Belfast Telegraph

The past may be rose-tinted, but we delight in the view...

By Paul Connolly

Nostalgia is one of these evergreen topics that newspapers and TV, in particular, enjoy getting involved with. All those memories seem to touch sweet spots within both our personal and collective heartlands.

Research shows that readers and viewers love to be reminded of times gone past – usually laced with a sugary dollop of sentimentality about how wonderful everything was back then.

The implication, sometimes, is that somehow life these days has a certain moral ambiguity and that life back then – despite the TB and the poverty, or even going back as recently as the 70s, the horrific rates of heart attacks and strokes – was somehow noble and more meaningful.

Much of this is, of course, cobblers – humans have always looked at times past and compared them favourably against the perceived deprivations of their current lot.

You can, in my opinion, be pretty sure the 'old' ways were not always the best, life wasn't as rosy as it looks from afar and, in truth, if you really, really had to face a stark choice imposed by a man with a gun and a time machine, you'd choose life in the 21st century over, say, the 1930s.

Expressions of alarm about the purity of days gone by and the nobleness of the citizens of yesteryear, as opposed to slovenly and ill-disciplined oiks of today, are common throughout history.

I'll cite in my defence, for example, this quote: "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

"Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room.

"They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table ... and tyrannise their teachers." Heard this, or similar sentiments, about the young people of today?

Actually, this is 2,000 years old, being widely attributed to Socrates by Plato in Classical Greece. (Scholars – yes, I know the origins are obscure and other attributions have been made. The point is, it is two millennia old.)

What set me off down this path was a wonderful article by our environment correspondent and archivist about a piece of footage showing horse-drawn trams plying their trade along Royal Avenue in 1901.

The footage was 'uncovered' by Aislinn Clarke, artistic director of Belfast's Wireless Mystery Theatre, while she was trawling through film archives.

"It is film footage of a tram ride down Royal Avenue on May 27, 1901," Aislinn said. "You can see the base of the Albert Clock at the end of the film, so it must have turned on to High Street by then.

"You can also see lots of horse-drawn trams heading to Ormeau Road and contemporary advertisements for soap. How graceful Belfast people look in that style of dress."

The film was shot by a camera and tripod on the upper deck of one of the trams, which would have been operated by the Belfast Street Tramways Company. Even old cynics say it is a very evocative piece of footage.

The pictures – the stills were used in print and both stills and video was used on our website – are what they are billed as, an absolutely fascinating glimpse of the past.

A few people got in touch – all in kindly terms – to say the images were not 'unearthed', as they had been viewable elsewhere, including being placed on YouTube some years previously and on a copyrighted TV programme. Fair enough. The YouTube version had only been viewed by an estimated few thousand people there.

Now it's out there, copyright-free for all to see, and the Belfast Telegraph story played a key role in bringing these wonderful images to a whole new audience.

I was going to say it just proves that nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

But even this column wouldn't stoop that low.

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