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Pricewatch: Twenty things our kids don’t recognise or even know existed

Not long ago Pricewatch read an excellent column by our colleague Mary Minihan in which she wrote about a few things that were ever-present in her childhood that her own young children don’t even know existed. She mentioned nuns, snooker, the Troubles and smoking.

They were ever-present in the Pope house too, but then, at the risk of sounding like a bargain-basement Carrie Bradshaw, we couldn’t help but wonder what other things we might add to the list.

We thought about all the things that were central to our world in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that children of the 21st century – our own children, as it happens – will probably never understand or never enjoy or never learn to loathe. We thought we could maybe come up with a list of 10 such things, beating our Mary’s list by a decent six.

But the list just went on and on and on. We had to force ourselves to stop at 20.

Buttons Not the ones on your shirt or trousers – they still exist – but the ones on your telly. TVs today are very, very different to the TVs of times past – and we are not talking about the content, at least not yet. Televisions now are in colour – yes Pricewatch is old enough to remember the day the Popes rented their first colour television: it was up there with Eddie Macken winning the Aga Khan as the most exciting thing to happen in the 1970s.

TVs today are also lightweight, wafer-thin and button-free. Now, from an aesthetic point of view that is obviously pretty fine, but the absence of any way to control your television or change the channels when you can’t find the remote can be rage-inducing and can leave you stuck watching Octonauts when what you really want are reruns of the Sopranos. The disappearance of buttons is also as clear a sign as any that the real goal of technology is to infantilise us and make us incapable of functioning without its magic touch. And of course when it does that, the robot wars will begin. We won’t stand a chance unless we can find the remotes.

The test card, watched by millions who were too lazy to get up off the sofa and turn off the telly. Photograph: PA
The test card, watched by millions who were too lazy to get up off the sofa and turn off the telly. Photograph: PA

Test Card Dummies There is almost no way to explain the test card to people who did not grow up staring at the little girl and the teddy and the blackboard if they lived in multichannel land, or the even more boring coloured stripes if they lived in one or two-channel land. Even explaining the notion of television shutting down for the night after the national anthem and only starting up at 4pm in the winter or 5pm in the summer is impossible in a world where television and films catering for absolutely every need are available every single second of every single day. The magic of coming across an unexpected cartoon in the middle of some endless run of Upstairs Downstairs or Going Strong is also something that no one will ever experience again.

Coppers We’re not talking about the nightclub but the money. Coppers were essential for anyone who wanted to buy sweets – they weren’t called penny sweets for nothing – or play penny falls games in what counted for amusement arcades in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Given the scale of the switch to alternative forms of payment in recent years, it won’t be too long before all physical cash goes the way of the coppers.

Seat belts Road safety has travelled a long road since the 1970s when seat belts were optional in the front of cars and non-existent in the back. We’re not even sure if car seats had even been invented. Children were allowed rattle around in cars like marbles in a Winning Streak drum and we were actively encouraged to stick our heads out of open windows like over-eager spaniels as the death traps on wheels travelled country roads at ridiculous speeds.

Smoking And as if simply sitting in a car wasn’t hazardous enough, there was the smoking. Adults would puff away happily in the front without so much as cracking a window while their offspring would breathe a steady wisp of second-hand smoke in the back. Smoking was also – obviously – massively popular in pubs and homes and hospital; pretty much everywhere really. Passive smoking had not been invented – or at least no one gave a rashers about it. It was everywhere, as were the vile, vomit-inducing ashtrays filed to the brim. How disgusting we must have all smelled.

Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing: the audition for Man from Atlantis went swimmingly
Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing: the audition for Man from Atlantis went swimmingly

Shower heads Our smoky smell was probably not greatly enhanced by the state of our bathrooms. Showers were something swanky folk like Bobby Ewing from Dallas stepped out of when he wanted to come back from the dead, and certainly not something to be found in a normal Irish home. There were baths, which could only be had if the immersion was turned on, something that was quite the treat and financially ruinous. Or those weird rubber hoses that would attach to taps and run up the wall before gently spitting on your head like a soft rain on a summer’s day.

A public phone, one of many left neglected around Dublin city. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
A public phone, one of many left neglected around Dublin city. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Phones In the time just before Covid, Pricewatch found itself in a pop-up flea market-type place where we happened upon a rotary dial phone. For our own amusement, we asked our children of the 21st century how such a device might work, and marvelled as they poked and prodded it before giving up. We then tried to explain to them what it was like to live in a world where a house – if it was lucky – had a single phone and queues of people would form outside phone boxes clutching phone cards to their hearts. They couldn’t get their head around it at all. We struggled to get our heads around it too, truth be told.

Box clever We then tried to explain what phone boxes and phone cards were. They’re still not right after the conversation. They were horrified by the idea that people would line up in the driving rain to make calls from a payphone in the dead of a winter night. They were baffled when Pricewatch explained that there was even a cub scout badge to be had for any clever child who could show a troop leader they had mastered the art of the A/B phone. It’s the only cub scout badge this page was ever awarded. It was a proud day for sure; sadly, it was not a skill that stood the test of time. Can you imagine seeing a queue outside a phone box today? Can you remember the last time you saw one being used? There are now only 400 or so public payphones in the Republic – in 2009 there were more than 3,500.

An old typewriter – great Irish novel not pictured. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
An old typewriter – great Irish novel not pictured. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Typewriters They were heavy, they clacked loudly, the keys stuck, the ink ribbon ran out and mistakes were virtually impossible to correct, but there was still a whiff of romance about an old-school typewriter all the same.

Photo fit Readers of a certain age may remember the giddy excitement of sending a roll of film off to be developed and the spirit-crushing sadness when the roll came back, transformed into pictures that were dark and blurry and useless. The expense of buying a camera and the film and then paying through the nose to have your rubbish pictures processed meant pictures were both rare and precious. That no doubt explains why there are no more than 10 photographs of Pricewatch as a child of the 1970s and 1980s. Why we are stuffing our face with bread in all of them is not so easy to explain. By contrast, the children of today are photographed more than the Beckhams, and with phone cameras that are a million times better than the cameras of old.

Evening papers There was the Evening Herald, the Evening Press and the Evening Echo, and they were all needed because, outside of the radio bulletins and the news at 6pm and 9pm, there was no way of getting fresh news in the second half of the day without them. We lived in a virtual information vacuum all the time and people could get so disconnected from their world that it was frequently necessary for RTÉ Radio to broadcast appeals to American tourists (they were usually American) travelling in Kerry (it was usually Kerry) to contact home for an urgent message. We never found out what the urgent messages were.

Banks The august institutions are still around, obviously, but as physical things they are surely on their way out and a shadow of their old selves. There was a time when a visit to a bank was as central to all our lives as a trip to the supermarket, but, thanks to the march of technology and the grim determination of our financial institutions to make their physical manifestations as useless and as expensive as they possibly can, the branch network is dying. It won’t be long before they are all gone. Most people won’t even miss them, so effective have banks been at rendering them useless.

Sundays Clearly there are still Sundays – we had one yesterday, after all – but they are not what they once were. In the 1980s, before he lost the run of himself, Morrissey wrote a song about every day being like Sunday. The song made sense. Sundays were grey and boring and everything was closed. The song makes no sense to young ears because apart from the banks that no one goes into anymore, pretty much everything stays open seven days a week. Good Friday was Sunday on steroids. Not only did everything close, it closed with evangelical zeal. It was like Christmas Day minus the presents. And then we had to watch biblical films on the one or two channels that we had. That’s pretty much gone the way of the quiet Sunday too now.

Milk bottles Progress is a terrible thing betimes. In times past we had our milk delivered to us by men – they were almost always men – in white housecoats and cheery hats. They would pull up in their milk float, clink some bottles on the doorstep, take away the empties and then do it all again the following morning. But then progress came along and ruined something that was both environmentally friendly and handy and replaced it with homogenised milk in plastic containers that went to landfill.

Music Anyone who wants to listen to music in the past had to really care about it. You needed a stereo – a three-in-one, ideally, which had a turntable, a radio and a cassette player. Then you needed to buy records – or at the very least blank tapes to tape the records of your friends or to record songs off the radio. (Thanks for all the hits, Larry Gogan, and the indie tunes, Dave Fanning. ) We knew home taping wasn’t killing music no matter what lies the record industry sold us. Massive speakers were a bonus. Some people even had something called a sub-woofer, whatever that is. Once you had all the kit you could start making mixtapes to impress friends and – more importantly – people of the opposite (or indeed the same) sex to you. Romances could flourish or flounder depending on the quality of the music chosen. Building a Spotify playlist is not, and never will be, the same.

VCRs When these magic boxes became mainstream in the early part of the 1980s, they retailed for around £500 – that’s pounds in the old money. Today you couldn’t give one away. In a world of on-demand streaming, it is hard to remember what a pain the things were. They were big and bulky and impossible to programme, and the renting of videos was always fraught with difficulty, while forgetting to return the things in a timely fashion led to enormously high fines. But they were still absolutely brilliant. And they made the world a better place.

Maps For thousands of years humans needed maps to work out how to get from A to B. Now we have Google and Apple to guide us. And we are – on balance – better off. Our phones talk to us and tell us how long it is to our destination or whether or not there are any hold-ups in our path or if we are going the wrong way. And the ridiculous origami skills that were needed to correctly fold a map are no longer required. Mind you, when the phones die and we are looking for somewhere in a location unfamiliar to us when the robot wars start, we’ll be snookered.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Can you imagine anyone spending over €1,000 on more than 20 leather-bound reference books that no one will ever read? Us neither. They took up an entire bookshelf in the Pope house. At least they are interesting. Unlike phone books, which are still printed in their hundreds of thousands and read or used, we suspect, by virtually no one.

Floppy disks Old people like us will remember when 3½-inch floppy disks were a thing. Really old people also like us will remember when 5.25-inch floppy disks – things which were actually floppy – were a thing. They were rendered obsolete by the USB key which was largely rendered obsolete by the Cloud. Before you know it, all the information in the world will be uploaded to our brains at birth and stored in the brain’s hard drive.

Boundaries Remember when work and home were entirely separate places? When emails were only something you could get on an office computer? Remember when you could disconnect from the world when you went on holidays and a time when private and public life were distinct things? Thanks (maybe) to technology, everyone is always-on and it is virtually impossible to escape the demands of work and the outside world, while the multiscreen world we live in has shattered our attention spans to such an extent that you have almost certainly not been able to get to the end of this article. If you have, then pat yourself on the back.

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