Two things caught my eye this morning. First, Amazon was founded 25 years ago today. With 1994 on my mind, I then spotted a recent YouGov poll which revealed that Britons think that life was better in the past six decades and are most nostalgic for the 1990s.
I’m aghast when I see surveys like this. We’re not living in Utopia. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And yes, I can see why the past appeals. We were all younger of course. Fewer wrinkles. More hair. But what’s happened to our recall people?
Imagine you could return to the UK in 1994. What advice would benefit a visitor to this strange country?
Here are the tips I’d give to a traveller arriving in the UK of a quarter of a century ago.
Photography: Owning a camera is optional. A 35mm Instamatic is an important consumer choice. Any kind of DSLR is showing off. Wait a week for your pictures to be developed and printed. Pay a premium for same day service. Sort through the pictures. Return the few acceptable negatives to the developer and pay for reprints that you can send to friends and family. In. An. Envelope. Remember you’re paying for postage too.
Taxis: Unless you live in London or spend your life hovering around railway stations, taxis are few and far between. If you do live in London, standing on a street corner, waving like a lunatic for fifteen minutes, is part of the big night out experience. There are local mini-cab services that you can book by phone (see below). Make sure you reserve at least 24 hours in advance, a week if it’s for the airport. The good news is that this gives you time to draw up and rehearse prepared statements for the cutting-edge socio-economic-political conversation with your designated driver.
Shit and shoes: To paraphrase Dickens, there is shit everywhere. Every open space, from the pavement to your favourite park is a minefield of canine crap. The art of removing this stench from your shoes is hardwired and comes with all the necessary tools: a bucket, a brush, old newspaper and a pointy stick for those deep grooves in the soles of your trainers. After a year or so, the scent is perma-sealed into the rubber of those running shoes however hard you scrub.
Transport: When you return to the railways of the early 1990s you are astonished. Everyone told you that the trains were cleaner, less crowded, more reliable. When the 9.25 to Euston eventually arrives, 30 minutes late, there is a place to sit in the smoking carriage, but the train looks and feels like something out of a post-war public information film. Commuters in suits still frown disapprovingly in first class when you march past to buy tea and biscuits from the buffet car.
Good coffee: There is no good coffee. Go for tea and biscuits (see above), cake if you really want to push the boat out.
Phones: Things have improved from the 70s when it took days or weeks to get a fixed line phone installed in your house. But not much. At least you don’t have to book ahead when you want to call relatives in Australia or Canada. But when you do, keep a damn close eye on the clock. At 50p a minute or more, every conversation overseas is an important financial decision. Good news. There is a mobile phone in the office. Make sure you book it in advance for that all-important marketing trip.
Media: You know the drill. A dozen radio stations. Four on the TV. None of these is available beyond Calais although long-wave Radio 4 reaches as far as the Loire Valley. There are short-wave radio stations, but these are all rubbish. Media detox, therefore, is as simple as going on your summer holidays. When you return, there is an adrenalin rush as you dash down to WH Smiths to find out who is number one. For some reason the holidays encourage volatile chart behaviour. In this country, nothing beats the thrill of discovering an unknown artist who has leapt into the top ten in your absence.
Music: CDs are now the dominant format. Hardly surprising when a label can repackage 40 minutes of music in a 70-minute format and charge twice as much for people to replace the content they already own. Buying a car involves the all-important choice: Cassette or CD player for the top selling Hootie and the Blowfish album?
Driving: Don’t be rude about the tiny, box-like cars driven by your guide. Don’t roll your eyes when she/he takes a wrong turning or asks you to dig out a map and start navigating. Above all, don’t sneer at the clunky dual-band radio and cassette player (see above). Especially when it is unplugged at the end of the drive and taken with you to the pub for security’s sake.
Clothes: On the subject of nights out, make sure you include a ‘pub outfit’ when you pack. This is a set of clothes you will only wear when you go out for a pint. After the first trip it will reek of cigarette smoke. The trick here is to pack it away in a separate drawer and take it out again to wear with impunity the next time you fancy a beer. The more ambitious spray their kit regularly with Febreze. Bonus tip, pack plenty of shampoo. You’ll be washing the smell of smoke out of your hair most mornings.
Food: You won’t find a decent meal in that pub. This is still a conservative country when it comes to restaurants and supermarkets. Pret A Manger has a foothold in some cities, but the sandwiches are a bit fancy for the locals and too expensive for most. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free or have any other dietary requirements, forget it. Actually, don’t use the phrase ‘dietary requirements’, it’s not well understood in these parts yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the UK with all my heart (despite recent political events). And I know there’s a lot to be said for our innocent, pre-social media days. I’m just fascinated by the way our memories gloss over the past rather than seize the opportunities of the present. I also know my recall is far from perfect. Was 1994 better than 2019? Tell me in the comments below.