Magazine

A Point of View: Nostalgia - it's not like it used to be

  • 14 December 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Instagram photos, from left: Venice statue, two people in red, white and blue stetsons, and boarding a plane

The ease with which we can now assemble a digital archive of our lives and times means younger people are far more nostalgic about their loves, losses and travels, says Will Self.

Into my sixth decade now, I find that the present interests me less and less. Of course, the future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of hopes, fears and anxieties, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a way-station through which events travel to the vast shadow lands of the past.

I get up in the morning, and as I shave I listen to the radio.

The news is often bad - people are suffering, here, there and everywhere - and as I soap and scrape I feel immediate compassion. Then I dress and go downstairs. While the kettle boils I hear the exact same news repeated, and my attention begins to waver.

There's a temptation to think that this is simply a function of the - relatively speaking - calm life I live, that having stepped aside from the march of time, I can no longer hear the tramp of its boots.

However, it wasn't always like this. Like everyone else, I suppose, there was a period in my life when now was of paramount importance - if we take "now" to be a wobbly phenomenon, something like a raindrop, encompassing the moment as well as immersing consciousness, and reflecting each to the other as it plummets into the future.

Inside the now all was scintillatingly significant, hip and happening, while the un-become future was void of everything except for one or two events I was looking forward to, or away from. As for the past, well, it was black and white, jerky, frumpy and lifeless - gelid, certainly, but altogether uncool. Unless, it was coloured by my own vivid memories.

I think I now understand why it is that the young are so very nostalgic. They have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom. For those of us who have months, years and even entire decades mouldering in the attics of our memories, nostalgia seems a curiously boastful kind of hoarding. So you had a love affair, or moved abroad, you got ill, or had a parent die - well, so did I, so did I - and more than once.

No, it's not nostalgia I feel for the past, but a continuous engagement with it. I walk the streets and the crowds streaming past me seem to move at increasing speed, their overheard voices have the high pitch and squeaky intonation of helium breathers.

And their clothing is time-tailored. As I watch, trouser legs flare, pleat and turn up, hair spikes up, waves and then wilts, patterns simmer into being before fading to grey.

It's not, I stress, that I feel no involvement with the present, or compassion for its inhabitants. It's just that it's become a slightly foreign country to me. They do things differently there, for sure, but while I may study the phrasebook and buy a few local handicrafts, I don't invest too much in the place, because unlike the natives I'm aware that we will all, without exception, soon be moving on. It would seem that I, who never could make much sense of physics when I was at school, have now gained a strong sense of Einsteinian space-time. I am free of the nimbyism of now, and feel a strong kinship with both the dead and the unborn.

I've characterised the middle-aged as free from the nostalgia of youth, but I suspect that this, paradoxically, is an aspect of the zeitgeist. Certainly, for time out of mind an obsessive dwelling on happier former days has been synonymous with getting older, while it was the juvenescent who rushed with open arms to embrace the future.

Image caption Are your memories filtered via smartphone apps?

I wonder if my own generation - the baby-boomers born between 1945 and 1961 - haven't both changed and been changed by the new digital means of the past's production.

Before the late 19th Century, the manufacture of memory was a laborious business, requiring cumbersome mechanical processes and even craft. Offset printing, followed by the mass dissemination of photographic images allowed the generality of people - who heretofore had been denied a record of the times - to line their shelves with them.

Throughout the 20th Century, the preservation of individuals' memories became cheaper and so more ubiquitous, but it wasn't until the last decade that the seamless interconnection of mobile recording devices with the world wide web allowed for the retention of the past almost in its entirety.

It is well over a decade now since the philosopher Jean Baudrillard began arguing that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a highly mediatised world - indeed, that there was no objective reality anymore, only a reproducible simulacrum, the nature of which is determined by large-scale corporations and their allied governments.

But the world of photo-messaging and Facebook, of YouTube and Google, is not one defined by the manipulation of the masses alone - rather, it is conjured up by the digitations of the great mass of individuals.

Perhaps the reason I feel quite so liberated from the present while more and more attached, not to individually-recalled "good old days", but to a collectively attested and ever-present past, is because the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I've been and the people I've met, all of them time-coded to a 10th of a second. There are also audio files of conversations I've had, and an email trail leading back to 1996 comprised of many, many thousands of ephemeral traces.

In this brave old world, I can employ a few keystrokes and so correlate my personal recollection of what was happening on that day, at that very hour, with public events in Birmingham, Bratislava or Beijing.

Because of this, it seems to me that in the past decade or so, the half-life of our memories has become artificially extended. Instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now, one we flit-click about and so delude ourselves as to our own eternal youth - until, that is, we look down at the wrinkled and liver-spotted hands that rest on the keyboard.

How perverse, therefore, that the contemporary news media keeps to an entirely different beat, an ever-accelerating tempo. The news cycle has been 24-hour since the early 1980s, but the number of updates within each of those hours has steadily grown. Now the letters of the threads that run continuously beneath the live reporting look to me like the cogs of a virtual flywheel, one that spins ever faster as it tries to provide our inertial present with motive force. More events, more comments on those events, still more events provoked by those comments, and in turn, comments on those comment-induced events. The actual is sliced, diced and winched forward, only to tumble off time's assembly-line into the great slag-heap of now.

In recent years we've seen a slow food movement emerge - its aim, the portioning-off of what we eat from the remorseless chomping away at the environment by big food producers and retailers.

And we've also witnessed the rebirth of slow travel, as people take to their feet and rediscover their own locales, rather than being whipped airborne and girdling the Earth.

It may well be that what our society also requires is some kind of slow news, a manner of reporting present events that will at once acknowledge the novel situation, and also redress the balance between the ancient history before the web and a monstrous - and babyish - present.

Such a slow news might bear witness, even as events occur, to the fact of there being recurrences. It might properly contextualise our institutional scandals and individual humiliations within a longer view.

In the current enduring now, great tragedies and TV talent shows have a tendency to be breathlessly equated, but a slow news might take a long and deep breath before pronouncing with Solomon-like gravity on matters that, soon enough, will be exposed as utterly inconsequent.

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