Opinionbel: On Nostalgia

Snow days. Grown ups form snowball-throwing gaggles, wearing mittens and Salopettes last seen in the late seventies; ‘working from home’ descends inexorably into huddling by the fire (stroke radiator) and trying to find ‘The Snowman’ on You Tube. Snow, by all acrostic rights, should start with ‘N’ for nostalgia: one inch of it and adults forget all the maturity they’ve been putting on for decades and get down to the serious business of marvelling at the world. I’m well aware that ‘snow’ should also feature a rather prominent ‘T’ for ‘transport chaos’, but for now we’re going to focus on the ‘N’.

Nostalgia is something of a buzz-word in our post-modern cultural environment. Almost as soon as we’d finished looking forward to the millennium (remember that?) and its silver-suited, futuristic ways, we threw our vision into reverse and started talking about the good old days of the twentieth-century, twenty minutes in the past.

Take advertising: Coca-Cola have been thumping the nostalgia gong for a goodly while, but recently thousands have joined the Santa-steam-train-of-oldness. For years Tunnocks were derided for their stuck-in-the-fifties packaging, but with illustrator Gillian Kyle selling thousands of items bearing their ‘timeless’ branding, the tasty Tunnocks ship has come in. Marks and Spencer’s went all out to celebrate their 125th anniversary last year (seriously, who celebrates 125 years of anything?), an ill-disguised attempt to broadcast the sentiment, ‘We know things are looking grim in the present and in the future, but the past was great and in the past people bought loads of stuff from Marks and Spencer’s. Just saying: cause or effect?’

But wearing a teacake apron might not be purely ruthless consumerism. Like the wearing of a hideous Christmas jumper to a club night, it may be ironic.

Irony and ‘hipsterism’ take the good, the bad and the hideous stuff of yore (‘yore’ in this sense referring to ‘that which came before 2005’) and turn it into stuff which is, quote, ‘AMAZING’, unquote. A number of online parodies of hipsters have swept to popularity recently, and one of the prime targets for attack is the use of the ‘retro’ which so defines them.

Retro, however, is used in a slightly different way from ‘nostalgic’. Nostalgic (beware approaching etymological thrills) comes from the Greek words nostos meaning ‘homecoming’ and algos, which is ‘pain, grief, distress’. Nostalgia is a homesickness. We can be nostalgic about Pacman or about summers spent sailing boats to lake-islands with all of our upper-middle-class friends, as long as they remind us of a past of safety, support, and happiness. Whether this past ever really existed isn’t necessarily important (Pacman was a fickle mistress, but I tend to only remember the good times).

So are we walking backwards into a bright new dawn (notably even Labour’s future-focused, dawn-filled manifesto cover of 2010, was in a retro-communist style)? If our eyes are focused on the horizon behind us, are we doomed to trip over our own feet? Is nostalgia for the past going to keep us there?

I know only these two things: no-one sledging down an icy slope at 143 miles an hour on a bin-liner feels emotionally ‘retro’. And: sledging on bin-liners is fun.

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