“Ane doolie sessoun” covid-19 and the art of isolation


At some point in the late fifteenth century, the poet Robert Henryson (who lived in Dunfermline, not too far from where I’m writing now), began his Testament of Cresseid with one of my favourite openings of any poem:

Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte
Suld correspond and be equivalent.

Robert Henryson – The Testament of Cresseid and Other Poems, my edition Penguin Books, 1988, p. 19

I don’t think I knew, word for word, what he was saying when I first read it, but I did get the meaning: essentially that miserable/sad times (‘doolie’, which I guess would be ‘doleful’ a few hundred years later; not sure what it would be now) call for tragic/sad/grim (“cairfull”, literally ‘full-of-care’) poetry, and the words, with their mixture of strangeness and familiarity (people in Scotland have not talked like that for many centuries, but I think that being attuned to the accents and patterns of speech here still makes it easier to understand), stayed with me. The poet goes on to talk about the weather; apparently it was an unseasonable Lent in Fife that year, when “schouris of hail can fra the north discend/that scantlie fra the cauld I micht defend.” Despite impending climate disaster, Fife weather hasn’t changed beyond all recognition it seems; It was only two weeks ago – though it seems far longer now – that I was caught in a hailstorm myself.

my own photograph from April 2006

The season is still doolie however; not because of the weather, but because of the pandemic sweeping the world, one unlike any that Henryson would have known, but which probably wouldn’t have surprised him; one of the key elements he brought to the Troilus and Cressida story in The Testament of Cresseid is its heroine being struck down by leprosy and joining a leper colony.
the cover of my copy of his poems has a drawing from a medieval manuscript, of a figure which would have been familiar to most readers at the time; a leper with a bell begging for alms.

Maurice Utrillo

In fact, with dependable cosmic irony (or if you are less fatalistic, normal seasonal progress), the weather, since ‘stay home’ has been trending online and quarantine officially recommended, has been beautiful here. The streets are fairly, but not yet eerily, quiet. So this particular dyte (the old word that Henryson used referred to his poem but I think stems ultimately from the Latin dictum and can apply to any piece of writing) may not seem especially gloomy (and may in fact be quite sloppy), but it is certainly careful in the sense that Henryson intended. It’s quite easy – and I think reasonable – to be optimistic about the state of the world in April 2020, but not I hope possible for anybody with any sense of empathy to not be concerned about it.

There are some silver linings to the current situation (major caveat: so far); as well as, inevitably, bringing out the worst in some people, a crisis also brings out the best in many more. And a whole range of major and minor plus points, from a measure of environmental recovery to time to catch up with reading, have emerged. For me, one of the nicest things to come out of the crisis so far is – thanks to social media – the way that arts institutions, while physically almost empty, have begun to engage online with a wider range of people than those who are likely to, or physically able to visit the galleries themselves.

Algernon Newton – The Outskirts of Kensington


It has been said that Edward Hopper is the artist who has captured this particular moment, and it’s true that his vision of loneliness in the metropolis particularly mirrors our own age of social media and reality TV, in that it is voyeuristic* – we are not looking at ourselves, or at an absence of people, we are looking at other people whose isolation mirrors our own. If there’s something about this particular pandemic that sets it apart from the Spanish flu of 1918-19 or the great plague of 1665 or the Black Death of 1348-9, or any of the devastating outbreaks of disease that sweep the earth from time to time, it’s that online we are (a ridiculous generalisation perhaps, but if you’re reading this chances are you have internet access at least) sharing the experience of isolation; surely in itself a relatively new phenomenon, at least on this kind of a scale. When Daniel Defoe wrote in his fictional memoir of the 1665 plague (and it’s worth remembering that, although he was only five when the plague swept London, he would have had the testimony of many who had survived as adults as well as whatever shadowy memories he himself had of the period)

Passing through a Token-house Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three violent screeches, and then cried “Oh! Death, Death, Death!”in a most inimitable tone, and which struck me with horror and a chilness in my very blood. There was nobody to be seen in the whole street, neither did any other window open; for people had no curiosity now in any case; nor could any body help one another

Daniel Defore, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, my copy published by Paul Elek Ltd, 1958, p. 79-80

he was depicting a situation which many people could no doubt relate to; after the fact. What we have now is a sense of shared helplessness in real time; this has never existed, quite in this way before. Assuming some kind of return to normality, we (not entirely sure who I mean exactly by ‘we’) will know each other better than we ever have; something to have mixed feelings about no doubt.

*not a criticism; visual art is voyeurism

Edward Hopper capturing the 2020 zeitgeist with 11 am (1926)

The current appeal of Edward Hopper’s paintings of lonely figures is humanistic and easy to explain. His art, with its depiction of strangers quietly sitting in anonymous places, people who paradoxically we can never know and never know much about, but who we can easily relate to, is profoundly empathetic.  It belongs to a long tradition of quiet loneliness or at least alone-ness that stretches back, in Western, art to the seventeenth century and the art of Vermeer (it’s easy to forget as the children of it, but the idea of art reflecting the individual for reasons other than wealth and status is an essentially Protestant one*) through artists like Arthur Devis (though I’m not sure he intended the quiet melancholy in his paintings) and Vilhelm Hammershoi (who did). In fact, Hammershoi’s beautiful turn-of-the (19th-20th)-century paintings are if anything even more relevant to stay-at-home culture than Hopper’s diner, bar and hotel-dwelling urbanites. With Hopper, we are often watching – spying on – his characters from the outside as if through a pair of binoculars, with Hammershoi we are shut in with them, like ghosts haunting their silent rooms.

*really the only ‘lonely’ figures in pre-Protestant European art are Christ himself  (think of the utter solitary misery of the crucified Jesus in Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece) and of course Judas, or those who like him, have separated themselves from Christianity. There is a terrifying solitary quality in some depictions of saints during martyrdom, but for their contemporary audience it was essential to bear in mind that they were not spiritually alone (note: this may be a completely false assertion)

Vilhelm Hammershoi – A room at home with the artist’s wife (1902)
voyeuristic Hopper: Night Windows (1928)

But if Hopper’s most discussed and shared works now are those where we seem to catch, as we do from a train window, a momentary glimpse of a life that is utterly separate from our own. It’s a feeling I associate with childhood and (very) specifically, with travelling through Edinburgh in the winter and seeing glimpses of people at windows and the high ceilings in Georgian houses in the new town when Christmas decorations were up. Who were all these people?


                                                                                             But there are Edward Hopper paintings too – including some of my favourites, like Early Sunday Morning (see below) – where the only human presence is the artist, or the viewer, where Hopper could claim (though I have no idea if he would have) like Christopher Isherwood, I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking.* But recording, for a human being, is thinking. And the picture of a place-without-people is rarely as simple as it seems; even in the case of an actual photograph; someone had to be there to photograph it, and had their human reasons for doing so. The tradition of landscape painting exemplifies this; landscapes may be mythical, romantic, realistic, but they have been recorded or edited or invented for a variety of complex human reasons. The landscape painting of earlier eras was often self-consciously beautiful, or psychologically charged (Caspar David Friedrich is the classic example; landscape as a personal, spiritual vision; in some ways in fact his work, with its isolated or dwarfed human figures, is kind of like a romantic-era Hopper), but the fact that the urban landscape is itself an artificial, human-constructed environment gives it a different, poignant (if you are me) dimension.

*Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye To Berlin, in The Berlin Novels, Minerva 1992, p. 243.

Edward Hopper – Early Sunday Morning (1930)


The appeal of the empty urban landscape in art is perhaps hard to explain to those who don’t see it, but I think it’s worth examining. There is a utopian tradition beginning with (or at least exemplified by) the ‘ideal cities’ produced in Italy in the late 15th century that is in a strange way misanthropic (or at least anthro-indifferent) in that the tranquil geometric perfection of the imaginary cities can only be made less harmonious by the introduction of human figures. But it’s also important to note that these cityscapes actually pre-date landscape painting for its own sake in western art by a few centuries. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that in the medieval and renaissance period, the urban landscape had a far greater claim to represent paradise than the natural one. The garden of Eden was a garden after all, not a wilderness, and even the word paradise denotes a walled enclosure in its original Persian meaning. We might think now of paradise existing beyond the realms of human habitation, but in ages where the landscape was mainly something perilous to be passed through as quickly as possible on your way to safety, the controlled human landscape had a lot to be said for it.

Ideal City c.1480s, previously attributed to Piero della Francesca

Like the Renaissance ‘ideal city’, the beautiful post-cubist-realist paintings of Charles Demuth have a sense of perfection, where the severe but harmonious geometry of his industrial buildings seems to preclude more organic shapes altogether.

Charles Demuth – My Egypt (1927)

But if Demuth shows an ideal world where human beings seem to have designed themselves out of their own environment, the ideal cities of the renaissance, with their impossibly perfect perspectives are something  more primal and dreamlike; prototypes in fact for the examinations of the inner landscape of the subconscious as practised by proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico and his actual-surrealist successors. De Chirico’s eerie ‘metaphysical’ cityscapes are essentially the ideal renaissance cities by twilight, and artists like Paul Delvaux used the extreme, telescoped perspectives of the early renaissance to create their own prescient sense of urban displacement. Why the kind of linear perspective that sucks the eye into the distance should so often be, or feel like, the geometry of dreams is mysterious – one plausible possibility is that it’s the point of view that first forms our perception of the world, the low child’s eye view that renders distances longer and verticals taller; we may be the hero (or at least main protagonist) in our dreams, but that definitely doesn’t mean we dominate them.

Paul Delvaux – Isolation (1955)

The use of isolated human figures, as in Delvaux and Hopper’s work, gives us a ‘way in’ to a picture, something human to either to relate or respond to (although Delvaux – like Magritte in Not To Be Reproduced (1937) – emphasises the loneliness and again the ultimate unknowable nature of human beings in Isolation by showing the figure only from behind), but the cityscape that is devoid of life, or which reduces the figures to ciphers, has a very different appeal.

Rene Magritte – Not To Be Reproduced (1937)

Whereas the unpopulated landscape may suggest a prelapsarian, primordial or mythical past, or an entirely alien realm altogether, empty streets are just that; empty. These are utilitarian environments designed specifically for human beings and their patterns reflect our needs. A meadow or hillside or mountain with no visible sign of human life may be ‘unspoiled’; towns and cities, by this definition, come ‘pre-spoiled’, and the absence of people raises questions where a natural landscape usually doesn’t; Where are the people? What has happened?

That said, nothing about Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, Algernon Newton’s paintings of Kensington (or Oguiss’s Paris, or indeed the beautiful photographs of the city in Masataka Nakano’s Tokyo Nobody (2000)) really suggests anything ominous or post-apocalyptic, but even so, the absence of life is the most noticeable thing about them. Whether intended or not, this gives a picture a psychological depth beyond that of a simple topographical study. As with the use of musical instruments within a still life painting (whether there to express the fleetingness of time, or the lute with a broken string to denote discord etc) the inclusion of something with a specific purpose (roads, paths, buildings) apparently not fulfilling that purpose, creates a response as complex as – though very different from – the feeling of looking at those lonely figures in Hopper and Hammershoi’s paintings. Not so different in fact, from the feeling of leaving your home in the spring of 2020 and walking down the deserted street outside.

Takanori Oguiss

These paintings can have a slightly uncanny quality reminiscent of (or vice versa) the eerie opening scenes (the best parts) of movies like The Omega Man (1971) and 28 Days Later (2002) or John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York (1981) where, emptied of people, any sign of life in the city becomes, not a sign of hope, but threatening and full of sinister power. Things will hopefully never reach that point in the current crisis, but as it is, avoiding people in the street is for now the new norm; for the first time I can remember, my natural reserve feels almost like a plus.

Algernon Newton – In Kensington (1922-3)

Those 15th century ‘ideal cities’ were part of the flowering of the renaissance, and, as with every other aspect of it, they were the product of people looking backwards as much as forwards. The actual, non-ideal cities that were lived in by the artists who painted the pictures were largely organic, messy, medieval conglomerations, regularly visited by outbreaks of disease. The ideal city’s emptiness is not only harmonious and logical, it’s clean. And like the classical sculptures, bleached white by time and weather, which were to prove so influential on that generation of artists, the aspiration is towards a kind of sterile perfection which never really existed until long after the culture that created the buildings and the art, had disappeared to leave a ghostly husk of its former self.

Algernon Newton – Spring Morning Camden Hill, 1940

The deserted city or townscape more or less disappears from art from the 15th century until the later years of the industrial revolution, when urban life itself became the subject for modern art. And it makes sense; the reversal in European culture which saw city life become perilous and the countryside as a means of escape was a slow one, and the solution (never more than a partial one) was in building programmes, urban renewal and harmonious town planning; Empire building and colonial expansion fuelled the growth of urbanisation and were fuelled by it; to imagine an empty city at the height of Empire was to imagine extinction. If the idea of empty streets, If there was any remaining collective memory of empty streets in the late 19th century, it was probably an echo of the kind of scenario that Defoe had written about*; less graced by the muses of harmony than haunted by the dead.

*or of natural disasters like drowned villages, or man made catastrophes like the Highland Clearances.

But by the late 19th century, in Europe, plague was less a current concern than it was gothic horror, the memory of a memory, and industrialisation had – for those with a measure of financial security – rendered the city (now with drains and public transport) and the country (now sans dangerous animals and medieval lawlessness) on something of an equal footing. For the generation of the impressionists, both city and country could be celebrated, and both (as has been true ever since) could mean escape. But that impressionist cliche, the ‘bustling metropolis’, defined by Baudelaire’s “fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis” – the hub of modernity, the engine of culture and progress, when the streets are empty, becomes something else, but it can never just be a collection of buildings.

Maurice Utrillo


Not surprisingly perhaps, it seems that to some degree, the art of the deserted street is a kind of declared outsider art; Maurice Utrillo was an alcoholic with mental health issues, and although literally at the centre of the Parisian art scene centred around Montmartre – because he was born there to an artist mother – he was nevertheless a marginal figure, and his paintings of his home town are heavy with melancholy and isolation.

Similarly, although far less gloomy, the Montmartre paintings of Maria Slavona, a foreigner – a German Impressionist painter living in Paris, are depictions of an urban landscape that, while not hostile, is enclosed and other and (to me) brings to mind the close of Philip Larkin’s Here: “Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” Whether that mood is inherent in the paintings, or only in the mind of the person looking at them, is not something I can answer.

Maria Slavona – Houses in Montmartre (1898)

The German artists of a later generation found a similar sense of alienation at home. The neue sachlichkeit (‘new objectivity’) movement of the Weimar Repulblic may have been a rejection of the extremes of Expressionism and romanticism, but in its embracing of modernity it was a specifically urban movement too. The teeming street scenes of George Grosz and Otto Dix reflected the sometimes chaotic street life of Germany’s big cities in the social and economic upheaval following that followed World War One much as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was to do in literature, but there were other views of the city too.

It was an era of political unrest, but if one thing united the political left and right it was the understanding that they were living in an essentially transitional period; that change would, and must come.

Hans Grundig was the epitome of the kind of artist hated by the Nazi party; politically a communist, he used his art to oppose the creeping rise of fascism but also to capture working class life in the city (in his case Dresden). But in Thunderstorm (Cold Night), 1928, it is the environment itself that condemns the society of the declining republic: the streets are empty and ghostly pale, the buildings, run down and near-derelict, offer little shelter and no comfort, and the people whose fate looked uncertain, are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, a storm approached.

Hans Grundig Thunderstorn (Cold NIght), 1928


Carl Theodor Protzen – Lonely Street (1932)

Carl Theodor Protzen was, by contrast, an establishment figure; a member of the Association of Fine Artists and the German Society for Christian Art, he was to become a pillar of the Nazi art community. Urban landscapes were his speciality and his depictions of Nazi building projects were to make his name, but just prior to the NSDAP’s rise to power in 1933, he was painting pictures like Lonely Street (1932) that show those same urban landscapes, but without the excitement of progress. Less bleak and doom-laden than Grundig’s city, this is nevertheless an environment which does not embrace or protect humankind; the title reflects the child’s exclusion from the harshly geometric scene in which he finds himself and, although there is no sense of exaggeration, the perspective, as in surrealism, pushes the end of the road ever further into the distance.

This perspective is seen too, in Volker Böhringer’s the Road to Waiblingen, painted in the year that the Nazis came to power. Böhringer, an anti-fascist painter, was later to become a surrealist, and the ominous (blood-stained?) road, stormy clouds and sinister trees suggest that this is  (with apologies to Waiblingen) not a road that he saw leading anywhere very pleasant.

Volker Böhringer – the Road to Waiblingen (1933)

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved to visualise (usually at night) a real place, say a nearby hilltop or field, as it is at that moment, with nobody except animals and birds there to see or experience it. It’s a strange kind of excitement that depends on not being able to experience the thing you’re excited about: psychology probably has a term for it – but at a time when people have never been more inescapable (not that one necessarily wants to escape them) there is something appealing about the complex landscapes we have created for our needs, but without the most complex element of all – ourselves – in them. Whether we enjoy the empty streets or not (and hopefully we don’t have to get too used to them), we should probably take the time to look at what is all around us; it’s a rare chance to see our world without us getting in the way.

Surrealist social distancing: Rue de la sante (1925) by Yves Tanguy

The Vanishing Everything of Everywhere; Goodbye 2017

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me…” When The Bangles covered Simon & Garfunkel’s A Hazy Shade of Winter in 1987, the song was 21 years and one month old, now The Bangles’ version (from the underrated – according to me – movie of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero)  is 30 years and one month old; time flies, another year draws to an end etc etc etc. It took until the early 90s for 60s nostalgia to really take hold and, true to form 30 years on from the 1980s, 80s nostalgia is everywhere; in music, in fashion, (especially) in film and television. Even the tired, terrifying old tropes of the cold war are back; excellent stuff.

It’s approximately 90 years since HP Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” (in the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1926-7)), and it’s got to be something like 25 years or so since I first read those words (in the HP Lovecraft Omnibus Vol 2, Dagon and other Macabre Tales, Grafton Books, 1985, p.423 ). So what about it?

Lovecraft might well be right about fear; but more pertinent to my intro is that perhaps the oldest emotion preserved in literature – at least (major, major caveat, based on my ignorance) in the literature of Europe – is nostalgia, and the feeling that things were better in the past. (see also here for an excellent & thoughtful look at nostalgia) The literature of the ancient Greeks makes clear that the age of heroes already lay in the distant past; the pride and arrogance of Imperial Rome was tempered – formally, at least – by the belief that it was a pale imitation of the Republic which the Empire supplanted. The earliest literature in (old) English makes it clear that the inhabitants of what was one day to become England were a) not entirely sure of what had come before, but b) knew that it was in many ways ‘better’ and certainly more impressive than the present day of the 8th century:

“The work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,/ mouldereth…
And the wielders and wrights?/Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone”

The Ruin, (Translated by Michael Alexander, The Earliest English Poems, Penguin Classics (3rd edition, 1991, p. 2)

Even closer to home (for me), the earliest literature of Scotland, the Goddodin of the poet Aneirin, dating from anywhere from the 7th to 10th century and originally, it is presumed, written – or at least passed down – in the ancient British language now called Old Welsh (which it is of course, but it is also, geographically, old English and old Scots, since it seems to have been spoken in a far wider area than modern Wales). The Goddodin is a series of elegies mourning the loss of the warriors of eponymous ancient kingdom (which spread roughly over what are now the modern Scottish regions of Lothian and Borders) in battle, and with them the heroic culture of the era.*
To say that nostalgia as opposed to fear may be mankind’s oldest emotion is problematic, both logically (chicken/egg innit), and because for all of its obviously dominant ingredients – sadness/regret and happiness –  a large component of nostalgia can be fear, and, specifically, Lovecraft’s ‘fear of the unknown’ (in this case the always unknowable future). This is problematic for many reasons; in the examples noted above, the glamour (not intended to have its old, magical meaning, but actually that is probably even more appropriate) attached to the past is partly because it can’t come again. If the people of ”now” are as noble, heroic etc as the people of “then”, then somehow the past – and the ancestors, a vital component of the values of most non-Christian and pre-Christian cultures – is not receiving its due reverence.

*this theme even crops up in a very similar form in the Fortinbras subplot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, preserved at one remove from the earliest known version of the story, Saxo Grammaticus’ elemental/mythological 13th century version from his Gesta Danorum. But even this is assumed to be derived from an earlier, lost source, probably Icelandic. 

Although it seems almost incomprehensible to someone of my generation, there seems to be a similar, ‘don’t disrespect the ancestors’  unease nowadays in the unwillingness in some circles to condemn wholesale the expansion/existence of the British Empire. And really, it’s not complicated  – it is entirely possible to be impressed by and/or grateful for the innovations of the Victorian era – flushing toilets, railways and whatnot – while seeing the culture and times for what they were; repressive, oppressive, misogynistic, racist, ignorant. It shouldn’t be difficult, because it’s happened before, more or less. Christianity made it easy for previous ages to condemn the pagan empires of Rome, Greece, Egypt and co (and indeed the ancient Arabic civilisations) without abandoning the inventions and innovations of those civilisations. Indeed, even at the height of Christian belief in Europe, interest in the cultures of the pagan empires remained high, even if Christian scholars felt the need to inflict a version of their own value system onto their researches. There’s no reason that people now shouldn’t be able to do the same with the ages we have left behind, or are hopefully in the process of leaving behind. Yes, good things come from bad, but not because of the bad, but because (most) human beings are extraordinary.

In 2017 there seemed to be – as I suppose there always must be – an ever-increasing number of warring nostalgias and counter-nostalgias, the latest being for the Russian Revolution in 1917 – a violent event, with vast and oppressive consequences and therefore definitely negative, but like most revolutions, born of aspirations and ideals which are hard to dismiss. In fact, Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale Of Two Cities seems uncannily prophetic, because Dickens – as he explicitly realised – could see that human nature and human actions remain fairly constant:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”

I think it’s probably true that it’s always the best of times, for somebody, in some respect, it’s certainly always the worst of times for others; which sounds complacent or at least fatalistic, but only if one doesn’t try in some way to improve things. This kind of impersonal nostalgia – for ‘better’ times – is, necessarily selective. (in fact, all nostalgia is, because perception is selective – hmm, it seems like this just started copying the thing about realism I wrote recently, but bear with me) and relies to a large degree on ignorance and/or self-deception in order to be nostalgia at all.

History isn’t a subject, history is everything; people, peoples, cultures, societies, but, necessarily “history” as taught, or absorbed through popular culture, filters and simplifies, to the point where some people in Britain still talk nostalgically about ‘Victorian values’ without (usually) intending any reference to the exploitation and subjugation of untold millions of people, child prostitution and child labour, the life expectancy of the average Victorian person etc etc etc. And, as always, history is more complex than its popular image. The era may be symbolised for British people by the building of railways or the expansion of the Empire, or by Jack the Ripper, or Queen Victoria being unamused, or by the establishment’s treatment of Oscar Wilde; but it was also the era that produced and shaped Jack the Ripper, Queen Victoria and of course, Wilde himself, as well as the whole decadent movement. Interestingly, Sigmund Freud was only two years younger than Wilde; an apparently value-free but perhaps significant observation…

This kind of complexity is what makes history more interesting than it’s sometimes given credit for; the Scottish Enlightenment was a wonderful, positive, outward-looking movement, but it coexisted in Scotland with a joyless, moralising and oppressive Calvinist culture. Time and nostalgia have a way of homogenising peoples and cultures. The popular idea of ancient Rome is probably one of conquest, grandeur and decadence, but what is the popular idea, if there is one, of ‘an ancient Roman’? Someone, probably a man, probably from Italy, in a toga or armour; quite likely an emperor, a soldier or a gladiator, rather than say, a merchant, clerk or farmer. Even within this fairly narrow image, a complex figure like the emperor Elagabalus (Syrian, teenage, possibly transgender) defeats the obvious school textbook perceptions of ‘Romanness’ (as, perhaps, it did for the Romans themselves). Even in our own time, the fact that older generations from the 60s/70s to the present could lament the passing of times when ‘men were men & women were women’ etc is – to say the least – extremely disingenuous – presumably what they mean is a time when non-‘manly’ men could be openly discriminated against and/or abused and women could be expected to be quiet and submissive.* Similarly, throughout my life I have heard people – and not exclusively right-wing people – talk about the economic success that Hitler brought to Germany; but you don’t have to be the chairperson of a financial think tank to see that a programme of accelerated militarism that requires war in order to function isn’t really a viable economic model for anyone who doesn’t also espouse the ideology of Nazism. But a strange kind of nostalgia dictates that if it wasn’t for all those pesky Nazi faults he could have been a great leader. He couldn’t, though, because he was a real person, he did the things he did and therefore he wasn’t a great leader.

*throughout this article I have been referring to ‘people’ and ‘humankind’ in what is intended to be an inclusive kind of way, referring to people of all races, genders or indeed lack of gender. I admit I have probably referred to gender in a binary sense, partly no doubt through laziness. However, I do have a tendency to  not use the term ‘cis’, unless necessary – for me personally, the word ‘women’ includes trans women and the word men includes trans men. I don’t intend any offence by this, but I also don’t really mind if anyone is offended. I think it’s a shame that something as basic (if not simple) as a person’s gender should be a matter of opinion, but so it seems to be. My own view is that the contents of someone’s underwear is none of my business unless they explicitly make it so.

As I’ve said at least one too many times, history is complex,  but nostalgia, despite being impossible to sum up in a single word other than itself* has a simplifying quality. Nostalgia is safety – political reactionaries always look to the past for ideas of stability – but that is only because the past itself is stable, in the sense of being unchangeable. As we see daily, though, although (until the invention of the time machine) it is unchangeable, history, through endless re-interpretations and re-evaluations and new points of view, isn’t really ‘stable’ at all –  and I think it’s fair to assume that (as Dickens implied) every ‘golden age’ masks a dark age. And although it mainly seems otherwise, people are, by and large, fairly positive, they want to look back with fondness, even if it’s a melancholy fondness. There’s a quote from the great Scottish singer/songwriter Alex Harvey that strips away the soft-focus effect that the distorting lens of nostalgia imposes on history:

“Nobody ever won a war. A hundred thousand dead at Waterloo. No glory in that. Nobody needs that.” (quoted in Charles Shaar Murray’s Shots From The Hip, Penguin Books, 1991, p.71)

This is, I think, indisputably true; but evidently I am wrong – people are entirely capable of being nostalgic about almost any negative event. ‘The Blitz Spirit’ is remembered fondly in Britain because the blitz ended  years ago and all of its bombs already fell and lots of people survived it. It’s hard to make a film about the past without an element of nostalgia, especially when the film is played out as a thriller or adventure of some kind. But even leaving aside war movies and the old fashioned western film, there is and has been in recent(ish) times a whole sub-genre of ‘elegiac’ Western movies which, by and large, focus on the dying days of the ‘old west’ while barely acknowledging the genocide and horror that is the historical backdrop of the period. In a way, that’s fair enough – those stories are not about that subject – but when there are not only no (or very few) films about that subject, and it is barely even acknowledged by ‘official’ narratives of taught history, it’s a stark and telling omission.

*though interestingly, its original Greek meaning ‘homecoming pain’ is more specific than the word itself has come to be in English, and most of the European languages tend to use variations of the word ‘nostalgia’ rather than having their own word with the same meaning) 

It’s my personal feeling that nothing good is produced by adversity; which is not to deny that people are amazing, resourceful, resilient and inspiring; they are. When I said before that every golden age masks a dark age, it’s probably true too that every dark age is shot through with some elements of positivity, although I won’t scrutinise that statement too closely. Countries which were colonised by the British Empire (or indeed any empire) manage to grow and assert and define their own cultures; but we can never know what was lost. I love blues music (and indeed the whole phenomenon of western popular music which mostly grew from it), but again; we can never know what would have been, had these energies not been re-directed by a couple of hundred years of slavery and exploitation. Individuals achieve almost superhuman feats of bravery and resourcefulness etc when facing adversity; escaping from abusers, kidnappers etc. But no-one in their right mind would – I hope – recommend that all young people undergo these kinds of ordeals in order to fully achieve their potential. I don’t think it’s particularly useful for individuals (although governments and institutions are a different thing) to feel guilty about the deeds of the people of the past (or proud of the achievements of the past, really), I also see no need to pretend that, because India has a big railway network, the British Empire did something positive by oppressing the country’s people and culture and stealing its resources. Nothing good came of the British in India. India survived anyway, just as people survive catastrophes everywhere and achieve amazing things in doing so.

Lou Reed and Rachel in 1977 (Mick Rock)

So much for impersonal nostalgia – the personal kind is in many ways very similar, if less destructive. I’ve always been a nostalgic person; both for things I don’t remember, or that were long before ‘my time’ (you name it; silent movies, the 1960s, the Weimar Republic, Hong Kong cinema of the 70s, the Northern Renaissance, the Scottish Enlightenment, 80s teen movies) and, more naturally perhaps, within own experiences. One of the things that initially made me write this was a reference in Anthony DeCurtis’ biography Lou Reed – A Life (John Murray, 2017)* to Reed’s 70s partner/muse Rachel, a fascinating figure who seems to have vanished into history. In googling her I discovered various sites about vanishing/vanished aspects of New York and, because old photographs are endlessly fascinating, somehow segued from that to the vanished Jewish East End of London and the vanished and vanishing everything of everywhere. But as irretrievable as Jewish East London of the 60s and the underbelly of 70s New York are, one’s own childhood is equally as irretrievable, not that one wants to retrieve it, exactly.

* An excellent book, but one which illustrates some of my points; while Lou Reed spent most of his adult life complaining about his conservative 1950s childhood, DeCurtis himself has a more rose-tinted view of the period, saying “In stark contrast to the identity politics of today, assimilation was the order of the day…and none of Reed’s friends, Jewish or not, recall incidents of anti-Semitism or bias” (p.14) – fair enough, except that he also says, ‘Richard Mishkin was a fraternity brother of Allan Hyman’s in Sigma Alpha Mu, a so-called Jewish fraternity because at the time Jews were not permitted in many other fraternities.” (p.36)

Most of the polaroids etc that make up the ever-browsable Internet K-hole appear to be American, but any child of the 80s will recognise the texture and aura of the era we grew up in. When George Orwell wrote (I think in The Lion and the Unicorn, but I might be wrong; I’ll check) – “What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person” he was putting his finger on one of the strange paradoxes of culture, heritage and nostalgia. The memories I have of the 80s are made up of a distorted, child’s-eye view of events and culture which is truly mine, plus things I know now that I didn’t then, other peoples’ memories, TV, films. The most potent sources of nostalgia seem to be – as the makers of shows like Stranger Things and Dark, and films like Super 8 and (too many to list) are very aware –  the things you didn’t notice that you had noticed, the most ephemeral details; jingles from adverts, fonts, packaging, slang.

And this is right, I think. The fleetingness of things remembered has nothing to do with their power as memories. I have no idea what the first horror film I saw was, but I do know that a scene on some TV show where skinheads (or possibly a single skinhead) glued a man’s hands to the wall of a lift/elevator scared me as a child and stayed with me for a long time; maybe because I used to see skinheads around on the streets (you had to watch the colour of the laces in their Doc Martens to see if they were ‘bad’ skinheads or not – though they were probably kids too, I now realise). I also know now (but didn’t then) that these were the second wave of skinheads, which is why I also saw Oi! written on various walls around the town; at the time I don’t think I ever made the connection. Again, when one thinks of the impact of very small occurrences it shows how impossible a really objective view of history is. I no longer bear any high school grudges, but without really thinking about it,  many small and/or random sneers and insults from my youth have stayed with me in vivid detail, along with the people and places involved. Similarly (but nicer) I will eternally feel grateful to two beautiful black girls in Camden in (I think) 1990 or 91 who made remarks to me which, even at the time were, at best ‘not politically correct’ but which pleased me immensely; it is among the very few teenage memories that boosted rather than eroded my confidence; a tiny thing, barely even an ‘incident’, but a big deal to a painfully shy adolescent. What to make of such a minor, slightly embarrassing (especially at the time; I can still vividly remember – although it was not a rarity – my whole face burning when I blushed. People often remarked on the redness of my blushes. I remember – not even slightly nostalgically – being compared to a tomato, being told I looked like I would ‘burst’ etc) episode? Nothing, except that real nostalgia, unlike the nostalgia industry (“it was the 70s; Buckaroo!”, to quote Alan Partridge) is particular, not general. The Camden episode may include references to youth, gender, race etc, but it has nothing to do with those factors really, and I doubt if the two girls remembered it even days later. These are not the kinds of details which are worthy of a biographer’s attention;  but they define my youth every bit as much as the music I listened to, the sweets I remember that no longer exist, or the clothes I wore.

To me, 80s nostalgia  has less to do with “the 80s” in the sense it that it appears in TV shows and films as it does a litany of gloomy-sounding things: the urban decay of 60s and 70s council estates, indoor markets, army stores, arcades,  brutalist churches that harmonised with the concrete towers  that the fire brigade used for practise. This is a kind of eeriness as nostalgia; reflected in my liking for empty streets and art that represents empty streets: Algernon Newton, Maurice Utrillo, Takanori Oguiss , the photography of Masataka Nakano and taken to its extreme, Giorgio de Chirico, where the emptiness isn’t empty so much as  it is pregnant , reminding me always of  – nostalgia again – the ruined city of Charn in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew (by far my favourite Narnia book) – which made a huge impression on me as a child – and may be where my liking for such things (including ‘urbex’ photography, like that of Andre Govia, and of course, The Ruin, quoted way back in the first paragraph) comes from.

The Red Tower by Giorgio de Chirico
Street scene by Takanori Oguiss

“The passing of time and all of its crimes, is making me sad again” – sadly, one of those crimes is that when I first heard that line (from Rubber Ring by The Smiths) in 1989 or thereabouts, Morrissey seemed to be on the side of the downtrodden and marginalised, whereas now he seems to be one of that increasing number of people who pretends that the mainstream of British culture is itself somehow being marginalised; which is patently ridiculous. And nostalgic, of course. And there’s a whole culture industry with its own cultural shorthand, to bolster the standardised view of any given period; especially now, when a decade can be summed up by a b-list cultural commentator or celebrity who clearly isn’t old enough to remember some of what they are talking about, saying “‘e were mad, weren’t ‘e?” about some figurehead of the era. Not so great of course, when said figurehead turns out to be Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris, at which point even nostalgia, like history, has to be revised.  But, as endlessly mentioned above, the beauty of all nostalgia is that it’s selective. The 70s that Morrissey seems to  feel nostalgic (in the true, mixed feelings sense) about (witness the whole of Viva Hate, which I love) wasn’t ‘better’ than nowadays, but the writer of its songs was young then. He isn’t now. There are younger people who are also nostalgic about the 70s, or the 80s, because they see the partial versions of the era(s) preserved by those who were there then, or who pretend to have been. The people who mourned the loss of the blitz spirit mourned it because a) they were younger then, and b) they survived it, and told people about its spirit. The people who are nostalgic for the Empire will (hopefully) never have to deal with being in charge of a mass of powerless, subject people whose resources they are stealing (or be the subject of the same), but they can enjoy the things it brought to all of our lives; the wealth of the Empire which, like the mythical ages of Greece and Rome, and the giants that the Anglo-Saxon poet pondered over only exist now as the faded, distorted memory of a faded, distorted memory. Like the 70s, like the 80s, like 2017, like yesterday, they are wonderful and terrible because they can never come again.

Happy New Year!