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Nostalgia - Not What It Used to Be

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Show me a person who's never felt that aching, yearning desire for the 'Good Old Days', and I'll show you a twenty-something, or - tops - a thirtyish glass-half-full type. It's part of the human condition, and believe me, you youngster nostalgia-heads, the longing for times past only gets worse and more compelling with age.

The thing is, though - it's all a sham. Nostalgia has spawned virtually an entire industry, making zillions out of the ever-increasing urge to regress to what we think of as happier times, flogging us kitsch memorabilia and useless antiques at premium prices. All this, for a concept as hollow and insubstantial as a bubble. I'll try to explain what I'm getting at.

The main thing you need to know about The Good Old Days, is that - they don't exist. Or, more accurately, from the only perspective that matters - here and now - the memory of The Good Old Days is like a Siren's song, calling seductively to you, whilst keeping the singer's essential character hidden. And the essential character of The Good Old Days may be summed up as follows: more hardship, less enlightened attitudes, worse public health and life expectancy and just generally a lack of the things in life today we'd find it hard to live without. I won't drone on here about smart phones, the internet, flat-screen TV's and spiffy microwave-grills. You get the picture.

The late, lamented legend that was Tony Capstick summed up the flip-side of nostalgia very neatly indeed. In his hilarious pastiche of a famous bread advert, filmed on a steep and cobbled street to the accompaniment of Dvořák's New World Symphony, Capstick intoned "We had lots of things in them days, they haven't got today. Rickets. Diptheria. Hitler..... They dun't know they're born today". As with all the best comedy, there's a kernel of truth there.

So why this fierce desire to re-live days gone by, through old photographs, maybe, or a TV series set in whichever decade speaks to us of our particular formative years? Perhaps it's a desire to meet up again with lost loved ones, which is readily understandable. But the nostalgic ache affects the vast majority of people, including those lucky enough never to have experienced bereavement. Maybe it really is just a longing for simpler times, but I truly don't think so.

My pet theory - and I've thought about this a lot, as you tend to on your journey through middle-age - is that it's not the mythical Good Old Days we're all missing. Rather, it's the Good Young Us. Everything that seems better in the eye of memory was originally seen through younger, sharper eyes, at a time when we inhabited a younger, more flexible and healthier body, when we mercifully lacked the cares of having to forge a living and look after dependents, when we could take life as it came to us, unafraid of the future and ready for anything. This, sadly, is not a set of circumstances fully valued or appreciated at the time - only in retrospect, when physical and mental powers are waning and the gaze we cast on the world is more jaundiced, do we really understand what we had, and what we've lost. Small wonder, then, that there's a hankering to go back and regain our younger selves.

There's a tendency, as well, for memory to reach further and further back into the distant past as we age. This means that a lot of older people spend much more of their time delving through their long-term recall, and find happiness in contemplating the days of their youth, a refuge of sorts from a modern world that seems more and more bewildering to them. It's the kinder face of nostalgia - a therapy to help people cope with the iniquities of old age. But again, I would argue that it's their own younger selves that Gran and Grandad are contentedly revisiting, and that the period setting of those memories is purely incidental.

We associate our golden days of youth with a definite time frame, that's all, and it's that association our brains seize on to hook us into yearning for whatever past time. For some, it's World War Two, for others it might be the Fab Fifties, or even the Electronic Eighties. I hark back to the Sensational Seventies myself, but I've no real desire to ride a Raleigh Chopper again, or even to come home and watch "Love Thy Neighbour" on a tiny TV. But I would give a lot for the flat tummy, the sporting prowess, the soundness of wind and limb and the 20-20 vision I enjoyed, but never fully appreciated back then.

That's what nostalgia is really all about, and we'd do well to face up to it - there's more chance, after all, of science eventually mitigating the tyranny of old age, with its attendant infirmities, than there is of it building us a Time Machine. So perhaps we'd all better settle for what we've at least some chance of getting, rather than pandering to this hopeless desire for a past to which distance has lent a false enchantment. But that's easier said than done - when the nostalgia bug bites, it bites hard.

Now - where did I put that Rubik's Cube....?