A Case of Misplaced Nostalgia
Lauren Geisler describes the feeling of being born in the wrong decade, and ponders our fascination with bygone eras
The first thing a stranger ever said about me
was that I was “an old soul”.
An odd thing for a midwife to say to a new mother about their first-born, yet it’s something that has stuck with me all of my almost-30-years (yikes). No one has actually been able to explain explicitly why they think this about me; I am certainly not ‘wise beyond my years’, although I do have a fondness and a respect for history. However, it is not necessarily always a history belonging to me.
As a teenager, my mum would look me up and down as I stood at the top of the stairs in my scruffy flares and green velvet blazer (oh yes) and ask how I’d been born 20 years too late.
Many of the films I love are from the 1960s or earlier, and the clothes I wear are usually thrifted from other people’s dead grandmas via eBay or Oxfam. My day job involves preserving London’s built environment, mostly from the early 1900s. I use my record player daily, whilst my big ugly iPod speaker dock functions only as a postcard display stand, and the device itself has had no new music added to it since 2006 when I bought it. My favourite song in the whole world was released 15 years before I was even born.
These things are not unique to me. Vintage is a ‘thing’ and retro rocks our worlds. Our lust for a past that is removed from our present by decades creates a strange, misappropriated nostalgia for a time to which we have no connection, or of which we have no memory. The things I love and surround myself with are not from my childhood, or my family history.
I find the present quite difficult to get my head round. I have an overactive imagination and live in a fantasy world where bad things don’t happen and everything always works out for the best. It has a great soundtrack too, which seems to play endlessly even when it turns out that my not-updated-since-2006 iPod isn’t actually on, even though I’m wearing my headphones and am sure I can hear The Best of The Kinks playing.
Whilst I am aware that my life is by no means a struggle in the grand scheme of things, the only natural reason I can find as to why we love looking back so much is that it distracts us from a dissatisfaction with the present.
Perhaps we find it so easy to embrace snippets of history because they are complete and documented. We can understand things that are finished because we can review and assess them. We can learn about people, events and creative work because they have stopped, and we can step back from them and remember them – take it all in and process it. We can’t do that with anything that is happening now because it is always changing and constantly evolving. The modern world moves quickly and we have no idea what is going on because everything is vast and loud and busy.
Dissatisfaction with the modern world is no new phenomenon. In 1890, my beloved hero, the artist, writer, libertarian socialist and designer William Morris, wrote his huge novel News from Nowhere, exploring the idea of a utopian future built on ‘looking backwards’ – where industrial progress is rejected in favour of the simpler ways of life in the past. I love his idea that we can fill our present with the things we love from the past. He said:
“The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
Lauren Geisler is an architectural conserver, writer, and Cosmopolitan Magazine Award-nominated blogger.