Man at His Best

Why Nostalgia Won't Make Us Great Again

Change is the norm. Embrace it.

BY Neil Humphreys | May 18, 2017 | Culture


T2 Trainspotting really proved that old adage about getting out of a movie only what you bring to it. 

I cried like a starving newborn. 

While watching Danny Boyle’s sequel to his era-defining British classic, I recognised that the largely plot-free film was a series of vignettes strung together in the vague hope of a discernible narrative. 

I still blubbed like a baby. 

The movie caught me at the right time, at the right age, and in the right country; i.e. a dislocated forty-something Brit, shaped by the Cool Britannia movement of the ’90s that proved to be the last hurrah for the white working-class male. 

On its release in 1996, the original Trainspotting thought it had captured the rise of something special in Britain. But T2 confirmed that it actually marked the end of an era.

The working classes did not take control of the arts, big business or government. They were hammered back into their place to become the wistful, sad sacks that dominate the screen in T2. 

It’s a movie about ageing men and dying dreams, a painful look over the shoulder at what might have been. It’s the best and worst kind of nostalgia, the kind that’s currently being manipulated and commercialised for all it’s worth. 

Consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens

When Han Solo filled the frame with Chewbacca for the first time, he uttered the perfect line to immediately reconnect with his audience: Chewie, we’re home

For a brief moment, we were all home. Han Solo’s line transported us back to that safe haven of childhood.

Indeed, we were so lost in the moment that we collectively forked out USD2 billion before recognising that The Force Awakens was essentially an inferior remake of the original Star Wars. Disney had sent out a cover band to sing George Lucas’ greatest hits. 

But then why should filmmakers deviate from the tried-and-tested? Nostalgia is selling like never before so remake it. Recast it. Reimage it. Rerelease it. Slap a limited-edition sticker on it and some hipster with more organic coffee beans than sense will stick it on a shelf in his post-industrial apartment. 

Repackaging old memories and selling them back to us as “almost new” suits our instant, impatient lifestyles. As we now live only in the formulaic present, for the latest tweets and Facebook posts, the thought of something genuinely original is increasingly anathema, scary even. 

And this is not a coincidence. For the first time in history, a couple of unique developments have overlapped to fuel our pining for the past. 

First off, we should be dead. Before 1900, many of us would be. The world’s average life expectancy before 1900 was 31, so forty-something nostalgia really wasn’t an option for most. If families stayed alive long enough to reminisce, it was usually to recall that time when Uncle John died of scurvy. 

And the second driver behind the nostalgia boom is perhaps the device that you are holding right now. Technological innovation is commonplace. Change is the norm. My mother can still remember the day she saw colour television for the first time. My daughter can’t remember the YouTube clip that she saw this morning. 

So, nostalgia falls somewhere between a cute novelty and a security blanket, a chance to get whimsical for simpler, slower times, where the constancy of tradition was reassuring. 

But this must be nostalgia of the most irritating kind from the Government’s point of view (and it’s downright terrifying from a global perspective, but we’ll get to Donald Trump in a bit). 

Alternative news sites realised long ago that nostalgic articles and sepia photographs of Ye Olde Singapura were easy click-bait. 

When I started this essay, the Singapore Heritage Board had just uploaded old housing estate photos as part of their “Tampines Memories” series. It’s now had hundreds of shares in two hours. 

As Singapore continues its dispiriting trudge towards becoming just another homogenised city, there’s a yearning for something that might reconnect a detached community, a grab for anything quintessentially Singaporean. 

And that must be confusing, irritating even, for the number crunchers. In a utilitarian sense, nostalgia isn’t logical. By its very definition, it’s regressive and inward-looking, which must annoy those tasked with sustaining the Blitzkrieg. 

So, tokenistic gestures are made. Historic buildings, cemeteries and flea markets are still bulldozed and shut down, but at least, there’ll be plaques and photo exhibitions to recognise where they once stood. 

As a result, Singapore hosts walking tours devoted to a demolished past, with folks stopping to read information panels about historic sites that no longer exist. It’s superficial heritage without physical substance. 

It’s exasperating, certainly, but at least, it’s not sinister in an apocalyptic Trump kind of way. 

Not only does the US President rule in a time where change is the norm, leaving the disenfranchised both weary and wary, he succeeds a President whose entire manifesto was about making a clean break with the past. The slogan, the soundbite and the Tshirt all screamed the same promise: change. 

Trump clearly understands the political potency of nostalgia and the same misguided demand for lost traditions that also gave rise to Brexit. 

For Trump, nostalgia is the rosetinted gift that keeps on giving. He promises to make America great again and bring back Pleasantville, a Disneyesque version of Main Street USA that never existed in the first place. 

Brexit leaders also waffled on about returning to the “good old days”, when the Saint George’s flag, smiling white faces and polio could be found on every street corner. 
International leaders speak of revolution when they really mean restoration, seeking a return to a stronger, assertive past that is no longer possible and potentially hazardous. 

And I should know. 

A day after watching T2, I pumped up Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and went running. I began as a twenty-something Ewan McGregor and ended as a forty-something Neil Humphreys, wheezing like an asthmatic donkey. 

Nostalgia can be entertaining, enlightening, and even spiritually rewarding, but only in short bursts, rather like my running.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, May 2017.