July 26, 2013 7:05 pm

How a retro look can backfire when it is too close to home

Why are the messy, hard lives of our ancestors transformed into sanitised nostalgia?

Mid-Century Modern Living still holds the odd surprise, like the fact its acronym MCML equals 1950. Otherwise, I’d say we’re overfamiliar with Danish Modern, Diner Retro and Machine Age style. But, for me, there remains a big question: to which side of 1950 should Eames dreams styling transport us?

I raise it because my two-year-old daughter and I took a post-swim visit to a fish and chip shop in Islington, north London. Its cunning name, The Fish and Chip Shop, is an ostentatious understatement. And this place is all gold letters in Eric Gill’s Gill Sans font: what Gill did was gilded. Now, a gilded fish and chip shop rings no bells for me. They were (and mostly remain) formica-clad palaces of the proletariat.

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We sat on stools, by the window, and chose from a menu printed on reassuring brown paper, like an old takeaway wrapper. The walls were lined with tongue-and-groove boarding but with distressingly distressed paint of artificial craquelure. The ceiling evoked New York tin plate panels, its rust padded on with a sponge. Arcane names of dishes your grandparents might recognise featured over the bar, arranged on a varnished retro display board like bus tour destinations via Yesteryear Central.

The spell was broken by a waiter tugging an order pad and pen from his pocket, apologising that his iPad was taking too long to fire up. I savoured that genuine return to 1940s technology.

While little Claudia tore at her fish and chips, something gnawed at me. I felt manipulated. This was supposed to be a 1940s interior. But whose 1940s were they conjuring?

Was it those in long queues hoping for some haddock from a fish supply limited to 30 per cent of prewar levels, and cooked in cheap, rank wartime fats? They mightn’t have had the option of lobster, nor met the average price of “about £115 for two with wine”, a tad inflated since 1940, when you could buy a Ford Anglia E04A deluxe for £140.

It wasn’t for the benefit of the legions of once-habitual smokers who are now entirely unwelcome to smoke near any of this fish, smoked or unsmoked. So who?

Perhaps it spoke for those Londoners whose homes and families were destroyed by bombs or rockets in the 1940s, or the firefighters dousing the city’s ruins, or the people in the smallpox wards or – like my mother – a diphtheria bed . . .

. . .

It mightn’t just be a home audience. The New York faux tin ceiling takes it transatlantic – could it be a fish shop that somehow washed ashore in 1940s US when General Patton reassured the American people: “We’ll win this war but we’ll win it only by fighting and by showing the Germans that we’ve got more guts than they have; or ever will have. We’re not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we’re going to rip out their living goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks.”

Maybe not. I realise this may have the makings of a rant but, really, my fish finger and pea sandwich was excellent and Claudia was audibly satisfied. I just left wondering, how is it that after 60 years or so, our “two generations before you were born” past gets repackaged? Why do the messy, hard lives of our grandparents become sanitised, eco-friendly noshtalgia?

Admittedly, American chrome-and-pleather 1950s diners don’t bother me as a genre: they’ve sprung up all over the world. But the US 1950s were different to the dark British 1940s, being a postwar playground whose primary colours can’t fade. I recently fell for the charms of a retro hotel in Beverly Hills. The Avalon has been carved from an old apartment building, and the duck-egg blue, deep-pile carpet and sunshine ethos of 1960s Los Angeles is utterly captured. Well, it is for me, but I wasn’t born out of it, so just tell me sweet lies and I’ll buy into it.

I can suspend belief in many a cultural pastiche. But try to sell me a history of my high street and my own ancestors, designed by focus groups, and I’d prefer the honesty of our own genuinely unkempt 21st-century kitchen. I can imagine how, when the cycle of life turns again, the 1970s will be presented to Claudia as a consumable lifestyle choice. But I’m certain it won’t be the 1970s her grandparents knew.

Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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