Tuesday 13 June 2006

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

Ms Allana Shell recently took me to task in Voice of the North for a column in which she felt that I had been unduly scathing about the old Alnwick Ale. I plead not guilty, ma’am. I couldn’t be rude about the product myself, because I’d never had the pleasure of tasting it. What I did do was report the pithy opinions of a couple of old gadgies I encountered in my then local 20 years ago.

Now, there are two reasons why I was able to recall their exact words with such uncanny accuracy. The first is that their comments struck me as very funny. (Clearly not a universal view.) The second is that they were the precise opposite of what I expected. I had been looking forward to a long, nostalgic wallow in the subtle delights of a vanished local brew. Instead I found it dismissed in about six words, only two of which were fit to print.

This is far from being the typical reaction when one asks the elderly to reminisce. Our senses fade with age, so things naturally tended to taste better when we were young. And our memories are selective, bathing the past in a rosy glow where summers were always hot and scented with Cooltan, while every winter brought ample snow for sledging. (Actually, with global warming, the bit about winters not being what they used to be is probably accurate.)

We lament the passing of things that disappeared because we never bothered to use them when we could. Like the village shop, which we deserted in droves for the new-fangled Tesco on the ring road. Or the branch line railway, where the trains ran so reliably, but were always empty.

There is now a huge nostalgia industry in this country centred on the steam train, with a large and growing number of preserved lines. I have found the sight, sound and smell of steam engines irresistible since boyhood, but I never actually travelled behind one when they were in daily use. My parents hadn’t worked their way up the social ladder to car ownership so that they could go places behind some slow, dirty, clanking locomotive. Millions of their fellow citizens felt the same, even if they could aspire to nothing more reliable or desirable than a Ford Anglia or Hillman Imp.

There are very few things in life that happen through the operation of unseen forces, otherwise known as the machinations of the political elite. Ever-closer European integration might just be one of them. Virtually every other much-lamented change comes about because we collectively willed it, either through our actions or omissions.

One day we will be looking back fondly on the youthful promise of Tony Blair. And as soon as we have finally hounded him from office, we will doubtless be saying what a cracking chap John Prescott … no, maybe not. There has to be an exception to prove every rule.

Whether it’s politicians, foods, clothes, music or any other form of entertainment, everything reaches a peak of popularity and then fades away, only for people to start producing Channel 4 talking heads programmes about how great they used to be. I’m hoping it’ll be a good long while before the new Alnwick Ale features on one, because I want to be a roaring success. And I fully intend to put my ample drinking boots at its disposal.

They tell me that what I still think of as the hit parade is currently headed by a young lady called Sandi Thom, with a nostalgic number lamenting the passing of the 1970s and punk rock. I was at university at the time, and remember it well as a time of hyper-inflation, industrial chaos and pitifully low national morale, exacerbated by truly dreadful music. My views on anyone who feels sorry to have missed it would make those old men’s comments on their beer sound like something from a vicarage tea party.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

No comments: