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Nostalgia: As good as it ever was.

By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.

THE GOOD THING about nostalgia is that it never runs out. Every day there’s more of it than before and there’s plenty for everyone. You don’t have to be a crusty 70-year-old or a grumpy 40 to be nostalgic about something. You can be nostalgic for your teenage years when you’re 25; you can be nostalgic at 20 if you want to be. You can be nostalgic for a time and place you never lived in. Nostalgia is the great democracy of the mind.

Unfortunately, for some people it’s the wrong sort of democracy, a bit like Brexit. Progressives, that sort. Guardian writers. Guardian readers. Schoolteachers. Or people who work for Sky or Demos, the think tank, and who get together to conduct a survey hoping to show how politically bad nostalgia is because it’s conservatives that get more out of it than the left. It was a Guardian writer who made the point, “Nostalgia is intrinsically conservative,” so there you have it. And that’s why the left hates it — they’re generally useless at producing anything people want to get nostalgic about. It’s a mixture of sour grapes and bad faith.

The problem for the left with nostalgia is that the past did happen. It’s real. And even when some of it is “imagined” it is still composed of fragments of reality. More importantly it is an emotional response. As David Kynaston pointed out in his National Life Stories Lecture 2017, history is also that “emotional cum psychological domain…. that whole area of feeling, so often unspoken and therefore so often hard for others to retrieve or chart” as well as a collection of objective facts. It’s the history of subjectivity — and I’d include nostalgia as part of that.

So what does the report come up with?

The authors open with the assertion that certain European political movements appeal to a “glorious past”, and look to a restoration of a “golden age”. I don’t believe this is the case but the authors have decided to start with the biggest cliché so everyone knows where they’re going to take this. At least they’ve spared us the ur-cliché of Britons wanting to return to the 1950s.

They acknowledge that despite the momentous levels of prosperity enjoyed by European nations, “citizens are gripped by a kind of malaise, a sense that something is fundamentally rotten at the heart of their societies.” Perhaps every generation has its own malaise and ours may be a deep disillusionment with the whole European establishment; as the authors of the report say:

…citizens believe the forces that once held us together — our shared cultures, traditions and values — are being displaced by an emphasis on pluralism, perceiving governments are failing to actively defend and promote their nation’s heritage.

For the last couple of decades, in western Europe the emphasis has been squarely on subordinating and dissolving the national in the supranational, whatever the consequences.

That strikes me as accurate. In Britain (and I assume also in France and Germany, which are included in the survey) the establishment — politicians of all stripes, media, the educational system — for the last couple of decades has been keener to look after anyone but their own people and anything but their own culture. The emphasis has been squarely on subordinating and dissolving the national in the supranational, whatever the consequences. Open or looser borders, mass immigration, the willingness (and complicity) to allow some immigrant communities to pursue violent, repulsive and illegal activity under the the guise of respecting their culture, the relentless ceding of national and local autonomy to transnational institutions such as the EU, etc, have contributed to this perception. Eventually people begin to realise that something is up.

Once the populace start to get uppity, of course, having found themselves subject to “a cottage industry of conspiracy thinking” fostered by government reluctance to address their worries, in step the villains! “Insurgent politicians of varied ideological inclinations”, skillfully harnessing the narratives, fostering and “peddling the promise of ‘control’, not just over immigration, or laws…but over time itself.” “Peddling,” you note, as if the idea of control over such things were mere hucksterism, as if governments who have engineered so much are suddenly deprived by some ineluctable iron force of nature from making laws or managing their borders. We all know who they’re talking about here. It’s those pesky populists.

We can’t have that, especially if they want to control time itself. Controlling time and history is the job of the left. Or rather, deleting the history and memory of what you don’t like. That way there’s nothing to be nostalgic about. Problem solved.

But what are the solutions Demos have come up with to rid us of these turbulent insurgents and revolting peasants? Apart from the usual ones, resulting from the false narrative of the “left behind” economic groups, there’s the suggestion that political leaders should show courage in engaging with contentious issues – which we can forget about straight away, since today’s politicians have no courage and no intention of confronting the real issues.

What we do get are a couple of ideas that inadvertently reveal the mindset of the people producing the report. “Greater proactive investment to promote integration on social and also cultural levels, recognising that this is a fundamental responsibility of the state” — which assumes that the burden of immigration lies not with immigrants but with the host nation. In other words: governments carry on with their open immigration policies and make us pay for them. Why? Because such immigration has “economic benefits” (supposedly) and these trump all cultural and social effects, including the ones the people resent and which prompted the whole nostalgia debate in the first place. So that’s a non-starter.

“A stronger emphasis on international engagement within the education curriculum…” No, no. Have the writers not learned anything from their research? Having defined some of the root causes of this popular dissatisfaction as being governmental pluralism, love of immigration and “staunch cosmopolitanism”, they then propose more of the same, to be more deeply embedded in the education system that already demotes national culture and promotes internationalism. Pointless. That’s what I mean by bad faith.

Which leaves us where we started, with a surfeit of disquiet and populism. And lots of nostalgia. In a few years there’s going to be a lot more of this to look back on, so you’ll have plenty to tell your children when they ask you, “What did you do during the Nostalgia Wars?”


suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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