Nostalgia vs History

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I’d always thought of nostalgia as being the sworn enemy of ‘real’ history, it should be held at arm’s length, frowned upon and mocked. Nostalgia, I would tell myself, is rose-tinted, dumbed down, sanitised history. I remember the point in which I became the sworn enemy of nostalgia, it was at the turn of the millenium when talking head programmes like ‘I love the 1970s/80s/90s’ had become ubiquitous. Of course I accept that people have always felt nostalgic and been drawn to sentimental structures of the past but since the early 2000s  nostalgia has become more and more acceptable and prevalent. We have reached the point where you can be nostalgic about pretty much anything from recent history; ‘ahhh, do you remember the noughties?’, ‘ahh, do you remember Tony Blair?’ Perhaps it’s simply that access to the things that make us nostalgic like old TV programmes, old music, old photos is so much easier with the internet. As with many things we can sate our appetite for rose-tintedness at ease and its acceptable. The current 1980s nostalgia is a fine example. The 80s are everywhere, in our fashion, our music and worst of all in our politics (hello Tories). THE 80s FFS! I was a child in the 80s and even I can remember how horrifically shit and naff they were.

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So, for me this type of reflection on history was put at the opposite end of a spectrum of understanding the past, where on one end you have a serious piece of academic study that rebuilds from primary sources informative, telling aspects of history and on the other you have ‘oh man, do you remember silly putty’. I guess what I don’t’ like is the idea of looking into the past not for knowledge and enlightenment but for a simplistic sop against real life. A biographical note is relevant here. My sister claims to remember incredible detail about being a small child, whereas I remember very little concrete fact about early childhood. Some memories that I do have I am convinced are not ‘real’ memories but those reconstructed from old photos and family stories. A good example is that I can remember my Grandpa who died when I was five, but suspiciously in the memories he is always wearing the same clothes, clothes that he is wearing in a family photo that was prominently on display at my late grandmas house. My sister disagrees and it is an enjoyable recurring argument between us.

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So why am I mentioning all this? It is because despite my best efforts I have found myself becoming increasingly nostalgic and seemingly unable to stop the flow. The photos above and below are examples of what suddenly made me realise quite how nostalgic I have become. They are taken with the ‘Hipstamatic’ I-Phone app. This app essentially allows you to take photos with your I-Phone that look, without any editing, startlingly like the photos I remember as a child from the late 70s and early 80s. All that is missing from them is little me in home-made red dungarees. I took these photos in Winchester on Monday.

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I'm not suggesting I have strong childhood memories about swans

te, he Permissive Footpath

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The Hipstamatic thing was on odd revelation but I think it is only the final noticeable symptom of a wider nostalgic malady, partly brought on probably by the recent death of mine and my wife’s grandmas (that is our separate grandma’s, we do not share a grandparent, we are not from Ipswich) and other big changes that are coming. As such I’ve been musing on the significance and worth of nostalgia and particularly  a quote from David Starkey:

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History is about places of the mind. Is my memory of the Tudor court any less real than my memory of my childhood home, which now looks completely different, differently furnished and lived in by different people?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/29/david-starkey-historian

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I love this statement, it gives an insight into how studying history works, at least in the mind of this very successful historian. The more you study events from history the more you build up an image and memory of this past. While this image must be based on research and on fact, in order to interpret and explain it I think you  first need to believe and empathise in it as a real event, not just an artificial collection of dates and facts. I’ve become increasingly aware of this the more history blogs I’ve read that give amazing snapshots into social history. Building this mental picture is the first step in the creative process of understanding history in context.

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Is this nostalgia? No, not quite but as Starkey eludes to it draws on some of the same basic desires and principles of memory that drive nostalgia. It’s clear that Starkey equates the Tudor court to his family memories, some of which I assume are nostalgic. I can understand this. From personal experience I now struggle to remember much of the factual and bibliographical references from my postgraduate study of the ancient Jewish Diaspora, but I can strongly remember some of the images I constructed  as I studied the period. I remember the strange early hebrew hybrid community of the second Jewish temple deep in Persian Egypt. Mibhtah with her mixed marriage and Egyptian practices but who still donated money every year to the temple. The fierce jealousies between the Egyptian and Jewish priests and weird arguments over donkey imagery. I’ve built up images and mental snapshots of this historical community that are so strong they feel like a memory, as equally vivid as the ones about my Grandpa. When I draw on them there is a sense of nostalgia not just for the time in which I studies them (which was actually pretty stressful) but oddly of the time my mind inhabited those worlds during my studies.

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Is nostalgia any use to us?Can it be more useful than just a mild diversion, a new opiate for the freeview channel masses? Can it help to draw people into thinking about the past in a way that reveals something significant or challenging? My assumption has always been that nostalgia is worthless because it is the wistful and frivolous memory, but sometimes reassurance is ok. If a person can engage with elements of their own past and draw meaning from them, even if its only snug nostalgia, then perhaps it encourages people to look a little deeper and see more.

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If we go back to the spectrum idea perhaps that helps us see how a nostalgic approach, properly utilised can help us to engage people with other aspects of the past, even their memories, that bring richer historical reward. Somewhere on the scale, probably closer toward ‘oh man do you remember Dangermouse?’ is family history. The family history industry is fuelled by the basic nostalgia that comes from looking back at your own past, but to be succesful it needs some basic historical skills and can introduce people to historical realities that they never dreamed of. I’ve spoken to friends who seemed surprised at how interested about family history they had become, to the extent of trying to understand more about the context in which their ancestors lived and bringing up a hitherto hidden interest in history. One website in particular is very successful in drawing people into thinking about history, that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise, by using those stock tool of nostalgia; old photos and retro items. ‘How To Be A Retrononaut’ (www.howtobearetronaut.com) is not a nostalgia website but rather a brilliant and witty look at the past, I’m sure it draws in the nostalgic and spits them out with a better appreciation of history. Somewhere between those two is my own Bibliophilia posts.

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So, Perhaps it’s time I made peace with nostalgia, I certainly can’t avoid it. Anyway, here’s me in those red dungarees:

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Red Dungarees *sigh of nostalgia*

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8 thoughts on “Nostalgia vs History

  1. Hels

    I am not worried about nostalgia. I grew up after WW2 ended when dad was away, mum was not allowed to work any longer, poverty was everywhere, the neighours all had some recurring war injury and there were 60 children in each class at school. Nothing was pleasant about the period 1945-60.

    But you mentioned something that does worry me terribly. “The more you study events from history, the more you build up an image and memory of this past. While this image must be based on research and on fact, in order to interpret and explain it I think you first need to believe and empathise in it as a real event, not just an artificial collection of dates and facts.”

    That is absolutely true, but I no longer remember the difference between my own life (personally experienced) and what I merely read/write/lecture about. I walked out of a film once because the director got some elements of Edwardian clothes wrong :( This is carrying history way too far.

    I travel a great deal, but not everywhere. So when I lecture on Vienna, Budapest and Prague, they all feel perfectly at home to me. I talk about the best hot chocolate cafes and the finest sunday afternoon tea-concerts. The tragic thing is that I HAVE been to Vienna many times and to Prague twice, but I have never been to Budapest. It is all based on other peoples’ experiences.

    Reply
  2. Yamara

    Nostalgia was considered a debilitating mental illness in the Regency and early Victorian periods, so perhaps your original disdain for it was reinforced by your empathizing with the scholars of those times.

    I believe the feeling of nostalgia is related to the body’s own clocks of rejuvenation every seven years, but I am not a biologist. However, it might make an interesting study to see how different cultures have reacted to individuals’ “homesickness” for the past. I would not be surprised to find it the basis for a wide range of religions.

    Reply
  3. SmallCasserole

    I suspect the important thing about nostalgia is sharing, if it’s simply about creating a detailed “visualisation” of the past it’s called something else, those name escapes me ;-)

    Reply
  4. Nick

    I suppose there have always been certain points in history at which nostalgia is more prevalent than others, and I wonder whether it relates in some way to one’s feeling of security in the face of change. Puritans in the 1630s, under threat by what they saw as a move towards Catholicism and (for many of them) suffering from the consequences of an economic downturn, saw the days of Elizabeth and Drake as a paradigm of what England should be. Romantic poets and painters, seeing the effects of technological change on the landscape, saw the pre-industrial world as an antidote to factories and the railways. Even more recently, some of the recycling and reworking of artistic styles and themes from the 1960s and 1970s during the early and mid-1990s could, I think, be traced in part to the impact of the 1980s and its effect on the economy, on manufacturing, on social cohesion and so on, as people looked back to a happier time and recreated it for themselves.

    I’m not quite sure where this leaves the current revival of the 1980s in terms of its causes – perhaps, again, uncertainty over the environment, geopolitics, domestic politics, a sense that nobody knows what to believe now and a hankering for an age when things seemed more black and white. Maybe Gene Hunt is emblematic of that, I don’t know…

    I’ve certainly been victim to it myself. I turn 30 this summer and have started reflecting on missed opportunities from my teenage years, on music I never was into at the time but am now, on how things could have been different if I knew then what I know now. Then I remind myself that I wouldn’t have met my wife or had my son if things had been different, stop being an arse and get on with cleaning up the house! But nostalgia for academia and the ability/freedom/lack of responsibility to do nothing but read history books was certainly part of what drove me to do a Masters a number of years after I’d left university behind. Funnily enough, I think I actually got far more out of it this time round than during my BA, despite fitting it around work and family, which suggests that you can still have a “golden age” now; you don’t need to go back in time.

    As you say, in small doses, I think nostalgia can be good at linking us with our past. I suppose it becomes problematic when you explicitly project your own values onto the past. There is always some degree to which we do this, but so long as we recognise that the past is a foreign country and that they do things differently there, it produces relatively little distortion: it’s when you start to see the past as a mirror for our own times that it becomes bathetic and a discredit to those who have come before us.

    Reply
  5. Amanda

    A wonderful, and thoughtful, article, thank you.

    I like your quote from David Starkey in particular, and there’s a lot of truth in it.

    Reply
  6. Hels

    I agree with Nick about getting far more out of a history degree as a mature age postgraduate student than as an adolescent undergraduate. My undergraduate degree was basically an excuse to meet bright young men and to arrange my social life for the next saturday night.

    But thinking of the present, exclusively, is an adolescent issue than resolves itself with maturity. By the time a person is 30, or 40 or 50 for that matter, he/she is capable of planning ahead and also capable of reviewing the distant past. As Piaget might have said, adolescents are interested only in “me” and “now”. Historians are normally a bit more thoughtful.

    Reply
  7. Aidan Baker

    For what it’s worth, and admittedly one I prepared earlier:

    THE ANTIDOTE
    Simple procedure you may use
    if you are minded to reduce,
    when looking at another age,
    the psychic risks of heritage:
    nostalgic thoughts are well cured when
    you know the way things were back then
    is more than half the way that they
    took to the way they are today.

    http://bit.ly/cXrG8w

    Reply

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