The trouble with nostalgia

15 years ago today, I moved to London.

I fool myself that I remember everything about it: the long ride down from Scotland in a van with my boyfriend and his dad, all our worldly possessions clattering in the back, and a talk radio station blaring out as we drove through the night. The arrival at a huge Tesco on the edges of they city as the sun came up and wandering in for coffee, grumpy and lousy with the choking tiredness of an overnight journey, sick to the back teeth of each other but clinging to the idea of one another as the only familiar things in our eyeline. Everything else was strange and scary. London was loud, I do remember. So loud, so early on a Saturday morning.

It was warm and sunny and as we drove to get the keys to our flatshare with two men I’d never met, the buses got redder and the street signs got more familiar. Seeing signs for the not particularly salubrious Archway and Pentonville Road flash by still felt like brushing against celebrities, tiny flecks of their stardom and notoriety shining on me, making me feel excited and nervous and awake. I can still see them now. Feel them, even. We stopped at a workers’ cafe on the Holloway Road and my boyfriend’s dad bought us squelchy fry-ups that I couldn’t eat because the day was too huge, there was too much happening. My future had arrived; we could never go back. All the money we’d had was spent on getting here: a month’s rent and no more favours.

I romanticise it now, of course, but at the time it was terrifying and uncertain. It was the beginning of something, but the end of so much more. Sometimes it all came together and at others it didn’t, but all of it fed into today. And when I remember it, I have to stop myself from falling into the trap of cutesy, fake-empowering reminisces about pulling myself up by the bootstraps and making it work, or the unseasonably warm sunshine that hit my face as I turned the key in the main door for the first time. I force myself to remember the churning stomach, the aching bones, the trembling as I took a long drag of a cigarette outside a letting agent’s office in Finsbury Park – which had, coincidentally, just been broken into – and the unknown looming above me. Because that’s the stuff that kept me going, not getting misty-eyed about anniversaries or keepsakes.  Forward, always – even when it hurts.

So I try not to live in the past. It’s a murky, gloomy, weird mix of swamp and ocean, replete with sinkholes, dangerous currents and hands grasping at you, trying to drag you deeper and deeper into mawkish sentimentality, rose-tinted fantasy sequences and dreary bygones.

But sometimes it’s irresistible, isn’t it? Occasionally, you can’t help yourself. You have a vodka too many one Saturday night at a party, and before you know it, Spotify is primed and you’re woozily tapping in titles and trying to get the rest of the group to remember. “This one! And what about this one? Love this one. Aw, mate. This takes me back.”

But it doesn’t take you all the way back. You can’t be that person again. You’re older and spongier in the middle, you’re pirouetting in a kitchen-diner where all the crockery matches and there are children’s paintings on the fridge instead of torn-out pages from The Face and Sky, with Anna Friel’s face staring back at you. You are not as hungry as you were, and hopefully not as poor. You’re not the kind of person who’d steal CDs from a party anymore, nor would you take ecstasy at 4 in the afternoon on a Wednesday simply because there is nobody to stop you. You have forgotten the hope and the hopelessness and the gaping yawn of time and happenstance ahead of you. You haven’t been taken back anywhere; you’ve merely been allowed to peek back into a Disney-fied version of your previous existence, and to protect yourself from the horror that you may never be as young and oblivious again, you tell yourself you remember exactly how it felt, and that you’re much better off now. And even though you don’t believe it, it is probably true, because the very act of feeling nostalgic is in itself a luxury, and usually a token your life is going pretty well.

Life experience as a rational human being tells us that what people like to call “the good old days” were anything but. They were good for some, those who were in power or had control, but on the whole they were pretty bad for everyone else. They were winners, said what they wanted to say and did as they pleased, while everybody else just swallowed it up. Where you hear someone lament the passing of these halcyon hours, it’s usually a sign their advantage is slipping – albeit in the tiniest increments – and all for the greater good. These minute shifts in power – and they are minute, although the entitlement of these newly, inconsequentially disadvantaged people complain of catastrophes and earthquakes – are long overdue, and only the tip of the iceberg.

For the last 60 years or so, the wrongs of generation upon generation have begun to be righted, and while we have a long way to go, the pushback from the majority who believe “some animals are more equal than others” has already gathered strength. Campaigns against large-scale movements like civil rights, or localised issues like the EU, the Australian marriage equality referendum, or the repeal of the 8th Amendment in Ireland, pretend to be about the future, about “protecting our children”, but they are inspired by the watery-eyed old crow of nostalgia. It’s not even about age – bigotry and myopia are not unique to those bent of back – but about a nervousness that control is slipping away, a belief things must have been better back in the day because nobody complained about anything, and nobody needed “rights” and “equality”. The past isn’t just another country; it’s a soundproof booth where the only music you can hear is your own. Brexit has retuned the radio and we’re stuck on golden oldies that funnily enough, never sound as good as you remember. Don’t they crackle? Aren’t they muffled? So tinny and shrill. “Ah,” they say, as they unplug your speakers, “proper music”. There is no winning an argument when the past takes hold, but it’s not too late for everything else.

I’ve been guilty of nostalgia. Once or twice, I have sat dewy-eyed retracing steps from my childhood on Google Street View, open-mouthed at the disappearance of shop-fronts, the cracking and peeling of paint on doors and the memory of long-gone curtains at windows I used to stare out from. But I cannot go back there, and I shouldn’t want to. I don’t want to. The day I stop moving forward is the day I stand still, and the rest of the world will be compelled to move on without me, just as it always does, leaving the statues behind – stone relics forgotten entirely until it’s time to lay flowers at their feet in begrudging memoriam.

Nostalgia’s purpose is to remind us of how far we’ve come and the mistakes we shouldn’t repeat; it should warn you away from the past, not be a manifesto for the future. Be respectful of your past, but don’t let it be your master. Instead, look outward, and listen to the histories of others – stories of oppression, the fight for justice, the demand for equality. History is a record, not an instruction manual.

There is no harm in reminiscing, or feeling a frisson of excitement as you remember the way you felt one night, the sights and smells of your youth travelling through time to intoxicate you once more. We live in an age where long-gone comedies can rise from the dead, where everything has a sequel or a reboot, and we’re encouraged to mine our own pasts to find joy, be it from fashion, movies or music. But even these glances back to whence we came have evolved. The neons of our 80s-style leg warmers are brighter than they were three decades ago, the fabric less scratchy. Production values are higher. We have learned, taken on board.

Your one debt to the here and now is not to confuse your own past pleasures with the grim reality of the history books. It is a pledge that you’ll never go back to the bad old days.

That debt is due. Pay up.

A shorter, yet somehow even more rambling, version of this post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers receive new writing by me before anyone else. It’s not a newsletter;  I never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

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