From Cortina to Conran...

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The Independent Online
THOSE WERE the days, 1979.... It was not the best of times. The most popular wine in the United Kingdom was Hirondelle, a pale distillation of hydrochlorically tart grapes, which, if applied with a damp cloth, could obliterate the Queen's face from a 50p piece.

The most popular television show was Blankety Blank, in which ranks of educationally subnormal celebrities were genially abused by Terry Wogan and, later, Les Dawson. The most popular comedians were Little and Large, one a wall-eyed endomorph with curly hair, the other a goofy inadequate with distorting spectacles.

Britain's favourite motor was the Ford Cortina. A loaf of bread cost 28p (compared with 51p today), a Mars bar only 14p (22p in 1999) and a pint of bitter, 20 Budgets ago, was virtually given away at 38p (now it's at least pounds 1.79). The average British house cost pounds 19,800 (now it's pounds 68,300) and the average white-collar income was a paltry pounds 9,000, precisely a quarter of what the aspirant fat cat earns today.

Mrs Thatcher had arrived, Eighteen years of Conservative retrenchment were beginning. Comparing the crucial economy figures, it's shocking to recall that inflation stood at a socking 13.4 per cent in 1979 (now it's on a low simmer at 3.4 per cent), that the interest rate at which small businesses were expected to borrow was 12 per cent (now it's 5.5 per cent) and that unemployment was nearly two million (now it's 1.3 million). The most fascinating comparative statistic is the number of women at work. In 1979, they made up 44 per cent of the total workforce. Today, they're 51 per cent. For the first time in history, there are more women working in this country than men.

We enjoyed ourselves differently then. Top leisure pursuit in 1979 was gardening (59 per cent of the population) followed by dancing (58 per cent) and eating out (42 per cent); 1979 was the peak of the disco storm. Today, we don't dance with the same enthusiasm. Instead, we go to theme pubs and wine bars, things that didn't exist 20 years ago, and we go in droves - 74 per cent of the population. Going to the boozer was too declasse to be generally popular in 1979. Eating out was a modest treat back then for 42 per cent; given the explosion of Conrans, Marcos, Paytons and Belgos, it's not surprising to find 69 per cent of us today shelling out for three courses and an espresso.

Every household in the country now has a colour television (well, 98 per cent) and a telephone (all right then, 93 per cent) compared with the oddballs of 1979 who didn't (26 per cent and 25 per cent respectively). But how poignant to find there are no measurable figures for videos, home computers and CD players, none of which existed. However did we live before them?