One of the recurrent arguments I had with my dad was around his belief that on the whole 1950s Britain was a better place to grow up than 1990s when my kids were in their pre teenage years. He would cite some awful atrocity as an example.
I visited a recreated Blackhouse on the Isle of Harris recently with its cozy peat fire and antique dresser and cot beds with their seaweed mattresses. In the kitchen there were so many items that reminded me of visits to my Nana’s as a child.
Neatly patterned tea cups and saucers, milk jugs with weighted muslin covers, a colourful tea cosy. I remember visiting my Nana for tea. We’d sit in front of her coal fire, the Archaeologist and me, eating garibaldi biscuits or fig rolls and playing chess or draughts, dominoes or a game called Halma. She told us about her family, about summers during harvest, farmer’s dances, working as a volunteer nurse during World War One, a VAD.
She made it seem glamorous, universally happy times and, in my memory, times with my Nana were happy, sunny times.
Life in a Blackhouse was tough. You shared your home with your livestock in winter. TB, cholera, rickets: these were recurring problems. There was no real schooling, no opportunities beyond hard work on the land or at sea. There was no NHS, no safety net.
My Nana’s life was hard. No labour saving devices, a fairly boring routine of physical toil, a husband out of work and then whose nerves meant working was difficult. Holidays? Once every ten years maybe and then to the seaside. No savings, no safety net. Schooling stopped at 14 and, for women, inequality was endemic.
We are all prone to look back and select memories that fit a narrative we want to tell. Like Dad we can pick a time, an age and edit the highlights.
I stood in that wee kitchen and allowed myself a few minutes of harmless nostalgia. Then I pulled myself back to the reality of 2015 and reminded myself that I’ve never had it so good.
At one point the fear was that there would be so little reason for youngsters to stay on Harris or the Uists that the islands would lose their lifeblood. But the enduring popularity of Harris Tweed, enabling the ultimate in cottage industries to flourish and the introduction of superfast broadband may well enable a proper renaissance.
Really I believe that is possible for a large and growing proportion. Both in Britain and, indeed, elsewhere. Of course this is not a universal truth and we must continue to fight injustice, refuse to accept bigotry and inequality and offer up as much hope, compassion and opportunities as we can to both young and old. But what we shouldn’t do is look back and think the best has gone. With effort, constant vigilance and determination the best will be when the future becomes the now. It will take work but as the wise and wonderful Maya Angelou once said: