NICOLA MILLER: Past is not such a foreign country

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller
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I recently attended the opening of the Loving the 70s exhibition at the Moyse’s Hall Museum in town (you should pay it a visit because where else will you find the Tardis, mummified cats, a book bound in human skin and Rococo clocks in one small place?) and, as I wandered around, was struck by the inaccuracy of LP Hartley’s famous quote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

From familiar exhibits such as album art (the still popular Aladdin Sane and Kate Bush’s Kick Inside and Lou Reed) and items from Doctor Who to the computers playing Space Invaders with screens that went blank and retreated from me like a sulky monk at Mount Athos (something my own laptop STILL does), the more things change, it would seem, the more they stay the same.

And this feeling intensified as I picked up a copy of a woman’s magazine from that fine period with its recipes of predominately brown food – wholesome stews and things with mince (making a comeback – have you ever eaten at Saint John?) punctuated by garish puddings and cakes sprinkled with hundreds and thousands (again reminiscent of today’s cupcake epidemic), women in jumpsuits (yes, they’re back too) and various shades of brown and orange clothing (yes). And then I came across an advert for women’s hair dye.

“Ladies!” it proclaimed, next to an image of an anxious woman (a term I prefer to ‘lady’, I hasten to add). “See that other woman over there? She might take your husband if you don’t sort your hair out” (I am paraphrasing slightly here) and then went on to advise that as long as we maintained our youthful hair colour i.e NOT grey, he’d be sure to stick around and grace us with his (ever so slightly judgmental) presence. Let a grey hair sneak up on you in the night and she’ll pounce, because in total opposition to the modern message of L’Oreal, ‘You’re worth it’, in this case, you know, you deserved it. You let yourself go.

At first I got all outraged and sat there smugly thinking, “how lucky I am, to be a woman of the noughties” not having to read adverts like this anymore. And then I took off my rose tinted glasses. We aren’t actually doing things that differently now and the seventies is not a foreign country. It is not even Scotland. Or north of the Watford Gap. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fast forward a few days to the speech given by Emma Watson to the UN about feminism. There is a saying that some of the comments inspired by a speech about equality and feminism justify the need for equality and feminism and so is the case here. We are in a world where some people deem it appropriate to react to a speech such as Ms Watson’s by making threats to kill or do other harm to her and any woman (or man) who agrees with her. Maybe we can draw parallels here with the threat presented by any maddened wounded creature that has been cornered and has nothing else to lose and lashes out with all its might. Maybe this is how misogynists perceive themselves to be – cornered and under threat. But whether it is arguing that it is a man’s right to assault a woman, maintain his public position of trust and go unpunished for it or make women meet un-achievable standards in personal grooming (that men themselves do not have to meet), we don’t appear to have moved on in many aspects of human life and indeed, it would appear that in some ways, we have taken a step back towards behaviours which make brutes of us all.

The Moyse’s Hall 70s exhibition is lovely and thought provoking. But I am left wondering – when I went inside that venerable time machine belonging to the good Doctor, just what decade did I walk back out of its door into?