Rachel Helen Smith examines our current obsession with nostalgia and asks what might lie behind it.
A man walks his dog across the vast lawn of a grand, stately house. A flag flutters proudly from the battlements. Inside, the servant bells jangle. Letters are sorted, pots boil on the kitchen stove, and laundry is carried up and down the stairs. In the dining room, a butler lays the cutlery with careful precision. Vases of fresh flowers are placed on dressing room tables, and gas lamps are lit in the library. Even the bright chandeliers are delicately dusted.
Viewers watch in their millions, fascinated by the ornate details of this luxurious visual feast, and enchanted by the lively orchestral music that plays in the background. Once the stage is finally set, they are ready to start watching another episode of Britain's favourite period drama: Downton Abbey.
Downton is the most popular programme of its kind, but it is certainly not unique. In fact, British culture is currently on a relentless nostalgia binge. Have you noticed how many shows and films focus on history? How fashions hark back to former years? How our habits and hobbies echo those from days gone by? A glance at recent bestseller lists, TV schedules and cinema listings reveals our newfound appetite for stories of the past. To satisfy this hunger we've been treated to a banquet of historic fare that lures us back to bygone days of British life. From the bonnets of Cranford to the nursing caps of Call the Midwife and everything in between, we have re-imagined almost every era for ourselves.
British culture is currently on a relentless nostalgia binge
For a start, there's been a spurt of renewed interest in the Tudors, with the adaptation of Philippa Gregory books, two films about Elizabeth I, and Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies. It's not all ruffs and beheadings. We've also had a popular film about Queen Victoria and new versions of classic novels from the Victorian period by Dickens, the Brontës and Elizabeth Gaskell. The most popular writer of all is Jane Austen: since the millennium there have been over a hundred adaptations, imitations and parodies of her novels. Then there's Larkrise to Candleford, Mr Selfridge, The Paradise and Upstairs Downstairs. We've also had books and TV programmes to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic. There have been even more about World War One in the lead-up to its centenary. At the same time, World War Two is being scrutinised from all angles in films like The Book Thief, Valiant and The King's Speech. Focussing on more recent times, The Hour looked back to the fifties, White Heat to the sixties, The Iron Lady to the seventies and eighties.
Amongst this plethora of historic offerings, the most popular is – of course – Downton Abbey. Created by Julian Fellowes, the first episode aired in 2010 and the show has since won critical acclaim and awards galore. Celebrity admirers are said to include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Michelle Obama and even the rapper P. Diddy. These days, it seems like everyone is nostalgic.
A simpler world
Why do you think we've become so intensely fascinated with stories of historic Britain? What has made us all look back with longing to days gone by? Journalists have offered a range of answers. We're lonely. We're stressed. We're isolated from each other. We have low self-esteem. We despair about the state of our lives.
However, these are all private emotions. Britain's current nostalgia is a national affair. How does nostalgia work on a mass scale? Scientists and cultural commentators were curious to find out, and began to probe the social component of our backwards-looking culture. Many of them believe that we are becoming a nostalgia nation because twenty-first century Britain is confusing, cruel and boring. With the recession, the riots and everyone talking about 'Broken Britain', we've started longing for what we think of as simpler, happier days. Shows like Downton allow us to escape our own lives for an hour or two. Instead of worrying about our own society, we can simply look at beautiful costumes and enjoy romantic storylines.
the whole point of watching these programmes is to escape from everyday reality
We know that these programmes are not historically accurate, or even very realistic. If anything, they're more like soap operas. But this doesn't stop us from watching them. In fact, we prefer it if there is not too much violence or darkness. When Downton included a rape storyline or Call the Midwife started talking about mental illness and bombs, it didn't seem right. After all, the whole point of watching these programmes is to escape from everyday reality. It's like Lady Violet says in an early episode of Downton, "I hanker for a simpler world, is that a crime?"
Nostalgia is certainly not criminal, but is it helpful? As Christians, should we encourage our culture to keep looking back? Considering the objects of our nostalgia in more detail helps us to understand where this urge comes from, and where it is taking us. So, let's begin by taking another trip down memory lane.
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For many people, it was the Second World War that seemed to embody Britain at its best. Despite the tragedy and austerity of the period, something of the Blitz spirit has since come to define what it means to be British. Over the last few years, 1940s music, food and dress have been revived. Girls far too young to remember the war mimic forties fashion with polka-dot dresses, pearls and drawn-on stockings. British seaside resorts host 1940s 'vintage' celebrations in which people bring along old cars, gas masks, and ration books. There are even forties-themed club nights known as Blitz parties. These events are not celebrating the horrors of the war, but rather the steadfast British spirit in the face of those horrors.
Think, for example, of the most pervasive slogan in twenty-first century Britain: 'Keep Calm and Carry On'. Everywhere you look are red posters bearing the soothing phrase in white letters, topped by the image of a tiny crown. The five-word mantra was first produced by the British Government shortly before the Second World War. A Northumberland bookshop owner rediscovered a tattered copy in 2000 and his customers were soon drawn to its historic, heart-warming message. It seemed to epitomise the Blitz spirit, revealing the character of Britain in face of adversity: restrained and determined.
Keep Calm and Carry On. This inspirational message from the past resonates with a nation undergoing a crisis of its own, and it has become one of the most recognisable memes of the twenty-first century. Endless parodies appear on posters, souvenir mugs and t-shirts. Divorced from its context, the original message has been utterly trivialised. Yet it persists as a slogan, and an image, of contemporary nostalgia.
God Save the Queen
For young people, their closest genuine link to the wartime era was the Queen. Elizabeth saw first-hand how her father managed a country at war, succeeding him in 1953. Her popularity has remained constant ever since. However, the British public increasingly want to see her not just as a ceremonial figure, but as a real person. It began in 2006 with a film called The Queen. Screenwriter Peter Morgan said of his title character: "As far as I am aware, I wrote about [her as] a cold, emotionally detached, haughty, difficult, prickly, private, uncommunicative, out-of-touch bigot." Alan Bennett's witty The Uncommon Reader and Emma Tennant's novel The Autobiography of the Queen both presented her as hopelessly out of touch and incapable of performing even basic daily tasks. In Bennett's novella, she declares "I think I may be turning into a human being. I am not sure this is an altogether welcome development." Over and over again, the Queen was presented as cold and inaccessible, defined by her unofficial historic catchphrase: "One is not amused."
What is surprising is that it doesn't seem to matter how writers present their fiction versions of the Queen. The real Elizabeth is still, for the most part, a loved part of British culture. By 2012, she was enjoying record popularity. A survey recorded 69% of Britons claiming that the country would be worse off without the monarchy. The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee with a flotilla on the Thames and a concert organised by Gary Barlow. The nation was encouraged to join in by holding street parties and picnics to bring local communities together and revive a sense of neighbourly spirit.
Later in the year she wholeheartedly entered into the Olympic spirit, seeming to parachute into the opening ceremony as part of a stunt featuring her beloved corgis and the James Bond actor Daniel Craig. The fairytale wedding of her grandson Will and his middle-class girlfriend Kate, and the subsequent birth of a tiny prince and an even tinier princess, have secured the nation's optimism about the future of the royal family. Two simple words perfectly sum up the current appearance of the British monarchy: happy and glorious.
On your marks, get set, bake
We've lapped up Downton Abbey and stories about Queens past and present. But twenty-first century nostalgia isn't just about aristocrats in their manors and royals in their palaces. It is about ordinary people recapturing something of the Blitz spirit in their own homes. As a nation we have embraced the trends and hobbies of the past. Nostalgic images and products are back in fashion, and we're drawn to anything with a heritage twist. The high street shop Past Times may have closed down, but an assortment of new shops has sprung up to satisfy our appetite for 'vintage' or 'retro' products.
Most popular of all is Cath Kidston. The store, named after its founder, sells everything from cushions to cutlery, and tea-towels to tents. Her growing range of clothes and homeware is adorned with trademark vintage patterns: fun florals, pastel polka dots and cute images of the British countryside. Trend experts think that her products are popular because they hark back to a simpler, nicer, happier world. The Cath Kidston brand, they argue, conjures up a comforting and familiar vision of 1950s domesticity, with housewives busily baking, sewing and filling the teapot. They call this phenomenon 'kitchenalgia' – nostalgia for the kitchen. The idea is that Cath Kidston allows the modern working woman to cheerfully embrace her inner housewife.
an assortment of new shops has sprung up to satisfy our appetite for 'vintage' or 'retro' products
Kitchenalgia is more than a fashion statement. People really are spending more time in the kitchen, and the revival of baking is often credited to the BBC's hit The Great British Bake Off. The show is designed to evoke a cake competition at a traditional village country fête. Ten home bakers compete to show off their signature dishes, technical skills and show-stopping baking prowess. The whole affair is uniquely British in its warm, gentle charm; the worst that can happen is that a contestant substitutes sugar for salt, or accidentally uses someone else's custard. For many viewers it is the televisual equivalent of comfort eating. Binging on Bake Off is the perfect antidote to increasingly depressing news reports, gruesome crime programmes and apocalyptic nightmare films. Whatever is going on outside, in the Bake Off tent it is all smiles, gingham and mini macaroons.
Bake Off also offers its audience a thrifty hobby that uses traditional skills. The British public dutifully headed to the shops to stock up on essentials. John Lewis reported a 67% increase in the sale of baking products in a single year. A spike in the sale of cake stands, baking books, flour, eggs and food colouring has also been attributed to the show's popularity. Cupcakes began appearing on the pages of Vogue, on the cake stands at celebrity weddings, and in boutique bakeries across the UK. Even clothes worn by Bake Off judge Mary Berry are prone to selling out after they are featured on the show. Some financial analysts go as far as to claim that Bake Off has kick-started enough independent bakeries and home baking businesses to have helped Britain out of the recession.
A stitch in time
Whilst home bakers across the country were donning their pinnies, budding sewers also dusted off their antique Singers and got stitching again. Inspiration came in the form of another BBC show, The Great British Sewing Bee. Made by the same people as Bake Off, the show challenges ten amateurs to demonstrate their skills on national television. The Great British Sewing Bee resonates perfectly with the spirit of the moment: a kind of austere make-do-and-mend mentality. Viewers are therefore keen to try the skills for themselves; after the first episode aired in 2013 sewing machines started flying off the shelves at John Lewis, which was again the retailer of choice.
One home-sewn favourite that has definitely made a comeback is bunting. Bunting – triangles of fabric hung from ribbon – has the advantage of being simple to make. It also reminds people of the simple joy of post-war street parties. So as a nation we hung homemade bunting in the streets for the royal wedding, and Union flags dangled from the London lampposts for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Traditional groups like the Women's Institute now find themselves inundated with new members keen to learn how to darn, crochet and cross-stitch. Even knitting is undergoing a renaissance. New websites have been founded to inspire creative crafters and the most popular, Pinterest, has over 70 million users.
Home interiors have also been redesigned with a nostalgic twist. The trend known as 'shabby chic' is based on the idea of reusing – or 'upcycling' – second-hand products. The aim is to find well-loved antique items of furniture that show a cherished, country cottage charm. These can be accessorized with treasures and trinkets salvaged from junk shops and auctions: chests, suitcases, tea tins, crates, candelabras, chintzy crockery, gilded mirrors, typewriters and dusty books. Alternatively, you can give items of furniture a 'distressed' look by painting them in uneven, scratched layers of cream paint. Then simply add a patriotic Union Jack, which could be found proudly emblazoned on Debenhams cushions, Argos duvet covers and a whole range of crockery by Emma Bridgewater. Cover the surfaces with jam jars full of roses, oversized clocks and perhaps an empty birdcage – and voila: your very own brand new, old-looking room.
If you want to share your home's new look, you can use your phone to "snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram". Instagram allows you add a warm tint, a romantic glow, or even making the photo look like it was taken in the 1940s. Nostalgia doesn't require too much emotion or imagination now that instant retro glamour is available at the click of a button.
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Whether hanging our Union Jack bunting, baking a batch of cupcakes, reading Wolf Hall, indulging in Austenmania, watching Downton or cooing over a royal baby, Britain is on a national trip down memory lane. The present looks bleak, and the future uncertain, but the appealing glow of the past just keeps getting brighter. Together we look back with longing to simpler days of austerity and community. The predictable dramas of the past promise us a pain-free world of familiar class structures. More importantly, remembering the comforts of the olden days gives us the strength to do what Brits do best: to simply keep calm and carry on.
nostalgia ... gives us an overly romantic view of history
Across the country, people routinely hark back to 'the good old days' in which the Church was the centre of the community, neighbours knew each other by name, and young people said 'please' and 'thank you'. Perhaps you've been tempted to think this way? If only we could go back to the days before supermarkets replaced village stores, ready meals replaced family roasts, Amazon replaced bookshops, and Facebook replaced friendship. Those were the days. That's when things were really good, before British society went downhill. Our popular culture shows that many of us are sympathetic to this view. Collectively, we hanker for a simpler world.
Some psychologists see this as a positive change. A certain amount of reminiscing is said to be good for our mental health. In a mile-a-minute culture that constantly rushes ahead, it can be positive to take a step back and remember where we have come from. However, nostalgia does have its dangers. It gives us an overly romantic view of history. It causes us to be unnecessarily negative about the present. Even when it is making us feel better, it is also distorting our view of the world.
There was very little hint in our popular culture that there was anything negative about nostalgia. However, one film did address the issue head on: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. This romantic tale of time travel questions the underlying logic of nostalgia. A person from 2010 might be nostalgic for the 1920. But those in 1920s might themselves be nostalgic for the Belle Époque. And those in the Belle Époque might be nostalgic for the Renaissance. Just how far back to we have to go to find a true golden age?
Nostalgia is denial of the painful present
- Midnight in Paris
The problem is, as one of the characters explains, memory gives the past a rosy glow, so that what seems vulgar to one generation can appear magical to another, "transmuted by the mere passing of years". Our nostalgia makes us liable to cherry-pick certain moments and objects that suit our vision. It leads us to forget that the past is also full of terror and triviality, the present with beauty and excitement.
In Midnight in Paris, another character declares that 'golden age thinking' is a mistake. "Nostalgia is denial of the painful present", he says, "It's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present." In this view, we look back to the past because we can't handle our current circumstances. As modern British viewers we may find ourselves prone to this flaw of imagination. If the twenty-first century world seems dark and complicated, we avoid it by hiding in the appealing comforts of the past. Nostalgia is a coping mechanism, and it is also an escape.
So what's the root cause of our national nostalgia? What has changed in our society that has caused us to become so wistful for yesteryear? Why does the present moment seem so inferior to the past? According to some academics, the answer lies with the church. They argue that decline of the Christian faith at the heart of Western civilisation has left "an immense emptiness" at the heart of our society. The church is no longer the centre of the community. Without it, people are left with no social, emotional, intellectual or moral guidance. They hark back to days which seemed simpler and happier; without realising it, they are looking back to communities organised around the Christian faith. Even if it is unconscious, their nostalgia is a sign of spiritual longing.
According to this argument, all of our backward-gazing is an attempt to fill the gap left by religion. Without it, we need something else to provide emotional and intellectual certainties. In this sense, could our nostalgia for past decades be based on a nostalgic desire for the Christian God?
could our nostalgia for past decades be based on a nostalgic desire for the Christian God?
Of course, there is no simple equation that connects liking Downton Abbey with longing for a relationship with Jesus. But if our nostalgia is really a yearning for the worldview offered by Christianity, what does the Bible have to say about it?
The Bible tells us that the world was once perfect and whole. God created it and filled it with wonders and marvels. He made people to live in it, and he lived with them. When he looked at it all, he saw that it was good (Genesis 1:31). However, when sin entered the world, it was broken. It became infected with cruelty, violence and grief. Ever since, humans have carried a cosmic longing in their hearts to return to their original home. This cosmic homesickness often expresses itself as a more specific nostalgia for bygone times or abandoned places, and we see examples of this throughout the Bible.
An early Biblical example of homesickness comes from the sixth century BC. During this period the Scriptures recall one of the most terrifying events of the Old Testament: the Israelites being captured by the Babylonians. Accounts of this horrific event state that the Babylonians forced their way into Jerusalem, slaughtering anyone that stood in their way. They broke down the city walls, destroyed the great houses, and then ransacked and burned the temple. Anyone that was not killed was taken captive as a slave (2 Kings 25:1-21; 2 Chronicles 17:20).
The Israelites knew that their disobedience to God was the cause of their exile. The Psalms tell us that they grieved their homeland and experienced deep sorrow. Jerusalem represented not just their heritage, but their relationship with God. They longed to see themselves and their city restored, but the prophets had warned them that this would not happen for a long time. What more could they do?
In the foreign land of Babylon, they all "sat down and wept" when they thought of their home. The strength of their emotional response revealed a newfound dedication to God and to living his way. Eventually, one mourning man named Nehemiah was able to cry out to God and confess: "We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses" (Nehemiah 1:7). He pledged to return to God, to keep his commandments, and to rebuild Jerusalem. Nostalgia for a time in which God was in control can be positive if it leads us to recognise his power and return to live under his authority.
Don't look back
However, looking back can sometimes be unhelpful. Think of the story of Lot and his family. They lived in the city of Sodom, a city that had "pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease". Yet the people of Sodom were haughty and did not help "the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49-50). God declared that "their sin [was] very grave" and that he would destroy the city (Genesis 18:20).
By his grace, God offered Lot and his family the chance to escape. Two angels visited and implored them: "Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away." Lot lingered and negotiated, but eventually agreed. His wife, however, was truly disobedient. Ignoring the angel's pleas she looked back at the home she was leaving behind. The Biblical account explains: "But Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt."
Lot's wife was dragging her heels. She was reluctant to leave behind everything that she knew and loved. She paid too much attention to a city that was engulfed in sin. She held her home there in too high regard, allowing it to distract her from God's merciful rescue, and his commands to enter a new life. She was consumed by her old way of life, and so she was eventually consumed by the same punishment that it suffered. This story offers us a strong warning: if we want to follow God's commands, we should not look back fondly on times defined by sin. Jesus later summarises its message like this: "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it" (Luke 17:33).
The Israelites mourn the loss of a life bound up with God. Lot's wife longs for a past life that is bound up in sin. As twenty-first century Britons looking back at our nation's history, which category do we fall into? Should we allow ourselves the luxury of nostalgia, or resolve not to look back?
The Bible never tells us that we should forget the past altogether. The Israelites were constantly told that they should never forget the way that God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. In the same way, we are to remember the way in which Jesus saved us from slavery to sin. We are to remember how hopeless our lives were before he saved us (Ephesians 2:12). Through the Eucharist we are to remember his sacrifice, which set us free. When we look back at the past, we are to recall both the times of hardship and the times of joy, the good and the bad, the times of slavery and the times of freedom.
remembering the past without sentimentality or regret is entirely Biblical
When choosing how to live in the present moment we, like the disciples, are to remember Jesus's words and actions (Mark 8:18). Having done so, we should keep his commandments (Psalm 78:7). This involves active participation; each Christian is advised not be a "hearer who forgets but a doer who acts" (James 1:25). We are also told to recall the lives of great, historic Christian leaders: "Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God", instructs Hebrews 13:7, "Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith."
All of this is not only for our benefit, but it also brings God glory. In fact, the Psalms repeatedly tell us to remember God through prayer and worship. So the Bible constantly tells us to remember. In a fast-moving culture, Christians are called to be people with good memories. Indeed, remembering the past without sentimentality or regret is entirely Biblical.
Old self, new self
However, the Bible also clearly warns us against becoming wistfulness. "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?'" Ecclesiastes 7:10 tells us, "For it is not wise to ask such questions."
In fact, the good news of the gospel is that, on the cross, Jesus broke the power of sin in our lives forever. It was God who chose to forget our past, saying: "I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more" (Hebrews 8:12). We can now live free of the past. We do not need to be bound by shame, guilt or regret, for there is "now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).
Equally, we should not be too concerned about preserving our past successes. Paul confesses that he himself was susceptible to this tendency when he remembered his former achievements. He explains that this led him to place his "confidence in the flesh". However, he had to learn to get his priorities in order, saying: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:7-8). Old victories fade away in comparison to the joy of life in Christ.
In fact, Paul teaches that as believers we must not be distracted by the life we lived before God rescued us, whatever it was like. Assuming that you have heard about Christ, says Paul, you are to "put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirits of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-23). Elsewhere, the same idea is repeated: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are to forget our past way of life and feast our eyes on the new life that Christ has given us.
What are we nostalgic for? If it is something that God has not redeemed, we need to be very careful about choosing to look back at it. Instead, we can be grateful that God rescued us from it. When we hear God's command to move on, to put on the new self, we can do so without feeling wistful for what we are leaving behind.
Jesus did not rescue us so that we would continue to look backwards, but so that we could look forwards with hope. Paul puts it like this: "I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us" (Philippians 3:13-14).
The prize that Paul talks about is promised to us in Revelation as a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). There we will find our true home, in a "city whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10). Many of the most famous figures from the Old Testament placed their faith in the promise of this heavenly homeland – people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah. It allowed them to live lives filled with hope in a dark world, and to experience miracles. These were foretastes of the glorious future that God promises for us.
nostalgia: an inverted desire for a future golden age in which we will one day live
All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
In this new city, the past will seem utterly insignificant. In that time, God will say: "Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind" (Isaiah 65:17). The gospel does not tell us to look backwards through rose-tinted glasses. It gives us a glorious hope. We need to recognise our nostalgia for what it is: an inverted desire for a future golden age in which we will one day live.
A new thing
So there's certainly nothing wrong with liking Queen Victoria or, indeed, a nice slice of Mary Berry's Victoria sponge. Nonetheless, before we sit down to either one, we need to check that we are not infected by a nostalgia that leads us to prefer the past to the present, or to lose our hope for the future.
Before we escape into the comforts of Downton Abbey or The King's Speech, we need to remember that we have been called "for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14), and that our unchanging God longs to meet with us in the present moment. His call to us is the same as it was to the Israelites: "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:18-19).
© 2015 Rachel Helen Smith