Image by Fox Photos and Jim Dyson
Artillery Row

The uses and abuses of nostalgia

The old like to think they had it harder, but secretly feel they had it better, too

Every now and then I recall lost snatches of my schooldays. I remember counting pennies to buy sweets from corner shops. I remember sitting in the sports hall for assemblies. I remember making games to play at summer fêtes. Warm nostalgia passes over me…

Such fuzzy nostalgia can have a spiteful edge

…and then I suddenly remember that I hated school so much that if “exaggerating illness” had been a sport I would have been its Michael Phelps or Roger Federer.

I know, then, just how misleading nostalgia can be. Of course, it is natural to be nostalgic. Most of us have happy memories of the innocence of youth (if nothing else it was our innocence because we had not had the time to sin and err so much). In grim, uncertain years, though, such memories flourish — like a haven for a troubled consciousness.

I am sure, for example, that the reader has an ageing family member who loves posting Facebook memes about the good old days. Such memes are invariably constructed in an artless yet enthusiastic manner on Microsoft Paint — with big, bold lettering and bright backgrounds — which can achieve the strange effect of evoking the late seventies and early noughties simultaneously.

Tony Soprano might have called “remember when…” the lowest form of conversation but it has deep appeal. One Twitter account, “Golden Memories and Silver Tears”, has acquired a substantial following with posts asking if people can recall plasticine, carving their names into their school desks and watching Basil Brush. All of these things existed from at least the sixties up to the Millennium — I’m 31 and I remember all of them — which makes it a smart way for the owner of the account to keep a wide audience. 

Elsewhere, such fuzzy nostalgia can have a spiteful edge. Emphasising tougher aspects of bygone years can be a waspish means of elevating older generations above allegedly weak, coddled, self-entitled younger people of today. What would you have done in the war, ask people who were born well after 1945. Even more realistic posts about walking to school and going to get the switch have an implicit message of suck it up, crybabies.

Of course, a lot of valid arguments could be made about the faltering emotional and physical resilience of younger generations. What sneering talk about how back in my day we didn’t have mobile phones ignores, though, is how much easier it was to get a job without having an expensive education and to buy your own house. Unlimited apps and a wider range of breakfast cereals can’t make up for not having one’s own home. All those apps and breakfast cereals probably have something to do with that faltering emotional and physical resilience as well.

In his book The Ministry of Nostalgia, the left-wing cultural critic Owen Hatherley discusses passing a stall filled with “wartime memorabilia — old tins, plates, tat of various sorts”. “What was depressing,” Hatherley writes, was…

…the dominance of a certain “structure of feeling” (to use Raymond Williams’s phrase), where austerity’s look, its historical syncretism, its rejection of the real human advances of the post-war era had seeped into the consciousness of people who would, when pressed, probably be in opposition to it, even as they performed its aesthetics.

I can see what Hatherley is getting at. This sort of damp-eyed sentimentality often grounds itself in the 70s, yet power cuts and three-day weeks are overlooked in favour of eccentric dinner party dishes and children’s television. The sense of we were happy then obscures the very open unhappiness period (and its implied innocence seems dubious when one remembers that Jimmy Savile was on the television and Cyril Smith was in Parliament).

Times were bleak, but their bleakness could be comprehended

Still, in Poland, where I live, I often hear older people wax nostalgic about different aspects of life under communism. People speak fondly about the old Polski Fiat and about buying cheap meals from the old milk bars.

None of these people are communists. None of them bear a furtive desire to queue for hours to get into a shop, only to find that it has sold out of everything but vinegar. They are nostalgic for being young, of course, which, in many ways, is simply better than being old. But something else is going on.

A Polish historian I have interviewed told me that while he is not at all nostalgic for communism, he is nostalgic for anti-communism. The times were grim, but people knew what they were dealing with, and they united on a scale that is hard to imagine in our age of heightened status seeking and atomised identities. They could imagine something so much better than their present.

Perhaps when old uncles on Facebook sound off about walking to school with plastic bags on their feet when it snowed, and about putting squash into the freezer to make lollies, and about how young people just don’t understand, that collective improvisational spirit is what they miss. Times were often bleak, but their bleakness could be comprehended, and people could work together to find consolation. That impulse is vulnerable to being exploited but it is a sympathetic one. Our aim should be harness that collaborative and imaginative spirit beyond a context of deprivation.

Anyway, who remembers Freddos? Who remembers Game Boys? Who remembers thinking a homeopathic quantity of raw egg could kill you? Who remembers the Kosovo War?

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