On the Uses of Nostalgia

I’m writing a short story inspired by the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (SPOILER ALERT), one of whose main theme is nostalgia for eras gone by. The protagonist (of the film, not my story) imagines 1920s’ Paris as the Golden Age and aches with the feeling of alienation of being born in the wrong decade. He is magically transported back in time to his ideal era, and it is everything he dreamed of – except the woman he falls in love with is nostalgic for the Belle Epoque of the pre-war period, and she, given a further time travel -provided opportunity, chooses to stay there. The conclusion of the film is that each era has its sides and that it’s common for people in all times and places to long for something different.

The protagonist of my short story looks slightly further back, having visions of 1850s Paris – and although those visions are occasionally grotesque, and certainly true to the murkier aspects of the age such as poverty, syphilis and substandard indoor heating, the character feels the pull of that time so strongly she can hardly bear living in the present. This aspect of the character is completely based on the author: I, too, have felt for as long as I can remember that I belong to a different time. I don’t, however, have a particular Golden Age in mind, but the longing is for pretty much anything different. It is an escapist fantasy, a narrative about there being a world I do belong to, a story about a better time and place – a story I need to tell myself to go on living, because if I accepted that this world and this time are all there is, I would be forced to face up to my estrangement from the world and would inevitably fall deep into a nihilist despair.

Last time someone asked me which century I’d have liked to live in, I said 100,000 BC – the whole earth was subtropical back then so a loin cloth was about as much clothing as you needed. I have mornings when I resist being in the world so hard it takes me ten minutes to put on one sock, so naturally the idea of a near-nudist tribe is immensely attractive. I have previously written about my admittedly inaccurate ideal of Victorian England, but given a time machine, I wouldn’t say no to the Middle Ages, or the 1920s, or indeed the summer of 1968. Anything pre-smartphones would do, to be honest. (No offence intended if you’re reading this on a smartphone. Although that might not be possible as I have NFI how the site design for mobiles works.)

I saw Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe this week (awesome show, still on, highly recommended) and as gripping as the story was, there were a few moments when the speeches went on a bit during which I paid all my attention to the construction of the stage – it is incredibly accurately reconstructed, in both technical structure and appearance, from the original 1500s theatre. Standing in the yard would’ve felt like having gone back in time if it hadn’t been for the helicopter noises and people taking selfies; an amazing moment of nostalgia overall. Shakespeare’s time is one I wouldn’t particularly wish to travel back to as my student loan would mean a life sentence in debtors’ prison, but how amazing would it be if all entertainment was like that? Pay just a fiver for a standing ticket and stand in the yard among the other peasants, watching a live performance whose plot is complex enough to require a pre-21st Century attention span but has lots of bawdy humour in it to keep the audience bursting into laughter, and then head to the nearest pub for a cheap pint. No more of this paying £50 to see a play in which nothing happens and then not being able to afford a glass of wine in the theatre bar (a Drama tutor of mine once said the definition of “middle class” is being able to have a drink at the Royal Court). Pubs and small theatres are being wiped out at a horrifying rate and theatre-goers will soon be divided into those who drink cocktails in theatre bars and pretentiously discuss the quality of the stage design, and those who watch Popcorn Time on their laptops and drink cheap vodka straight from the bottle.

Politically, this is a difficult time for the artists and writers in the UK – right-wing governments don’t tend to be supportive of our kind, and most people I know in this country are furious and depressed about the recent election. As worrying as it is that the right is rising all over Europe, my political tendencies are beginning to shift from considering socialism the lesser evil and leaning towards peaceful anarchy. No government, left or right, will create a world everyone feels they belong to as long as corporations hold all the power, so why do we place so much hope on governments? The tax people will never go after Amazon. No one who has money or power will willingly share it. So my suggestion is that we do what we can with what we’ve got. Blaming the government for the world being crap is waste of energy; longing for a Golden Age or the good old times is useless until time travel is invented; the nihilist despair is the most realistic option but rather unpleasant, and I say that from a lot of personal experience.We can create our own reality: self-sufficient communities and ecovillages are popping up all over the world, and while the change won’t happen overnight or be available to everyone in its current form, it will show way and we can, little by little, turn our backs on the government and the corporations and lean on each other, instead.

The best thing to do when the world feels unwelcoming and the nihilism rears its head is to indulge shamelessly in those nostalgic fantasies and identify what is so attractive about them. My main attractive points from the Victorian period are the fashion, the furniture and the architecture: I can bring those into my contemporary experience by visiting the V&A museum (lots of cool 1800s stuff in room 101) and drinking tea from pretty cups at home. I’m nostalgic for things being made by independent craftspeople without the big corporations of labour delegated to sweatshops. There’s still plenty of sweatshop-free and locally made stuff around, it’s just crazy expensive as the skilled makers are rare and have to pay ridiculous rents, too – but I can make good choices one at a time when possible, and make absolute reductions in my overall consumption. The 100,000 BC subtropical climate is a little harder to replicate so I’ll probably have to continue struggling putting clothes on every day, but I can read studies of prehistorical tribes and see if there’s something there I can learn from, about the communalism, the tribal dances, the sustainable living.

The protagonist of my short story doesn’t make a peace with the time she lives in: she just goes a bit crazy and her imaginary world evenly blends into the real. And that’s OK too, sometimes; especially for a writer there’s nothing wrong with occasional psychoses and highly eccentric behaviour. I’ll take total delusion and living in an imaginary world over nihilism any day, and if I can continue writing historical fiction and even get paid some money for it some day, then living in imaginary worlds could be my duty. Nostalgic fantasies show us what we want from life, just as discontent with the political climate shows what we don’t want from life, and it is useful to look at the nostalgia, listen to its message, and use that knowledge to take responsibility and do something to make this world a bit more welcoming.


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