A little bit of High Street nostalgia

A selection of old and new photos of shop fronts

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.

Woolworths Woolworths have been replaced by pound shops and posh supermarkets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.

Why we look back longingly

A provincial High Street in the 1970s was a recognisable, easily navigable space. Having greater choice has taken us out of that comfort zone. It's like growing up and having to cook for yourself instead of having your mum put a plate of fish fingers and a bowl of Angel Delight in front of you every evening.

The choice of food in a Berni Inn or Little Chef may have been narrow, but that's not the point - what's important about a meal out is the sense of community around the dinner table.

I think because our lives were bounded by the same, limited set of choices, people have a memory of being less atomised. Shopping on the High Street was a more leisurely and sociable experience, too.

We've sacrificed that for the sake of convenience - by building by-passes, which shave a few minutes off a car journey and out-of-town malls where the parking is slightly easier.

It's not all gloomy. You can get a better cup of coffee than you used to, and for my daughters' generation, a trip to the shopping mall is still a social event. I can imagine them tweeting nostalgically about Caffe Nero and Accessorize in a few decades' time - nostalgic for the certainties of their own childhoods in the same way that my generation looks back longingly on theirs.

Jonathan Coe's book The Rotters' Club is set in the 1970s. His latest novel is The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim

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.

Twitter discusses the #lost70s

  • @kevinbakhurst Closure of 67 Little Chefs reminder of consumer changes since 70's/80's - Woolworths; Brit Leyland; ICI; GEC; Radio Rentals; what else...
  • @CameronYardeJnr Midland Bank!! Of course. And Bradford & Bingley. Your money's safe with The Woolwich. #lost70s
  • @Coops_tv Safeway supermarket (remember them?), Army & Navy. Also, Do It All and Courts (Fads?) #lost70s
  • @CharleneWhite OMG @kevinbakhurst's #lost70s list has got me missing shops I'd totally forgotten about! Oh & Woolworths will always be sorely missed. RIP
  • @richardmorrisuk Texas DIY; Corona; Dandelion and Burdock #lost70s

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.

Apple stores 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."

Banks 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

What are your memories of the High Street of old? Send us your comments using the form below.

If you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.

Terms and conditions

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.