“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.
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 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!