Was the past no better or worse than the present?

‘Richard Glover takes a trip back in time’

Richard Glover (presumably the ABC one) wrote a humorous comment about the past for the 17 January 2015 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.

More precisely, it was about some of the strange (for people under 50 years) habits and customs of the past. He seemed to be talking mainly about the habits and ways of the 1950s and 1960s. I can attest that most of what he says is true – at least according to my experience.  Let me comment on the more surprising ones.

1. ‘School students, particularly boys, would be regularly beaten with sticks, usually by the teaching staff.’

Very true. My loving parents wielded the cane from a feather duster when we boys tried their patience too much. The nuns also applied the cane to naughty hands and legs. But Glover does not mention the strap. The brothers at the school I went to seemed to have their specially made penitential strap permanently fixed to their hand – so often was it applied to the hands of recalcitrant boys. ‘Six of the best for you, son!’ rang out continually through rooms and halls.

2. ‘When using a public phone, you could avoid paying by shouting into the earpiece, knowing that you could just be heard, however faintly.’

True again. I used the public telephone earpiece like today’s mobile phone to ring my parents to tell them where I was and where to be picked up.

3. ‘A trip to the tip was considered a leisure activity.’

My brother and I had a wonderful time scrounging around the local tip. The only danger we were conscious of was being caught by the tip guard. We found many treasures there.

4. But this one I never witnessed – and there were plenty of smokers who visited my mum and dad. A bit fanciful, I think.

‘When grown-ups had parties, the children would be required to light the guests’ cigarettes.’

5. The following is one of the great myths about the 1950s:

‘As part of a “health” campaign, school children were forced to drink a small bottle of milk that had been left out in the sun until it was warm and about to curdle.’

Not true – a myth grown over time from a few rare cases.

The state government supplied crates of milk in small bottles to primary schools as part of a health policy. During all the time the crates of milk were delivered to the schools I attended, I can think of only one occasion when the crates were left in the sun. And then nobody drank the milk – and did not have to. I always looked forward to that swig of milk still chilled. I was a kid who could down a pint of milk in two seconds flat.

Glover’s point for listing the strange customs:

‘My point isn’t that the past was better or worse than the present. Just that it was a different country – one that now seems unrecognisable even to those of us who once lived there.’

I don’t agree. Every age has its benefits and disadvantages, its joys and sorrows, but to say every age is of the same value is to commit the common fallacy of equivalence. One can make a judgement on the balance of good and bad. I think the 1950s was a special period in Australia’s history.