Comment: Nostalgia conceals lack of imagination

Television programmes such as Downton Abbey say more about us than the past

Television programmes such as Downton Abbey say more about us than the past


THE public appetite for things that went before is a sad indictment of young people who neither want to grow up nor learn anything new, writes Tiffany Jenkins

In 1688, a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, made a new diagnosis. He observed that soldiers on military duty were pining for the green, green grass of home, so much so that it was debilitating.

Hofer pulled together two words with Greek roots: nostos meaning “return home” and algia meaning “longing”, to make a new one. His dissertation had a longer life than most, as he went down in history as the man who coined the condition of nostalgia.

Nostalgia has since expanded from a medical diagnosis to mean a more general longing for a past time, a feeling we all have experienced.

But what is interesting, and what is unfortunate, is just how many of us immerse ourselves in days gone by. Our whole culture is suffering from a bad case of nostalgia. And it is debilitating.

So many aspects of popular culture are permeated with the past. Whether it’s television programmes like The Hour, The Paradise, or Downton Abbey, if you flick through the channels you will see there is more than a casual interest in how things were.

Even The Great British Bakeoff is made with a knowing wink to the period before women left the home.

And then there are the retro recipes. The rum baba, prawn cocktail and black forest gateaux have all had a comeback.

On the high street the shops and designers regurgitate the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, 1940s, and so on, and so on. Each of the decades, the 1960s in particular, have had so many revivals, in all they must have lasted longer than the time they hark back to.

There is “Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe” on many a street, selling new bonbons in antique-looking glass jars. There is a craze for vintage clothing that has even seen the comeback of stonewashed jeans from the 1980s. Jiving, swing dancing, and tea dances reminiscent of the 1920s are in vogue.

I’m told a vinyl revival is going on. Of course, music aficionados will say that it sounds better that way. But when you hear them also say, as I have, that they like to hear the scratches and the needle on the record, it raises the question: is there is something else going on to explain their low-fi preferences?

People have always looked back, you may say. “Twas ever thus”, you protest. But I think not, or at least not like this. In the good old days, those who longed for a golden age had lived it.

They may have viewed their lives through rose-tinted glasses, but that was their prerogative. Nostalgia was understandably associated with the elderly who had a long and rich life to look back on, whereas today, there are a number of notable developments that depart from this.

Consider the plethora of the past on the telly. I am sure it’s fascinating and fun to write a script that is a period piece, but there is a common thread to these different scenes, regardless of when they are set, that is revealing. They say more about us than the plot and characters they aim to portray.

Each episode of these TV series rams home just how enlightened we are now, especially about female equality. As a case in point, have a look at The Paradise, and the plucky female lead. Likewise, watch The Hour, and you will see how much more tolerant we are today in relation to race. These programmes implicitly brag that we take so much better care of our health.

After all, we don’t smoke and drink like they did on The Hour, or the programme that influenced it: Mad Men. Nor do we have servants, or prosecute homosexuality as a crime, or view it as a sin, as in Downton Abbey, and The Hour.

There is a knowing, self-congratulatory pat on the back in all of the episodes. They hint at how progressive we are, as opposed to how things were. How complacent, smug, and uncritical.

And maybe that’s the point. The dominance of the past is a way of making us feel better today, maybe because it feels like this is as far as social change and politics will go.

Things are not going to get better, and thus if we look back, rather than forward, there is a sense that there was some improvement and it’s not so bad after all.

Today, the past is a refuge for a culture that has gone off the future. No more do we try and invent something new, something better. The idea of utopia is long gone as a viable, exciting possibility, and history has taken its place.

There is a longing, it would seem, for authenticity, a desire for something that is real, felt to be absent in the present. Specialist shops have opened across the world venerating old equipment.

T-shirts with slogans urging you to “leave the digital grind behind” and to “celebrate the analogue future” are snapped up and proudly worn as a statement about bits of plastic (old record players, cassette tapes) that seem more genuine.

A trendy hotel I have stayed in had a photo booth in the lobby where guests could get those old passport photos as a gimmick.

What’s more, they are consumed by a very youthful market. That’s people in their 20s who hark back, not just to a time that this generation never knew, but to times as recent as ten years ago.

Just browsing in a bookshop yesterday, I saw an annual devoted to the noughties for sale. That’s twelve years ago, not the olden days.

The tremendous success of certain “apps” cannot be ignored. Two in particular – instagram and hipstamatic – stand out. They make pictures taken in the present simulate the period look of photographs taken in the past.

So your snaps of a party on a Saturday night can look like they were taken in the 1950s, or 1970s, depending on your decade of choice. One fades out the colours at the edge, making it looked aged. “Instant nostalgia” is what the marketing companies call it.

There has been a wave of similar apps, including “Retro Cam”, which means, they say, “you’ll take delicious old-school pics your friends will drool over”. Options include a photo that turns out “a scratched film and medium vignetting” as if it’s been lying around for decades, forgotten in an old shoe-box. Another choice is, “Shake It Photo”, which mimics the old Polaroid film.

The people using them never took photos that looked this way. So why are they clouding their images of today, with the lenses of yesterday? Instant nostalgia is backward, especially when it is snapped by people in their early 20s, who are too young to live their present through the look of the past. They should be creating new visions of the future, instead of relying on old, tired frames.

After Hofter published his thesis, Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches and a journey to the Swiss Alps would ease the problem of longing.

I recommend a different cure, which is less painful and much less expensive: stop looking back. It is time for something truly new.




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