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Glory days: the power of nostalgia

Glory days: the power of nostalgia

Hannah Rich reflects on the emergence of nostalgia as the overriding ideology of our time. 01/02/2019

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Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of, well time slips away, and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.’ – Bruce Springsteen.

If I were asked to describe the overriding ideology of our time, I would be tempted not to point to nationalism, populism or even fascism, but instead to give my answer as simply this: nostalgia. Irrespective of the dubious politics behind it, it is no coincidence that the rhetoric of ‘Make America Great Again’ cut through so strongly; perhaps more strongly than it might have done without the power of the word ‘again’. ‘Make America Great’ seems to clutch at a nebulous sense of greatness and put a downer on the country as it is. MAGA, on the other hand, paints a picture of the imagined glory days and American dreams of yesteryear. If we play the nostalgia card well enough, it scarcely matters if the longed–for past it evokes ever truly existed.

There is no denying either that nostalgia played a part in the Brexit vote. Dig beneath the surface of many Leave voters and you find a discontent with the fact that things are not as they once were. A vote for something other than the status quo – for a reality from before the advent of the European Union – appeared attractive. We heard it expressed by politicians and voters alike as a desire to take back control, not simply to take control.

Travelling the country for the GRA:CE project, I frequently speak to people who tell me that their community, or at least its reputation, is not what it used to be. Sink estates are rarely created as such; the places we now label as ‘deprived’ or ‘run–down’ had their glory days once and they are still yearned for.

Seaside towns are a prime example of this. The beautiful Victorian buildings that were once at the heart of the thriving tourist trade in destination resorts along the British coast have often now become derelict or poor quality housing. Some of the grimiest bedsits in the country still bear the peeling, wistful signs of their former life as the Grand Hotel. The same is true in all manner of places where the industry which defined the community for decades has died. In the struggle for a new identity other than negative tabloid epithets, it is little wonder the past sometimes seems better. It’s easy to forget that even at the height of tourism, it still rained in Blackpool.

‘Used to’ is a more powerful grammatical construction than perhaps we give it credit for, covering as it does a multitude of broken habits and misremembered glories.

The church too is guilty of this. I recently met an older woman who could still name the only boy in her infant school class in the 1960s who didn’t attend Sunday school. She lamented how the reverse might now be true. The narrative of a declining Christianity lends itself nicely to rose–tinted reminiscences about the days when churches were packed to the rafters, week in, week out. Lesslie Newbigin wrote that, ‘nostalgia for the past and fear for the future are equally out of place for the Christian’ and yet it is hard to envisage a vision of church growth which doesn’t hang on one of these things.

One vicar I spoke to pointed out the need to remind himself and his congregation occasionally that the capacity of their parish church, designed to seat six hundred people, was optimistic even when it was built half a century ago. The pews may once have been fuller than they currently are, but they were never as full as the imagination.

The biblical precedent for nostalgia isn’t great; think of Lot’s wife, turned to salt for looking backwards rather than forwards. It would be a bit unfair to draw this as a parallel for today; unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, there are plenty of good things to be learnt from the past, if we can only view it without romanticising it too much.

The word ‘nostalgia’ comes from nóstos (homecoming) and algos (pain or ache) and there is nothing inherently wrong with aching for home. But maybe we need to work out how to be wistful for the passing of time without becoming pillars of salt or people with nothing but boring stories of glory days. If the past is not our home, then it is no good being homesick for it.

 Image by Everett Collection under a Shutterstock licence. 

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 1 February 2019

Christianity, Communities, Philosophy, Religion


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