We can’t Retvrn to tradition

Sorry, trads and tradwives, modvrnity is here to stay

Artillery Row

How would we know everything is rubbish now if weren’t for British Pathé? Thanks to the film archive, we can watch footage of a bygone Britain in a way its contemporaries would have considered the preserve of science fiction. In their black-and-white world, throngs of Londoners hustle about the thoroughfares, dodging trams and buses with uncanny agility. Britons are seen dressed to the nines for every occasion, and their de rigueur enunciation makes 21st century Radio 4 presenters sound provincial. As against our world, the Britain of old looks idyllic. Through that grainy film we can see with perfect clarity that something has gone wrong in the intervening years. 

The window into the past inspires in many a nostalgia for a time we never knew, with a longing to know it. It undergirds the demand that we “Retvrn to tradition”, which has proved to be an enduring conservative meme. There can be no return, however, owing to a burden we shoulder that our forebears did not: choice. The mass culture of the early 20th century was a relic of a pre-global age. Distance between us and the world served to impose a particular culture and repel outside influence. Today, the distinction between Britain and anywhere else is a very thin thing indeed. 

Our musical monoculture broke down into youth subcultures

The aesthetic cultural totems around which the traditionalists rally on Twitter.com are artefacts which cannot be revived. Take dance halls, where entire towns would come together for an evening, spinning and stamping in unison. Everyone would know how to move to the music and sing along with its lyrics. If they had the luxury of a record player at home, they’d be limited to a small music library. As more records began to arrive from the US, our musical monoculture broke down into youth subcultures before further atomising into a thousand pieces in the intervening decades that brought us CDs, music videos, pirate radio stations, walkmen and ipods. 

Today at a nightclub, you’re far more likely to have never heard the music before , or danced to it even if you have. Neither have most of the other punters wantonly throwing shapes or spasmodically reaching out for the rhythm. Thanks to apps like Spotify, we can access a 200-year-old music library at our leisure, unmooring us from the tyranny of trends and the whims of the once powerful radio DJs who would impose them. The upshot is that outside of a dedicated minority, dancing will mostly involve pointing variously between the club DJ and your mates from now unto the end of time. 

In the 1920’s, watching “video” would mean a trip to the cinema. Watching the news or the latest movie meant gathering as a community, whether you wanted to or not. With the invention of the television, the ritual of looking at a screen was no longer a great get-together, but people would still congress in their millions to watch Eastenders before discussing it the following day at work.

The modern viewing experience, fractured into the myriad glowing screens of phones, laptops and tablets, gives us access to billions of videos across YouTube, Disney + and Netflix. Several people in the same room might be looking at different Instagram accounts and Twitch streams, physically proximate to one another, but plugged into entirely different media. Algorithms tailor entertainment to the individual, meaning conversations about media are often cut short: “I’m only on season 9, no spoilers please.

A popular Retrvn adjacent meme captions a well-dressed man or woman, often from the 1940s or ’50s, and asks, accusatorily: “What’s stopping you from dressing like this?” Apart from the fact that wearing a trilby and turnups would be a surefire way to get robbed by a gang of kids on BMX bikes, most people don’t want to.

Since the time of noir detectives and bowler hats, we’ve come up with these horrid innovations like nylon and plastic. Most people take the path of least resistance, throwing on their Man U shirt and Adidas sliders to attend the football. Our great great grandparents weren’t gifted with some terrific sartorial eye — they just wore the fashion of the time, limited as it was by onshore production and material. Wearing a grey flannel suit to pick up milk from Tesco Express would be as bizarre as a mid-century man wearing leggings and a frilly ruff to the beach.

Then there are the architecture bros, the guys who feel like pure shit and just want Art Deco back. The only thing standing between them and their dreams is several million tonnes of brick and mortar which would need to be razed to the ground. 

Vast swathes of the country are blighted by brutalist tower blocks, dreary bungalows and crushingly boring townhouses. Public buildings are to architecture what magnolia is to colour: furnished with soft pinewood and plastic chairs, they stand testament to our decline against the Victorian public works of old. Even our road signs can bring on a twitch — particularly in the countryside where garish metal stalks grate against old stone walls and meadows. 

You might have also noticed everyone is fat now. That’s not because we’re less disciplined than the Silent Generation (although we are), but because our food isn’t rationed by the state. Our bodies are less and less used in our work. Our legs sit idly on buses or push pedals to transport us to the desks where we remain sedentary for eight hours a day. Before we even consider what our food is now made out of (which is far too often not foodstuff), we would need to fundamentally reimagine the nature of work. 

If there’s a chance that our future could be better than our past, that we could put our best days ahead of us, it certainly won’t be achieved by forlorn fantasies about a return (or Retvrn) to the past. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, things can’t be uninvented, and all we can do is move forward. What chance we have lies in developing new systems and inventing fresh technologies that render the things we don’t like redundant. If we can and should Retrvn, it’s to the spirit of innovation that once made us great.

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