Why nostalgia belongs in the past

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

There’s a man in Bakewell, Derbyshire, who lives in the 1990s. He watches The Vicar of Dibley on his convex-screened telly and takes calls on his radio-alarm-clock-telephone, and he wears Sweater Shop jumpers and Levi’s, and it makes him feel happy. No, not happy exactly – it makes him feel safe, “cosy”, he says on TikTok, with just “enough technology to keep us entertained, but not enough to feel like an overload”. He’s 23. Jack Walter. He listens to Now That’s What I Call Music cassettes and makes tea in a yellow kettle and thinks about old birthdays and wears slippers in the shape of tiger’s feet.

Nostalgia is a complicated pleasure at the best of times; at the worst of times it can tangle one completely in its web. I wrote a year ago about a study into the “entertainment landscape” during Covid-19, which found we were seeking “comfort in familiar, nostalgic content”. Well, since then, the vaccines have come, but the nostalgia’s only bedded in deeper, its roots slithering down into our very foundations. It has sharpened itself, too – sometimes you barely feel the needle go in.

Nostalgia goes high and it goes low, from Chanel’s new spring collection (inspired by Karl Lagerfeld’s 90s shows), to new Home Alone and Scream sequels, to the public’s raw delight at seeing Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez reunite or Nokia re-releasing their “brick phone” for its 20th anniversary, complete with Snake. But while a year ago nostalgia seemed vaguely hopeful, the idea being that we would lean backwards and dip a toe into these tried and tested comforts before drying ourselves off and returning to real life, today I can only see the 90s trend through narrowed eyes and shudders.

Today I can only see the 90s trend through narrowed eyes and shudders

That’s how I’m watching the BBC’s new series about Blair and Brown. Being transported back to the innocence of the 1990s as Britain believed it was entering “the progressive century”, when outside our window the current government seems to be merrily trying to push time backwards is a depressing experience, akin to sitting the wrong way on a speeding train. It’s the same uncomfortable swooping sensation I felt recently in an art gallery, as I stood in front of a piece by Adam Farah. The room was a sort of self-portrait, full of objects and nostalgic triggers. As you walked through them – handwritten Mariah Carey lyrics, a water feature spouting red liquid – there was the feeling you were intruding on somebody else’s memories, their quiet prayer. And then I got to the blown-up photograph of Brent Cross Shopping Centre in the 1990s and I had to sit down for a minute.

If there was one site that could successfully locate and contain my own nostalgia it would be Brent Cross, the place I came of age every Saturday afternoon from 1991. Here, in the early days of readymade sandwiches, I’d perch for lunch beside my mum on the side of the fountain outside Marks & Spencer like a smart little lady, the smell of chlorine and tuna salad in the air, and later by the shoe shop I’d stand in glamorous boredom when I’d got the bus in with my friends, 30p, and here when McDonald’s opened I’d share a Big Mac between four, and trail slowly through the boys and smokers, and scowl performatively, scared but proud, to exist in the world. It was warm even in a storm, and therefore safe and dangerous at the same time, vaguely erotic, complex in its status as a space for people entering their teens with nowhere to go.

I’ve returned to that renovated mall in adulthood, of course, and had occasional feelings, but it wasn’t until Farah’s photograph that nostalgia threatened to fell me, revealing itself as a brief glimpse of somewhere that has gone, for ever. Now, with that Labour documentary in mind (“A new dawn, is it not?” Tony Blair asked on a spring morning in 1997) I’m unable to find comfort in visions of the 90s; only a kind of griefy dread. When my friends and I were 12 and loitering outside Dolcis we were talking about the things we’d do, the places we’d go – our school projects consisted of cheery collages demonstrating how we would save the whales and rebuild the rainforests. I look back at those memories not with warm affection but with a low-slung fear. Things were meant to get better, weren’t they?

In one video Jack Walter pans slowly around his kitchen, the mugs hanging from their individual hooks, an Ikea catalogue from 1997, black microwave, white landline phone, and explains, “It’s more than home, it’s my safe space.” I feel for Walter, who no doubt has similar anxieties to me about the journeys we’ve taken, but instead of considering how to successfully live today, has chosen to rebuild the past around him and light it just so. Me, I’m going to try to ignore the 90s fashions, 90s music and 90s films, because looking back is getting weird. I’ll keep tramping forwards, I think. I’ll try to remember that in between there and here there were thousands of small stumbles and wins, that there was not just one “then”, just as there isn’t one “now”. And I’ll see what happens next.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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