Is it Fair to Be Cynical About Nostalgia?

Media Nostalgia Occupation
Proper Binmen

Back in November 2022, a very well-written and thought-provoking piece appeared in The Guardian. Entitled “‘Who remembers proper binmen?’ The nostalgia memes that help explain Britain today, it was penned by one Dan Hancox and became the latest offering from the newspaper’s The Long Read series of articles, which it describes as “in-depth reporting, essays and profiles”.

It is, as the name given to the series would suggest, rather long, but that should not deter anyone interested in nostalgia from taking a look. After all, as well as being an enjoyable read in its own right it is always rather flattering, as an avowed nostalgic, to find myself being psycho-analysed by a professional writer who cares enough about my state of mind to wish to get to the root of my apparent problem with the modern world.

Elf and Safety

Hancox, rather cutely, hones in on “binmanism”, his euphemism for a mindset which sees everything about the past as being inherently superior to everything about the modern age. As an example, he points to the popularity of posts on Facebook reminiscing fondly about the time when we had “proper binmen” – real men’s men who always wore a smile as they lumbered your heavy metallic dustbin upon their poor, breaking backs with never a care for their own welfare or for “Elf and Safety”. This ruing the demise of, and by inference a yearning for the return of, an old, impractical and frankly dangerous institution, is seen to personify the illogicality of the nostalgic’s longing for the imagined glories of a better past.

It is a shame that those who sneer at us nostalgics rarely credit us with having a sense of humour. Seldom do they see the tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing side of our seemingly relentless crusade to turn the clocks back to 1976, or whenever. Indeed, Hancox actually invokes Monty Python’s famous Four Yorkshiremen sketch and yet suggests we fail to appreciate it as parody. Whereas in truth, we all have something of those characters about us as we reach out fondly to a past in which ignorance and adversity came so readily.

A fading yen

But it is true, certainly, that we have a tendency to filter out the bad memories. By so doing we are left inevitably with a fading yen for the Shangri-la that we left behind and to which we find ourselves tragically unable ever to return. Faced reluctantly with this incontrovertible truth, it is little wonder that we lash out bitterly at the spiritual barrenness of the modern world in which “they” have left us stranded.

And let us not be in any doubt, the appeal of yesteryear is, after all, a spiritual as opposed to a material one. We may well have played in dangerous parks, climbed trees and eaten mud, but to scoff at our wistful aching for the temporal poverty of yesteryear would be to miss the point entirely. For folks of a certain age, there is a distance in the eyes of modern youth as they slouch aimlessly with their baggy trousers dropped halfway down their backsides and their heads buried deeply in their hand-held gadgets. Life for them is more complicated than it was for us and yet they seem less well equipped to deal with it, because consumerism and the relentless designs of capital have stripped them of their personalities, and left them defenceless and at the mercy of a society which views them only as units of labour, and of consumption. In our day we were valued as human beings – or at least it seemed that way.

A reactionary worldview

Which brings us neatly on to another criticism which is often levelled at us by those who argue the case for modernity over tradition – that our sentimentality is essentially a cover for a reactionary worldview. Discombobulated by the enlightenment that comes with knowledge and understanding, we rush headlong instead into the protective embrace of the ignorance in which we all once found reassurance.

Browsing through the threads which grace the seventies’ nostalgia groups on Facebook and elsewhere, it is a charge that is sometimes difficult to challenge. It isn’t a big leap from lamenting the demise of “proper” binmen to pointing out that said warriors of the public hygiene industry would have been more or less exclusively white, male, English-speaking and (surely) heterosexual. Their descent into unfriendliness, poor service and lack of pride – whether real or imagined – has coincided with the emergence of a more socially inclusive, cosmopolitan workforce, and it is easier to simply conclude one to be the inevitable cause of the other than to delve too deeply into a consideration of the bigger socio-economic picture in which the real cause of modern job dissatisfaction is likely to be found.

It is perhaps necessary to remind our accusers of the emancipating, liberating values which underpinned popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this time that the death penalty was abolished, same-sex relationships legalised, and the Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act and Race Relations Acts brought onto the statute books. And whilst it is undoubtedly the case that we are further along the road now than we may have been then, the road itself was laid and the path set by earlier generations. It was inevitable that some would be slow to accept that necessary change (I know, I was that little boy), just as it is inevitable that some who reject the values of tolerance and inclusion will look longingly to the less introspective days of the past for comfort. But the reputation of our cohort should not hang upon the retrospective actions of the few whose motives, let’s be honest, are more about validating the prejudices they hold today than they are about genuine remembrance.

An entirely subjective question

The question of whether things were “better in our day” than in the present is of course entirely subjective. Those who mock the nostalgic almost always make an argument which is entirely materialistic in its nature, which in my view serves only to underline my own. Fun, fashion, enjoyment, music, film, art, culture, respect, manners, attitudes – none of these things are wealth-dependent. We loved life in spite of our tribulations, not because of them. As I wrote in my booklet Being 58, “bleakness was our security”.

As Hancox correctly – and helpfully – points out, we don’t pine for the days of the Cuban missile crisis or the sinking of the Belgrano. Our yearning is for bus conductors, Chopper bicycles, gaudy wallpaper, bigger Wagon Wheels, white dog poo. It is for the things we once had in age during which we felt more secure, less alienated, more valued, less exploited. In other words we hanker not so much for the artefacts themselves, but for what it was that they symbolised.

Our critics don’t get this. We often feel that our lives were better “in our day” precisely because they lacked today’s complexities, complexities which have been visited upon us by a faceless elite in their unrelenting quest for material gain (largely for themselves).

It is not helpful to belittle nostalgics. There is method in our madness to be sure. If this manifests itself in a seemingly irrational longing for power cuts, scratchy toilet paper or proper binmen then so be it. Remember, we will always have the last laugh. Because we always knew how to.

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