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Just like the ones we used to have – the two sides of nostalgia

December 23, 2017



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Whether we’re dreaming of a white Christmas or a blue passport, nostalgia is a widespread feeling at this time of year. First coined in the 17th century by a Swiss medical student to describe the distress of mercenary soldiers fighting away from home the word has come to mean, more generally, a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.

Nostalgia often has a benign connotation. It is a feeling which allows us to capture and reflect on beautiful and pleasurable moments of the past, stripped of their contemporary difficulties. Such moments of nostalgia can bring us much pleasure and comfort, but it is worth reflecting on the darker and more disturbing side of this emotion.

The origins of the word relate to issues of distress, for individuals, who as mercenaries, were dislocated from the surroundings of home, of their fellow countrymen, of familiar customs and the like. This distress could affect wellbeing, harmed individuals’ ability to recover from their wounds and, sometimes, be a cause of suicide. We know from more modern science that that the cultural dislocation experienced by some immigrants can be a trigger for severe mental health problems. Like most psychological issues nostalgia sits on a spectrum, for many of us, a manageable set of symptoms but for some a source of distress.

I am no stranger to nostalgia myself. The Welsh have their own word for this phenomenon “hiraeth” and as the son of a welsh exile I was surrounded, as a child, by a lot of nostalgic affection for the country of my ancestors, its language and the values and sense of community of the Valleys. I built on that with my own sense of nostalgia for the beautiful countryside which I visited each summer, so different from the suburban drabness which I grew up in. Such feelings are easily aroused when I return now to Wales and provide a well of comfort from which to draw in facing some of the challenges I face in life.

There is a wealth too of nostalgic writing, often at least semi-autobiographical, which I have always enjoyed. How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewelyn, captured for me as a teenager a romantic and inspiring view of the South Welsh Valleys. Books such as Lark Rise to Candleford and Cider with Rosie described evocatively the English countryside before the modern world fully intruded on century old patterns of living.

As yesterday’s debate about the post Brexit colour of our passports demonstrates, questions of nostalgia are playing an increasingly large role in public discourse in our country. These are not trivial or superficial issues but rather relate to a deeper reaction to the scale and pace of change which is happening in the modern world. This is most acute for those groups most left behind by economic and social change and technological development and for those places and communities whose sense of identity and purpose have been marginalised in a more globalised world.

For Britain there is an added narrative of national decline, related to unresolved issues about the loss of empire and related sense of our own importance. Nostalgic yearnings whether for blue passports, the heroism of the Dunkirk evacuation, evensong and afternoon tea, brass bands and old-fashioned football teams are all part of a national narrative, however false at times, which demonstrates a nation, at least in part, not comfortable with its position in the world.

Inevitably nostalgia is a bigger issue for the older generations. One of the saddest features of the Brexit referendum was how it emphasised a division of outlook between young and old. Such a division has many historical precedents but in our own time it is further exaggerated by the scale of demographic change and the shifting balance between the generations.

So, what we should think of nostalgia, comfort or curse? As with many things it is probably both.

The first point I would make is that while nostalgia can provide moments of comforting reflection the reality is that history, like a river, flows in one direction. While there are always echoes of the past in future events, it is not possible to “turn the clocks back”. When we try to do so we do not recreate the past, only a different version, and not necessarily better, version of the future.  Furthermore if we are to apply the past in our consideration of the future we have to face up to the reality of past events and not just our rosy tinted recollection of them.

The second point is to recognise that shared ideas and symbols of historical identity do matter, and matter, in particular, in times of stress and disruption. In a more globalised world we need to celebrate and cultivate more local customs and sources of identity, whether geographical or representing other expressions of shared identity. This needs to be done in an open and tolerant way not to provide another source of repression and control.

Finally and to echo the theme of my last blog there is a need to find ways, at a time of a worrying lurch to the extremes, to find ways of creating a dialogue which connects, rather than divides, the majority of opinion.

So, in dreaming of white Christmases or green Valleys we can find comfort and common cause with our fellow citizens. Let’s celebrate nostalgia as long as we remember we must live in the present and not the past.


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