We will remind people of how good things used to be. Since no one can now remember a time when things were good, we all need help to dream of a wonderful by-gone age when everyone was paid in golden sovereigns, no-one was ill or died, the weather was perfect, and you could get 200 pints of bitter for a quid.
So said the Monster Raving Looney Party in their 1997 manifesto. Even though it could read as a vaguely outlandish UKIP blurb in 2024!
Nostalgia is all the rage these days, which is rather disturbing as it indicates that society has lost sense of the possibilities of the future, the very thing that spurred us on to innovate new technologies and new ways of life. But it seems we’re nostalgic for everything
From old Europe, the first lockdown and the late 90's/early 00's, it’s no wonder that politics has a long tradition of tapping into such feelings. Hence why, if you talk to some people in Belfast, they are nostalgic for the Troubles which seems like a bizarre statement but, if you think about it, tells us that they are longing for a time of tight-knit communities, no heroin epidemic (except for Dublin) and no social media.
But, like Jim and Hilda Bloggs in When the Wind Blows, nostalgia can blind you to the historical reality.
Published in 2016, The Ministry of Nostalgia was one of the first tomes that took aim at the retro chic culture that we found ourselves in in the early 2010’s. Detailing how the ubiquitous (and nauseating) “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters grew from being a minor middle-class joke into an international brand, author Owen Hatherley writes that
My assumption was that the combination of message and design were inextricably tied up with a plethora of English obsessions, from the ‘Blitz spirit’, through to the cults of the BBC and the NHS and the 1945 post-war consensus. Also contained in this bundle of signifiers was the enduring pretension of an extremely rich (if shoddy and dilapidated) country, the sadomasochistic Toryism imposed by the Conservative–Liberal coalition government of 2010–15, and their presentation of austerity in a manner so brutal and moralistic that it almost seemed to luxuriate in its own parsimony. Some or none of these thoughts may have been in the heads of the customers at (Polish shop) Empik buying their printed tea towels; they may have just thought it was funny. They might have liked it as an example of the slightly dotty retro-Englishness that made them buy those DVDs of Downton Abbey with their overdubbed Polski Lektor. However, there are few images of the last decade that are quite so riddled with ideology, and few ‘historical’ documents that are quite so spectacularly false.
Quite the polemic, I’m sure you’ll agree and throughout he demolishes the likes of hauntology, Heston Blumenthal and ironic authoritarianism. Even in regard to the ‘Keep Calm’ phenomenon, Hatherley correctly points out that
It is important to record that the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster was never mass-produced until 2008. It is a historical object of a very peculiar sort. By 2009, when it had first become hugely popular, it seemed to respond to a particularly English malaise, one connected directly with the way Britain reacted to the credit crunch and the banking crash. From this moment of crisis, it tapped into an already established narrative about Britain’s ‘finest hour’ – the aerial Battle of Britain in 1940–41 – when it was the only country left fighting the Third Reich. This was a moment of entirely indisputable – and apparently uncomplicated – national heroism, one which Britain has clung to through thick and thin.
Of course, such myths are often used to prop up societies and glue communities together. Even though most are aware that they are greatly exaggerated, there is a kernel of truth in such myths. Hence why they are so potent and ripe for mass production of the like documented by Hatherley. Nonetheless, it is more than a little perturbing to see it being reproduced on such a grand scale. Government propaganda resold as ironic trinkets by capitalism.
When looking though this lens, The Ministry of Nostalgia is a frightfully insightful read that demonstrates how bankrupt Britain is in terms of futurology. However, there are problems.
Firstly, because of its publication date, it misses Brexit and the fallout around it. With various commentators (sneeringly) dismissing Brexit voters as people hankering for the days of the Empire and blue passports, it would have made an interesting (if somewhat predictable) angle to discuss in the book.
Secondly, and this is a big problem, like a lot of books of this ilk, it feels more like a collection of essays rather than a coherent look at the modern phenomenon of nostalgia and how it is weaponised. Although it starts off well, Hatherley then seemingly goes off tangent to discuss London architecture from 1930 to 1960, the Empire Marketing Board, the views and politics of George Orwell and take a few weak jabs at Blue Labour.
While I get that he is trying to show how some of the relics that have been adopted for nostalgia purposes have their roots in the Empire and that there are left wing projects and figures (such as the Royal Festival Hall and the works of architect Berthold Lubetkin) who should be thrust forward as a left-wing example of nostalgia, it doesn’t hang together in a coherent fashion and for readers like me who do not have a great grasp on architectural history, it can be overwhelming.
Finally, Hatherley’s attitude towards the working class leaves a lot to be desired. He openly despises Blue Labour for supposedly pandering to the worst prejudices of the working class (despite the former arguing that the attachment to globalisation, deindustrialisation and neo-liberalism has alienated communities, surely a basic left-wing argument) and yet claims that the working class have always been radical in terms of left-wing politics.
While it is certainly true that there have been many strong left-wing voices that have come from working class areas, it would be more than a stretch to say they have been solid beds of radical views especially in light of his comment about Blue Labour.
Also, he clearly has contempt for working class people taking a stand against being lectured to by middle-class plebs. Such an example is when discussing the show Jamie’s School Dinners, which was an attempt by Oliver to save working class children from themselves by giving them healthy food instead of the usual school dinners. It was reported at the time that, at one school, parents were giving their children soft drinks and burgers through the school gates, which led to Oliver dismissing them as “slappers”. Hatherley certainly doesn’t use such language, but his sneering remark about how “…their kids wouldn’t have to eat that healthy-living muck” is just as contemptable.
In spite of, and because of, these issues, I would still recommend reading. At times fascinating, at times infuriating and at times perplexing, it’s one you will be pondering for a long time.
Owen Hatherley, 2016, The Ministry of Nostalgia. Verso Books ISBN-13: 978-1784780760
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.