What good old days?

Note: this is a post I wrote a few years ago, but it is still valid.

I have been reading Design Observer on and off for a few years. Sometimes it’s desperately navel-gazing, sometimes is preaching to the already converted, sometimes it’s talking to a few insiders. Sometimes, it is good.

The last time I scrolled through, though, made me feel despondent. There is a pathetic sentimentality there, and a wallowing in some mythical “good old days”. Let me tell you a secret. There were no good old days. Those days where normal days. Those days where ordinary too, just like today. It was just different.

Jessica Helfand makes a tear-dripping entry on makereadies. Oh, that was the good old days, wasn’t it. When printing presses spewed out stuff you could creatively wrap things in, and it would transcend Craft, Art and The Random. She says she was at a press check, and “…deliriously inhaling the pervasive aroma of ink…”. And, since makereadies are practically gone, she claims, she continues “I confess to a certain amount of personal mourning for the death of the makeready, and what it stood for“.

my trusty cicero & scalpel
my trusty cicero & scalpel

What it stood for?! Hello! Seriously. It didn’t stand for anything! It was necessary. It was routine. It was hectic, usually. The day cars will fuel themselves, you’ll say that the pump handle stood for something. The stone ax in prehistoric age didn’t stand for anything. It was a tool.

I worked in a printing business for a few years. It was noisy, messy, hard work with tight schedules. It took years to learn to know the whims of the different printing presses, different paper, different air humidity, it was desperate when we only had a few sheets to make the alignments and colour adjustments. I did use some of the makereadies. I made envelopes out of the best ones, and wrote letters on them. And I liked them. But this sentimentality is pathetic, it is the luxury of those who didn’t have to do the job.

I have set led type, I have mixed inks, I have used pre-computer techniques. Not because I wanted to, but because that was the technology of the day. I have retouched manually, on film, used scalpels and millimetre grids; stood over glaring light tables with a killer hangover. I have made a mess of positive/negative films. I have seen fellow students missing the door and hitting the wall for all the nasty chemicals working havoc in their brains. I have had teachers severely damaged by chemicals. I have stood alone at my printing press at midnight, struggling with balance of ink, water and paper, knowing I would not manage to get the last bus home. There was little glory there. I have messed up a Heidelberger windmill with white ink. I have washed more rollers, oiled more knobs, cut more paper than I care to think about. This gives me some bizarre cred among the sentimental DO readers. I don’t care for it. It was a good job, with good people. But let it go. To remember is not the same as sentimentalising and go all weepy. Save that for the truly tragic.

Other posts in DO goes on about the advertising world in the sixties. And then again, Jessica Helfand pops up with more sentimentality about making new things old. This, I think, is a US obsession. It’s like scrap-booking (which I detest). There exist a disturbing product called a “Distressing Kit” – a kit with tools to make things look old or worn. Truly stupid.

I am not trying to be hip & cool. And after all – I am a bookbinder. The hand craft variety. And a potter. There is not a lot of romance there, either. But at least it has another dimension; the content of the book. I like old things. I photograph structure and texture of old wood and stone endlessly. My ideal home would be a cabin in the woods (I have done it). But I have no illusions that growing all your own food and whittling all your own tools was particularly romantic. Or can be today. In short, I find Henry David Thoreau a pretentious git.

Kids today have never seen a floppy disk or a telephone with a dial. There is nothing more or less genuine about grandmothers telephone than an iPhone. It is change. Either go amish or get over it. The world moves on.

One thought on “What good old days?”

  • There were no good old days. Those days where normal days. Those days where ordinary too, just like today. It was just different.

    Very true. I remember listening to some BBC program where all the participants were being nostalgically despondent about how the romance of lighthouses had been replaced by the thoroughly unromantic GPS technology which allows ships to easily determine their exact position at all times.

    I couldn’t help reflecting that the very same conversation probably took place 200 years ago, with the participants bemoaning how the introduction of mechanized, government-operated lighthouses had removed the romance of having to navigate based on the stars and the captain’s personal knowledge of the coastline – and will probably be repeated 200 years from now, when our nostalgic descendants will be longing for the romance of finding your position by communicating with a spiderweb of man-made satellites criss-crossing the skies above our heads, rather than having your hypothalamic implant automatically calculate your exact position by measuring the strength and direction of the Earth’s Cooper-Crane-field.

    Rudyard Kipling (insert ‘of all people’ according to taste) summed it up quite well in this poem about how it’s always yesterday’s state of affairs which is seen as the height of romance.

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