9 February 2013

Nostalgia for a age yet to come

With all the Orwell retrospectives at the moment, I was listening the A Homage to Catalonia on Radio 4 and was thinking that maybe it’s time to re-read it. I read A Moment of War last year and there was a sequence describing a time when Laurie Lee was caught up in a bombing that reminded me of a passage in 1984.

Naturally both Lee and Orwell were in Spain and their experiences coloured their future work. It doesn’t seem as if the thirties was a pleasant era to live through.

However, I grew up reading Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton and Anthony Buckeridge all of whom based their stories in the between-wars period, a time where children were safe, they could roam free across the fields and woods, getting up to all kinds of escapades.

I’ve noticed that the time that people have a nostalgia for seems to be to 20-30 years before they were born, a time when their own Grandparents were young, they look back to a simpler time, a easier time. A time that exists only in a nostalgic inherited memory.

In the seventies, while summers were nine months long, it never rained, music was inspiring, fashion reached its zenith, I was reading about fictional childhoods from a time when unemployment and inflation were running riot. A generation had experienced for the first time the horror of total world war and millions didn’t survive. A time of extreme opposing political views, an unstable time.

Orwell’s time in Spain together with The Road To Wigan Pier create a different view of the interwar years. As William was stuffing frogs into his pocket and avoiding Violet Elizabeth, until he was called in for tea, people were starving, living hand to mouth. Nowadays people have better equipped sheds in their back gardens than the homes that the poor underclass inhabited in the 1920s.

The joy and freedom of Just William and the Famous Five are at odds with the harsh reality of life portrayed in Down And Out in Paris And London. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat.

Yet for me the enduring feeling I have for the 20s and 30s is summer, long warm days, no responsibilities, adventure. Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timothy along with William and his gang, and Jennings, all in their cosy middle-class world, safe from the outside world. The outside world that Orwell observed and Lee lived.

Is it a type of amnesia? We forget the long stretch of boredom and frustration that is double chemistry on a Friday afternoon, the rainy days, the dismal pretentious music, the unflattering garments we were forced to wear. And worse we look back at a time that is within living memory of our older relatives and romanticise them.

What we want is to have a Famous Five childhood. Thenas a teenager fight some fascists in Spain. Sign up for the RAF in 1939, get shot down, end up in a prison camp and escape in a daring and heroic bid for freedom. Just as long as we don’t actually get hurt and the sun shines in the summer and the snow falls on Christmas day.


  1. Nostalgia is a funny word. I immediately think it is part imagination. Isabel Allende wrote a book called Mi Pais Inventado. It is about her nostalgia for the country she left behind. She realizes that the country moved on just as she did, just in different directions. She acknowledges that the country as she remembers only exists and only EXISTED in her mind, if you see what I mean.
    I think nostalgia is our instinct for stories (happy or sad) made manifest into memories. Kids were not safer but families did not report the uncle with the wandering hands to the police back then, it would shame the family. So one had to forget it and move on.
    I like books that play with this sense of nostalgia, have you read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, you should.

  2. I'm not sure where the nostalgia idea came from (I do, but that's another blog for another day) but it got me thinking that the time I was reading about was the time my Grandmother (the only Grandparent I knew) was a young girl/teenager but I never talked to her about it. Dandelion Wine is on my list.