom that little Ford Pop gave us back then has gone for good.

1 comment:

brian in the tamar valley said...

Reading about your sit up and beg ford popular has brought back a few memories for me! I've had a couple of these cars at different times in my motoring career, if only I had one now it would be worth hundreds on ebay. Slow and crude they were it's true. I remember making use of the starting handle on occasion (what a useful piece of equipment that was), the somewhat minimal illumination from the lights, the vacuum operated wipers, the three speed gearbox (remembering to double declutch into bottom gear), what memories!

On the plus side, with their useful ground clearance, I was more confident in driving in the snow in one of them than most modern cars. And of course there was loads of room under the bonnet for repairs and servicing.

Going back further to my childhood in the fifties I can remember my grandfather's ford 8 having oil changes at the end of summer and winter - no multigrades back then, just straight oils of different thicknesses for the seasons. Some things have improved!