David Randall: A victory for our children's right to chews

Sucking on the psychology of psychedelic sweets
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The Independent Online

Last week's diversion from the world of Significant Happenings was the revival of old-fashioned confectionery. Such, apparently, is the demand that Marks & Spencer and other retailers can't source supplies of pineapple chunks, humbugs and jelly babies quickly enough. We are, it seems – in a refreshingly literal sense – becoming a nation of suckers.

Trend-spotters, and other specialists in cod psychology, immediately saw the sticky fingerprints of nostalgia all over this one. It was the recession, you see, making us all want to retreat from the ugly present into a reassuring past. And, since we couldn't do that, we could at least, reach inside a big bag of comfort candy and sooth ourselves with a taste of yesteryear.

I think it's simpler than that: we're all getting a bit fed up with the lavishly chocolate-coated, praline-filled, nut-encrusted, creamy textured, over-bloated, bigger-than-your-baby's-forearm modern confectionery bar. There's a lot to be said, instead, for bite-sized nibbles of something more imaginative than processed cocoa beans, for something in weird shapes and dayglo colours, but then I'm biased.

My tastes were formed in that golden age between the end of sweet rationing in 1953, and the invention of the Yorkie bar in 1976, an appalling event which marked the advent of greedy-guts chocolate bars and thus the confectionery Dark Ages.

Anyone over 50 has in their minds an idealised sweet shop, to which they can be transported back at the first whiff of a pear drop. Mine was on the way to school, a small, rather dingy looking premises whose windows were full of large glass jars of sweets mellowing in the sun. Inside were counter trays of unwrapped sweets: flying saucers (shaped rice paper full of sherbet); jelly dummies; foamy sweets (the pink ones like prawns, the yellow ones like small, pregnant bananas; Pontefract cakes; liquorice whirls; chews (penny, ha'penny, and farthing); gobstoppers, sherbet fountains (liquorice straws inserted into a paper tube of white powder that frothed up your nose if you sucked too hard); and sweet cigarettes, red-tipped to give the apprentice smoker the right idea. (For special occasions, there were "smoking sets" for children, consisting of chocolate cigars, liquorice pipes, "sweet tobacco" – shredded coconut in a St Bruno-style pouch, and, I kid you not, a small tin ashtray).

Behind the counter stood the sommelier of these and other goodies – a little old lady in bib-apron, who, if you were lucky (and we were) allowed her customers inordinate amounts of time to dither over their selections. And behind her, on wide wooden shelves, stood large jars of humbugs, caramels, bull's-eyes, aniseed balls, Everton mints, peanut brittle, cola cubes, milk gums, rhubarb and custard, American hard gums, dew drops (tiny pea-sized boiled sweets), wine gums, and things for grown-ups, like iced caramels, dragees, chocolate brazils, and Turkish delight.

And when you'd finally made your selection (which might necessitate the old girl mounting her wooden stepladder several times), she would sprinkle the contents into the metal cradle of her scales, weigh out your quarter pound, tip them into a paper bag, twist it, and take your pennies.

Such chocolate bars as there were in those days (KitKats, Mars, Picnics, and Fry's) were beyond our pockets. What we had was something in a bag, something you could tip out and count when you got home, or even, if they were liquorice comfits, sort out into piles of different colours. Above all, they were not something you wolfed down, but eked out over hours, or days if you were like me and had a twin brother to torment. They lasted, they could be savoured, hoarded, or shared. They were more than sweets, they were Social Weapons. No wonder they're coming back.