Rule, Nostalgia – a sharp new story of nostalgia for the good old days

Entertainers play cricket in a village square ahead of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games © Reuters

Are you nostalgic for 2012? I know I am. That great Olympic summer, when Britain seemed so confident in its post-imperial European identity and London claimed the title of the world’s greatest capital, with its progressive and outward-looking mayor, Boris Johnson? Danny Boyle’s famous opening ceremony – a social democratic contest of democracy, William Blake and multiculturalism – codified a country at home with its proud history and immediate place in the world.

Do not fall into the trap. Hannah Rose Woods’ nostalgia-sharp new story reminds us that it was also the London of the 2011 riots, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, and riven by fears of an upcoming Islamist terror attack. Yet for ‘Remoaner’ liberals, the Team GB 2012 spirit can today be perfectly reimagined as an account of all that has been lost to chauvinism and conservatism over the past decade.

First identified in 1688 by Swiss physician Johanes Hofer – who mapped the impact of nostos (return) and pain (pain) on Swiss soldiers fighting abroad — nostalgia is part of what it means to be “modern”. No longer a medical diagnosis, that gnawing sense of loss speaks to a rapidly changing world and the breakdown of established identities. Any cultural history of nostalgia inevitably invites us to reflect more on what is missing in the present, rather than on a useful account of the past.

The immediate target of Rule, Nostalgia is that group of Brexiters yearning for a lost imperial past. “It’s Magna Carta . . . It’s Waterloo! It’s Agincourt! It’s Crécy! We’re winning all these things,” cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Conservative Party Conference in 2017. Joining them, suggests Woods, are the “culture warriors” of the new right who have become so immersed in the honeyed certainties of the past that they seem unable to cope with great historical rigor. at Culture, Oliver Dowden, spoke in 2021 of the need to “defend our culture and our history against the vocal minority of activists who are constantly trying to bring down Britain”.

So far so familiar. The richness of the work comes through an exploration of both the reality of nostalgia and its long history within British culture, dating back to the Tudors. For the enduring feature of the Golden Age – from our own ardor for solidarity in post-war Britain’s New Jerusalem to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s convocation of a lost and bucolic England in the interwar period – is that these eras themselves yearned for an earlier era of prelapsarian happiness.

Winston Churchill certainly wasn’t cloudy-eyed about the modernity of new towns and social statism: “All that stuff about planning and compensation and improvement. Wide vistas and all that. But give me the 18th century alley, where the feet hide, and the prostitute ply her trade, and none of this new planning doctrine.

Periods of retrograde daydreaming were typically times of rapid socio-economic change, beginning with the Restoration of the 1660s (“all the old parties, with their merriment,” should be revived, argued royalist William Cavendish; “May Games, Morris Dances, the Fool and the Hobby Horse, must not be forgotten”) to the neo-Gothic of the rapidly industrializing Victorians to the Victorian values ​​of frenetic Thatcherism of the 1980s.

Among the most accomplished sections of the book are those that dissect late-Victorian fears of urban decay and widespread “anxiety about anxiety,” which a fledgling advertising industry ruthlessly played on. “Is England’s fall from greatness near?” asked the creators of Eno’s Fruit Salt, tying a lazy gut to the end of the Empire. This nervousness and disenchantment was the precursor to the Edwardian reconstruction of childhood where, as in JM Barrie Peter Pan (1904), it existed as a psychological paradise where it was better never to grow old.

In describing the nostalgia that migrant communities often harbor for long-gone homelands, Woods also surprises by emphasizing the nostalgia experienced by evacuated settlers. ‘I remember the pain, loss and homesickness of leaving India,’ wrote one post-independence returnee of the passage ‘home’, arriving in ‘cold, grey, drab Britain. post-war and not very friendly”.

Alongside the nostalgic are also the voices of those who celebrated the useful advances of the times, crisply codified by Macaulay’s declaration that “the history of England is emphatically the history of progress”. More viscerally, the novelist Henry James found that London and Paris only filled him with the “nostalgic poison” of the backwardness of an old European world from which America had freed itself.

Much of Woods’ historical narrative is well-trodden territory, and there are obvious debts to Raphael Samuel, Patrick Wright and Robert Hewison’s studies of life in an old country and the popular legacy of English identity. . There are also valuable little comparative analyses. Anyone Make America Great Again (MAGA)? But the framing is always interesting and, with it, a clear warning of the dangers to democracy posed by a culture of perpetual nostalgia. “It shouldn’t feel like an existential threat to explore the complexities of the past,” Woods concludes.

Which is certainly true. However, I will always enjoy my carefully preserved ‘memory’ which I remember clearly from Mo Farah’s 2012 victory in the 1500m. Or was it the 5,000?

Rule, Nostalgia: A backwards history of Britain by Hannah Rosewoods, WH Allen £20, 400 pages

Tristram Hunt is director of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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