Nostalgia is a bittersweet thing. Sharing happy memories and sighing wistfully about simple pleasures which we seem to have lost over the years, is undoubtedly a pleasant and entertaining activity, particularly when undertaken socially with friends or family. We all enjoy looking back fondly at our childhood or youth when things seemed simpler, free-er and less stressful. Being able to play outside unsupervised by adults, until the street lights came on; eating sweets and fizzy drinks without an accompanying sense of guilt; never even thinking about wearing sunscreen or worrying about paedophiles. And later as students with all of the carefree optimism, energy and idealism of youth, skipping lectures to spend the afternoon in the pub, or in bed with a lover. Staying up to the wee small hours talking, drinking, listening to music and still being able to get up and go to tutorials the next morning with only the teensiest hangover. Ok, so I lied about the last bit… I meant the next afternoon. But you get the picture and it is one best viewed through spectacles of the rose tinted variety. This is the fun side of nostalgia.
The not so fun side of nostalgia is that invariably when discussing the past with other people, the conversation moves from how great things used to be to “what is the world coming to” and tut-tut-ing about “the youth of today”. The whole sentimental yearning for times that have long gone tends to focus the mind on what has been lost rather than what has been gained and a lot of people seem incapable of looking back without complaining about the present. I am as guilty as the next person of mourning the loss of certain aspects of my past but I refuse to succumb to the “whatever happened to the good old days/the world is going to pot today” philosophy.
For every moan and groan about the state of the world today I can think of a dozen more reasons to be grateful. I feel sorry for those people who are so obsessed with the things that we can no longer do (or at least feel that we can no longer do – and there is a very real difference) that they are blind to the many things that have improved. As a small example, had I been born a hundred or even fifty years earlier than I was, into similar circumstances in a small northern town, I would not have had the opportunity to continue my education beyond 15 and social mobility would have been nigh impossible. I would probably have died from the appendicitis that I experienced aged 37. My Dad would not have recovered from his heart attack and my sister would also have died as a consequence of the difficult birth of her daughter. Even if, by some miracle I had managed to escape a life of working class drudgery, I would not have had the same career opportunities and would have been paid less for doing the same job as my male colleagues. Within living memory prejudice and sexism were far more overt and widespread than they are today. Three things I remember from my late teens:
- Whilst shopping in the local market with my Mum, just before I left home to become a student, the stall holder tutted and told us what a waste of time and money it was letting girls go to university because they only got married and pregnant anyway (!)
- I was advised never to use “Ms” as my title on job application forms because it implied I would be a bolshie feminist trouble-maker and that it would go against me (!!)
- A friend of a friend was discouraged from going to university by her family because they said that not only would she be left on the shelf and be too old to marry by the time she graduated but that men didn’t like intelligent girls anyway (!!!)
The fact that we no longer have to put up with shit like that is reason enough to not be too nostalgic for the past and to be more grateful for the present. I would not want to turn the clock back. My son may not have some of the freedoms that we had as children but he is growing up in a world which is more open, diverse, tolerant and where he is likely to live a longer, healthier life. He is not being forced up a chimney or to work in a mill for 12 hours every day for a start.
Of course we have a long way to go before everyone feels these benefits globally but I truly believe that the world is a better place today than it was a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago. By all means reminisce about your happy, carefree past but wear those rose-tinted spectacles with caution and remember…
“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be” Marcel Pagnol.