The man behind the counter at the charity shop was trying, and failing, to look interested.
‘Nothing’s built to last these days,’ said the woman he was serving.
‘A-ha,’ he replied.
‘The young ones don’t know any different,’ she said, ‘but us older folk do.’
‘I keep an eye out for stuff made in my day. It’s so much better. It wasn’t a throwaway society back then.’
‘You know,’ she leaned closer over the counter, ‘most of it’s made in China now.’
Hereford’s Market Hall stands in the middle of the pedestrianised town centre – a glorious black and white timber-framed building lost in a sea of late twentieth-century architecture. It looks bizarrely out of time among the glass-fronted facades of Debenhams and Mountain Warehouse.
People say that old buildings like that have ‘character’, as opposed to modern ones, which are ‘soulless’. Ramshackle rows of wonky tudor cottages do something to us that new estates, with their copy-paste boxes fail to manage. I wonder if it’s always been like that. I can imagine the medieval version of my charity-shop complainer:
‘Oh, there’s a new row of houses going up, those timber-framed things. They’re just so soulless – all the same, with their black and white wattle and daub. Not like our mud huts, so full of character. I wouldn’t want to live in one of those new places.’
Maybe in 2615, people will be yearning after the good old days of concrete and glass, when multi-story car parks had character.
But we forget that the ancient buildings that survived are just that – the survivors. For every quaint cottage that looks like it should fall over at any moment, with its sloping floors and weirdly angled windows, there were many more that did topple. For every towering medieval church steeple, there were countless more that collapsed into a pile of dust.
There’s always been a nostalgia for the past, and it’s never more evident than at this time of year. Toys from the 1980s are being re-released, as adults chase after their childhood again. The traditional family Christmas that we try so hard to recreate harks back to Charles Dickens and Victorian sentimentality, where everything was beautiful snowscapes, rose-cheeked children singing carols and families sharing love and peace around the piano while the candle-decked tree sparkled in the corner. Unless you were poor, in which case you’d be in a workhouse or out on the streets.
Things may have been built to last in the past, but old isn’t always better. The Commodore 64 my parents bought me in 1986 still works, but I can’t write on it or go online. I love to write with a dip pen – the lines are exquisite and the feeling of the nib on paper is unrivalled – but when I’m filling in forms for the council, I reach for a biro.
The old and the new don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Why not have the best of both? Enjoy the old-fashioned, candle-lit Christmas with your nearest and dearest, and then stick on Netflix and Skype your friends in Australia.