A little bit of High Street nostalgia

  • 19 January 2012
  • From the section Magazine

The closure of dozens of branches of Little Chef can prompt an outpouring of nostalgia for bygone brands on Twitter. But why do people get misty-eyed over High Streets of old?

You pop out of the house, cash a cheque at Midland Bank, hire a television at Radio Rentals, buy a jumper in C&A, pick up some screws at Texas Homecare, do the weekly shop at Gateway, before repairing to Lyons Corner House for a cup of tea and an individual fruit pie.

Ah, those were the days. In the 1970s, the High Street was a bustling place of traditional, albeit occasionally stodgy brands, untroubled by out-of-town retail parks, let alone the virtual shopping of Amazon and its internet competitors.

The announcement by Little Chef last week that it was to close a third of its outlets caused an outbreak of nostalgia on Twitter for businesses strongly associated with the 1970s and 1980s that have either disappeared or are struggling.

Under the hashtag #lost70s, people bemoaned the passing of Texas Homecare, Woolworths and Radio Rentals. This week clothing retailer Peacocks, another 1970s staple, revealed it had gone into administration, showing the vulnerability of these once powerful brands.

Image caption Woolworths have been replaced by pound shops and posh supermarkets

To people entering middle age, it is easy to look back with nostalgia at a land where Wimpy hadn't yet succumbed to US invaders like McDonald's and Burger King, and where the Berni Inn was synonymous with a slap-up dinner of sirloin steak, jacket potato with sour cream, a visit to the salad bar, and Black Forest gateau for afters.

And yet the businesses that people feel nostalgic for are those that lost market share or failed completely. So why do we look back on them so fondly?

Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands in London, says the loss of familiar brands "causes us to pick up our rose-tinted glasses and recall a time from our childhood like being at the seaside with mum and dad".

Visitors arrive at the museum expecting to see a display of impersonal brands but end up being propelled into their emotional past, he says. The same applies to people's view of the High Street.

If someone has grown up going to the same place every Saturday, the drip-drip of repetition turns a seemingly banal moment into something much more profound.

"If something like going to the Berni Inn happens a sufficient number of times it becomes embedded in the mind. It's become much more than just a Berni Inn."

People like consistency and continuity in their lives, Opie says. "We like to go into shops we went in 20 years ago. And we're upset in a deep-seated way when it closes down."

Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, says these shops will transport us to key moments in our lives. "It's because they're tied up with memories and associations - the first time we had that burger, even the first time we ate it without cutlery."

But as with more important things in life - girlfriends, your health - you only appreciate them when they're gone, he says. Which is not much good to a business that needs to post quarterly accounts.

There's also a sense that we're looking back with affection at the 1970s because we view it as a simpler age.

Nowadays retail outlets such as Apple can resemble a mixture of art gallery, museum and shop rolled into one. Coffee chains like Starbucks offer a dizzying array of brews, froths and sizes.

But in the 1970s, a shop was characterised by its window display, often a simple logo of capital letters on the frontage, and the choice of hot beverage in Lyons was confined to tea or coffee.

There was also the appealing sense that we were more easily pleased in those days. For instance this was a time when one might order a glass of orange juice as a starter in your local restaurant, says Sutherland.

Memory can produce a hazy, inaccurate picture, says Andy Beckett, author of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies.

Image caption Before Apple stores existed, there was Apple Boutique founded by The Beatles

He argues that while there was industrial strife, political upheaval and racism, the 1970s was also the decade that Britain discovered a consumer culture.

"It was the first time we really had big High Street brands. It was also a time of excitement at the American imports coming in - there was a sense of abundance in the 1970s that feels paradoxical today."

But we tend to find a simple narrative for each decade. And it takes time for us to dress up an era with a clear, romantic narrative, Opie argues.

"The decade beginning in 2000 is very difficult to define at the moment. History needs a bit of time to think that through, we almost need to find a stereotype for it."

Image caption Midland Bank's logo disappeared after HSBC took it over in 1992

Some might argue that such revisionism is dangerously distorting. But any view of the past is bound to be subjective depending on factors like your age, Opie believes.

"I don't think it's a problem to romanticise these shops. For most of us, it's all taken in quite a tongue-in-cheek way."

Additional reporting by Sophie Robehmed

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