The Dangers of Nostalgia as History

Sometimes as a writer you look back at people you knew and wonder where they are. Friends, old lovers, passing acquaintances that pop into your head. It’s so easy to see all this through rose tinted glasses, summers that never ended, kisses that lingered and toys lost in yards, that all now seem now to be so emotional, so much an extreme of feeling. ‘God, I loved that Space 1999 Eagle’. ‘God, s/he was wonderful kisser’. ‘That summer was the so hot it cracked the flags’. ‘I wonder what happened to the cast of…’. You have to be careful as a writer that you don’t allow your past or even your character’s past to be just nostalgia, just another form of emotive or sensory response. First person narrative would become sickly or just plain sick. There is something about Holden Caulfield, as you grow older, that just makes you want to slap him. The Famous Five make you itch on your palms for their latent racism, hatred of the working class and the distinct alternate history that these little bastards were framing people on a regular basis. Yet, in your memories these books were so wonderful, so full of life, so full of how you felt and still feel about them.

Na-nah! (that’s a buzzer sound, you can add your own jarring sound if you wish to rock you out of this reverie).

Nostalgia is a difficult thing to negotiate in your head so your head papers over the cracks, badly. People, books, places become extremes in these memories. Lovers become two dimensional cackling bastards or pedestal mounting, babe in arms, saints. Places were always bigger, better, brighter and beautiful or the gates of hell. Books were in two lists, ones you read and ones you would burn.

Now, if you wrote nostalgia on the page how quickly would your readers laugh or worse still, how long would it take between the writing and the reading for you to cringe? A corkscrew cringe that seems to never end as you wind into yourself.

It’s important that we see the past as much as we can, not just our personal past but historical too. Not through the eyes of those looking back but by those who were there. These are often the forgotten voices and sometimes they are not reliable, take Samuel Pepys, sex offender, pervert and cheese burying blaggard but still he is trotted out for the great fire of London and we ignore his wandering hands. Florence Nightingale is pushed into the front line but Mary Seacole is barely taught. I am not saying that Pepys or Nightingale should be deleted from history, neither should the slave traders or the politicians that did great but still killed millions. I am saying that we should have all the cards on the table. Just as you have for your personal history when you know why someone left you or where you lost that toy. You have all the facts and then you can be nostalgic all you want but at least you have been given all the cards. Remember that even in Russia today there are people who think Stalin was great. In Cambodia there are those that still support what Pol Pot did and in America some people think that Tony the Withering Tiger, aka Trump, is great. You can never plan for what people will do but you can give people a true history. I mean how would you feel if I took your personal history and edited out some important facts? The name of your first lover. The fact you have three children but now seem to only remember one. History as it stands is like the memory of dementia patient, more and more is edited out and when reclaimed is denounced by extreme views. We should take off the rose tinted glasses, we should see all of history including the social context. We cannot judge those that have gone by our standards but we should damn well make sure that our standards have improved because of it. So, look back at that lover, that friend, that passing acquaintance, 1066, 1945, 1381, the death of George Floyd, the shooting of JFK, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Grenfell, and the countless figures who have passed through your life and start to ask simple questions: why do you need to look back? Is this because you want to be young again? Or, is it because you want to learn from previous events? What do you want to learn? Do you want to use it as a weapon to beat other’s with? Is that a good thing? History teaches us that things go wrong, we know personally that if we did something wrong that we won’t repeat it exactly the same again. We know that our collective history is either a catalogue of disasters or successes but again ask, why do we see the past as so binary? In success there is failure. In failure there is always success for someone. Ask. There is no fear in just asking why slavery happened. Who was responsible for it? How long does it go back? Has it always been white people enslaving black people? Or, is slavery really about something more? Is racism really about something more? It is so easy to say it is because of skin colour but again we look for a nostalgic argument. I grew up in working class area where racism was everyday. It wasn’t in your face racism. It wasn’t bully boys marching in London. Or was it? There, see it, that’s nostalgia in play that racist terms were harmless, everyday, part of the working class, cor blimey, guv ethos. I remember celebrating one of the last Empire days, thereafter called a play day at my school though the British Empire map was still hanging in a classroom when I left (I find it hard that this map is now an interior design feature). Racism in my childhood back in the 1980s was about difference, any difference, and even back then it made me uncomfortable because I was too young to be heard, too afraid that someone would notice that I was different. That’s how racism works, to exclude others but to remind you that you are only included under pain of violence. That is why the wallpaper is now cracking and peeling away. Difference is society, difference is history but unless we have everything on the table to discuss, to assess, to look at, we will just reach for more wallpaper, paste it up quickly and say, ‘Look, isn’t it all nice again. Don’t we all like the colour?’ And, it will not be a question, it will be statement and those who want to speak out will be too afraid to speak out just as you are afraid to look back on the bad things you have done. We should not be afraid to ask questions, to learn, to understand and accept differences. We should be afraid of staying silent.

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