What we all need right now are moments of release from the anxiety of everyday life, right? Along with the host of things on our “to do” list (like deactivating the shed, cleaning the cat litter, writing a thank you note to Aunt Dolly for the liquorice allsorts) we are all weighed down with responsibilities. Every day we are faced with that darkened wall we call “harsh reality”. Is it any wonder we crave some peace and quiet, a little space? In times of yore this meant following a spiritual path to the gates of the church, closing our eyes and immolating our egos in contemplation of the supernatural. If anything, we need that kind of transcendental release now more than ever.
So why do we chide ourselves for resorting to the “escapism” of reading a novel and dissolving ourselves into a parallel world full of fascinating characters that we can spy on? Or being carried away on a sea of sound when we listen to music, perhaps the most transcendental art form, with no words to filter the effect and distract us from the sublime? Surely art has always been our salvation, our guiding light into the uplands of the imagination? Exactly – I thought the same. Until, that is, my son caught me listening to a 1970s Cliff Richard LP and said I was on a pathetic nostalgia trip.
According to the dressing-down I got (OK, it didn’t help that I was lounging on the couch in flared trousers, trying to look like Cliff at the time), I was just wallowing in some old, forgotten times that were irrelevant to the urgency of the present moment. There I was, every night, playing these dinosaur records, reminiscing about my 20s: the girlfriends who faded in and out of the picture; the damp flats I crawled about in, watching my steaming breath turn to icicles; the ill-planned holidays I would embark on with my cronies, ending up sitting by the roadside hitching a lift with matted hair and 37 pence in my Wranglers. In the eyes of my son, it was a lot of self-indulgence, a personal memorial played out at any given moment by any number of saddos in the suburbs.
Maybe he was right. And yet, something tells me there is more to it than a cheesy trip down memory lane with a joss stick and a pair of desert boots. In my dream-like state, I keep mumbling that 1976 was an important year, a fact that may seem neither here nor there to a millennial. Surely the 40 odd years that have swept under the canal bridge since then have rendered that year just a fissured fragment of time? Not at all. Even the dark, wintry 70s had its moments – 1976 heralded the first Concorde flight, the first Body Shop and the Sex Pistols’ expletive-laden appearance on the Bill Grundy show. In short, this was history in the making.
If nostalgia is indulgent, then the contemplation of history could be seen as equally vain. Of course, choosing 1976 was arbitrary and other years, for instance 1979 when Margaret Thatcher took control, can be cited as more epoch-making. The Greeks thought the study of history was so important that they saw themselves as “backing” into the future, so to speak, learning from the past as they shuffled along. Similarly, by dropping the needle and then sitting cradling the gatefold sleeve of The Hissing of Summer Lawns I am engaging the key function of my historical imagination – recreating the politics, the social mores, the fashions and ideology of the times as a means of making sense of the world not just then, but now as well. If we do not learn from history, are we not bound to make the same mistakes again?
Marx said that history repeats itself, first in tragedy, then in farce. Think about it – do we really want a year like 1976 to come back? Remember that Brotherhood of Man won the Eurovision with “Save Your Kisses for Me”. Enough said? The 70s do look pretty naff today, I cannot deny. But apart from flares, mutton-chop sideburns and the three-day-week, we also had contraception which led for the first time to couples living together without getting married – a monumental change in the climate of opinion. It could also be argued that, although the 60s is forever cited as the period of cultural transformation – when the younger generation stopped looking and sounding like ventriloquist doll versions of their parents – it was in the 70s that the spirit of rebellion actually began to make itself felt in everyday life. If you don’t believe me, think about what happened in the 80s, the Thatcher years.
In my dreamlike state on the green sofa, listening to Steeleye Span, I imagine that in the UK, since the 80s, there has been a staggering shift backwards in social conventions, with a renewed valorisation of the nuclear family, young couples getting married sooner, feminism perceived as a dreary battle already won. When the younger generation only want the material things that their parents have – a house, a car, a smartphone and a decent job to buy them all – I have to admit that conservatism has achieved a resounding victory. And that all this is the by-product of another spectacular ideological victory, the firm belief in everybody’s minds that capitalism is not merely the only “game” in town, but that it is plain silly to even contemplate an alternative. That is even more of a fantasy, evidently, than any of my nostalgia trips.
So, as if all this was not enough to make you want to escape the drab predictability of life in our present time, it is also worth remembering that throughout history there has always been a need to get “out of it”. You only have to think of those long, peace pipes the tribe leaders used to smoke, surely containing a few mind-altering substances. One anthropologist, a few years back, came up with the thesis that civilization itself only developed at all because some bright spark accidentally fermented some wheat and it turned into beer. With this in mind, my drug of choice – nostalgia – has a little more of the spiritual about it than off-licence spirits. In my deluded state on the couch, reading the back of the LP sleeve while listening to the Incredible String Band, I pretend that I have reached the universal sublime so brilliantly elaborated by Immanuel Kant, or like William Blake I am holding infinity in the palm of my hand and can see eternity in an hour. Then the needle reaches the middle of the LP and I awake from my cosmic trance, noticing, in the corner of my eye, my son sniggering from behind his smartphone.