One of the playwright Dennis Potter's most memorable sayings was that he thought nostalgia was a "second order emotion" – cheap, deceitful and misleading. Ah, if only they came up with writers of the calibre of Potter nowadays.
Nostalgia is an easy trap to fall into. With the 70th anniversary of the Second World War – and Dame Vera Lynn crooning up the album charts – we have to endure another round of sentimentalised past-urising. Not that I wish to denigrate the war generation, who were a dignified, courageous and hardy breed. (They don't make them like that any more.) Perhaps there's just no sight that doesn't look "better looking back", as Lee Marvin observed. (They don't have actors like Lee Marvin any more.)
Tiring isn't it? And tiresome. Nostalgia is the emotional refuge of the soft-headed. Worse, it is profoundly misleading. The idea that things were somehow better once upon a time is so misguided that it is amazing anyone can still buy into it. Apart from anything else, one of the great things about now, rather than then, is that we don't have to go and get called up to be slaughtered on a European field of battle.
Those who lived in Britain in the 1950s often look back to a golden age of low crime, decency, respect, sobriety and national pride. What they tend to forget is that the postwar years were characterised by poverty and lack of choice. There was no crime because there was nothing to steal. There was no disorder because there was no money with which to go out on the razz. There was none of the shallowness of today's consumerism because there was nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. The food was terrible, the weather was worse, the heating was inadequate and the toilet paper was agony.
Yes, the divorce rate was massively lower – which was a disaster. Just imagine all those people trapped in loveless marriages. Just think of all those children having to watch their parents ripping into one another day in and day out. And teenagers didn't have sex – you had to get married first. Then, women weren't supposed to enjoy it – they couldn't anyway since men didn't know the whereabouts or even the existence of the clitoris.
We were more respectful of authority – because "authority" had a way of committing summary physical violence against you, or fitting you up if they didn't like the look of you, irrespective of any evidence or reference to human rights. And if you were a darkie or a paddy, or any kind of Johnny Foreigner, you could be sure that law would give you even shorter shrift. If you were really bad, the state would simply murder you.
There was little social mobility – you were stuck in your class. As for youths binge drinking on the streets of every town nowadays, Britons have been binge drinkers since the days of Hogarth and Gin Alley, and long before. In the 10th century, King Edgar issued an edict against it. Probably nobody took notice of him, either.
What was worst about the "old" Britain was that it was boring. Safe, perhaps (though not from paedophile priests and Scoutmasters and teachers, all of whom were protected by the institutions that employed them), but static, tedious and bogged down in Victorian morality, petty prejudice and small-mindedness.
In the past 20 years alone, the richness of possibility has multiplied to an almost unbelievable degree. Technological advance alone has seen to that – the mobile phone and personal computer, the World Wide Web and personal digital music player (both English inventions) have democratised information and entertainment to a revolutionary extent.
Car ownership has given us geographical freedom; cheap air travel the same. Our levels of wealth are massively higher than they were. We are far healthier, with a massively extended life expectancy. The things we prided ourselves on after the war – a welfare state and an enlightened national broadcasting system – are still with us and in good health. The countryside is still beautiful.
We remain miserable, however. Or do we? Actually, in survey after survey, the British are recorded as being among the happiest nations in the world. We spend an immense amount of time laughing, joking, poking fun or exchanging wry smiles. Who in the world loves laughter as much as us, or sustains as many comedy clubs? Who creates comedy as sophisticated and true as Sharon Horgan, Chris Morris, Sacha Baron Cohen, Noel Fielding and many others?
Meanwhile, hidden in an OECD report last week (the papers only reported the bad parts), it was noted that our children enjoy school much more than in most other European countries. Our cultural products lead the world (with the possible exception of the US). Our playwrights, our artists, our film-makers and our writers are at least as – usually more – exciting and interesting than any European nation. The vibrancy of our pop music dwarfs every other European country, as it has for the past 50 years. Modern Britain throbs with festivals of every kind from art to literature to science. We have an unprecedented haul of museums and world-class museum curators. There's more to do on London's South Bank today than there was in the entire nation in 1950.
Have we somehow "dumbed down"? It might help to be reminded that Britain is second only to the US in the number of Nobel prizes its people have won. There are four-hour queues at the Banksy exhibition in Bristol and massive attendance figures at not only Tate Modern but most of our world-standard free museums. Our regenerated regional cities seethe with new buildings and galleries and concert halls. We read more books and newspapers than any other country and our broadcast media is more intelligent than any other in the world.
We are self-evidently more tolerant. Gays can get married and adopt and are no longer persecuted to anything like the same extent they were, and are positively protected by the law. Women have professional opportunities that would have made their mothers' eyes water, and are outperforming boys in all subjects at school. No one can put up a sign saying "No dogs, blacks or Irish" any more.
We're not even that bad at sport nowadays – we hauled in the medals at the last Olympics, we have just won back the Ashes and the England football team have won every match in the World Cup qualifiers so far. Our food is still bad, but it's clearly getting better. More people eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day than they did in 2001. You can even get a decent cup of coffee.
Our houses are ugly, but we have the most roomy living accommodation in Europe (other than the much more sparsely populated Sweden and Denmark). Our people are nice. Our gardens are nice. The National Trust is a national treasure.
I'm no Pollyanna – of course, there are problems with modern Britain. We never stop banging on about them, after all. The crime rate is higher than it once was – though it has been dropping steadily for 20 years. There are more illegal drugs – though not everyone would consider this an entirely bad thing. Alcohol causes much more violence than marijuana or cocaine.
There is much more to steal, and the "inner policeman" that my father's generation carried within them has lost his whistle. That's a shame, but it's inevitable, given the spread of illegal weapons, mass immigration and the break-up of communities (caused by positive developments such as wealth, freedom, prosperity and mobility). And it's a trend that's universal among Western nations.
The real problem is that we have – somewhat incomprehensibly – lost our sense of national self-belief. This is what the nostalgics are really nostalgising – the idea of belonging to a "proud island race". But it is the nostalgics themselves, pouring cold water on our modern achievements, who hobble that very necessary pride. In reality, we are one of the most successful and dynamic modern countries in the world. An independent report in 2008, which examined 235 countries for prosperity and stability, put Britain joint seventh – after the Vatican, Sweden, Luxembourg, Monaco, Gibraltar and San Marino.
We have a tremendous amount still to be proud of – or, at least, happy about. And the remarkable thing is that we are happy about it: 90 per cent of us in survey after survey self-identify as "very" or "fairly" happy. You would just never guess it from reading the papers. Because one thing hasn't changed. As Arthur Murray wrote in The Upholsterer in 1758: "The people of England are never so happy as when you tell them they are ruined." He's absolutely right – one thing that is as true now as it was 65 years ago is that we enjoy a damn good moan.
Tim Lott's The Scent of Dried Roses is now reissued as a Penguin Modern ClassicReuse content