Now, just like 30 years ago, it is trim, innovative businesses that are thriving in hard times

Now seems an ideal moment to develop that form of dementia where yesterday is a blank, but you can recall vividly the golden times of 30-odd years ago.

These were times when you could fill your petrol tank and have a good night out in the pub and still get change from a fiver; when knives were for eating your peas off, not for stabbing people; when BBC announcers still used received pronunciation (proper English); and bank managers were pillars of the community with real discretionary powers, rather than box-ticking “customer relations executives”.

Brussels was where the sprouts came from, not an endless stream of directives regulating every aspect of daily life. Big Brother was your parents’ son who was older than you and the United Kingdom was actually united.

Spiders inhabited the web, polar bears had no fear for the future of their habitat and Russia and China were just big countries.

Of course, there have been swings and roundabouts. In those days a penny bought you a stick of bubble gum. Now it will probably get you a return flight to Barcelona (before taxes and surcharges).

Looking back, though, is only of value if it teaches us lessons – and surely it can. The companies that seemed to prosper through the grim days of the 1970s’ oil shock and three-day week were invariably small, hungry and innovative or niche businesses.

Searching for a glimmer of light amid the present litany of business woes, I’ve noticed that those who seem to be doing well now are almost always the smaller companies too. Trim, fit and often young, they seem best able to ride the macro-economic tsunami of soaring fuel and food costs.

The escalating cost of living increases create a huge challenge for all of us in retail that are striving to sell to people who (I revert to a colloquialism) are skint, because of the sharp rise in the fundamentals of feeding their families and getting around.

Even those who were more prudent than Gordon Brown and put something aside for this rainy day have had their confidence savagely knocked by Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley.

We have to play the game with the cards Gordon has dealt us and, if we don’t play them well, we may all find ourselves running the sort of small businesses that can cope with the situation best.

Other options include constant reinvention, as Jacqueline Gold wrote in Retail Week (June 27) and in particular adopting a business model more suited to these tougher times – a lean one. There has never been a better moment to sign up for the corporate equivalent of Weightwatchers.

Fortunately, in my experience, most people seem to find an extra gear when the road gets really steep. Let us hope that you, I and our colleagues can keep finding that extra gear and/or can change our speed and direction to suit the prevailing conditions.

Those of us who can may yet be able to look back on the challenges of the late noughties with a nostalgic smile.

Lord Kirkham is chairman of DFS.