Golden years

Hello one and all

Being an expat can be a strange existence. I both am and am not aware of the popular culture (or what occasionally stands for it these days) which is ostensibly also mine. The stuff that I am aware of is what I read about in the newspaper, which means I get a managed slice of what’s going on.

Anyone who has studied journalism, like what I done, will know that which news source you read has an effect on both what ‘news’ you read, and what angle they take on said story. There’s frequently an agenda. Sometimes it can be seen through subtle wording, in other cases it can be basic ignoring of particular stories. This is particularly the case in print. See the Telegraph’s reporting of the HSBC scandal, and other newspapers gleeful piling in of it as an example. We’re lucky in Britain to have relatively balanced TV news, although as many people in Scotland will know, the coverage of the Referendum last year was not always quite as impartial as it really could have been. Nick Robinson, I’m talking about you.

Ultimately, newspapers exist to sell copies/advertising. If you thought they were to spread the news, put your hand up and then give yourself a slap for your naivety.

This isn’t new, or news. Sadly, most of the press has been like this since the days when your parents didn’t need to lock their front doors, and there were apple trees for as far as the eye could see (maybe that’s why they didn’t need to lock the door - they lived in an enormous orchard). Children respected their elders and would play outside from sun up to sun down. You could buy a house for £5 and a bag of Marathon bars. Yes, it really was that long ago.

This is all very different to the Broken Britain that confronts me now in the newspaper. Now it’s all increasing inequality in society, obese knife-wielding children and tumbleweed strewn high streets. Britain has, in the seven years since I left, devolved into a real life version of the Warriors. I half expect when I go back in summer to see, post-election, Nigel Farage’s gurning face being beamed onto the moon to scare asylum seekers into returning to their hell-hole former homes.

To save us from this grim depiction of modern times, British TV is clogged up with reality TV and gameshows. A gentle kneading together of these two has allowed, what the Farage household would presumably like to see (lovely Strudels too), rise to the top of the TV ratings - The Great British Bake-Off. I appreciate that almost everyone will already know about this, but its quintessential slice of a distant Britain (England), full of bunting and Carry-On innuendo about soggy bottoms is the sickly subject of today’s blog - nostalgia.

While being entirely harmless (the TV programme), something about it seems to hark back to a simpler time for everyone, unless you were black, Irish or a dog. Truly, golden times (except for the aforementioned minorities and all the other ones too). To be honest, the dogs probably didn’t think life was all that rough though….. ok, I’ll get my coat.

Everyone seems to have a different concept of golden years, frequently connected to their childhood or adolescence, which would suggest that there has never been a golden time, because it morphs depending on the observer. For my dad it probably would have been in the black and white days of the late 60’s/early 70’s. For his dad, many years before that.

When I think of my golden years, I think of football after school, relatively few fat classmates and a belief that Oasis were revolutionary. I had just got over a long term relationship with Games Workshop’s bewitching hordes, and revelled in the sensation of friendships with real people. It was verily a golden age of jumpers for goalposts, innocence and Smirnoff Ice.

It can’t have been all rosy, however. Some bad stuff certainly happened, while, considering I grew up in Scotland, my memories of summer are suspiciously short of days spent inside watching raindrops streaming down the windows. 

Our brains can be funny like this. Memories and the truth of what happened in the past can sometimes play hard to get. And just like playing hard to get, there’s a point where it becomes too much. You can try your best, but at some point what’s real and what isn’t becomes too clouded to be sure about anything. For example, I can’t remember the voice of a friend of mine who died years ago. A lot of time has passed, and now I don’t think about it all that much, but still, a part of me thinks that not remembering his voice is a betrayal of his memory in some way. The odd snapshot of him aside, he’s fading from my mind. Beyond a few glimpses (often the most banal) through the clouds in my brain, he’s slipping away, and even if I concentrate, I can’t be sure that it was him who said or did this or that. It’s not so much that my memory fa la finta difficile as da ricordare diventa sempre più difficile.

This has been relatively prominent in the news lately - Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC’s news in the States ‘misremembering’ his arrival in Iraq in 2003. Equally, Hilary Clinton had difficulty accurately remembering her arrival in Bosnia in the 90’s. What makes them misremember and subsequently ‘misspeak’, as they bullshit, I would say is different from the lack of clarity when it comes to my undoubtedly rainy summers as a nipper. Their status’ would be improved if they were portrayed as all action adventurers, and while Williams is currently being allowed to spend time at home by his employers, the bullets of criticism of Clinton seemed to bounce off her like the bullets that weren’t flying when she landed and was greeted by a wee girl holding a poem.

It’s remembering a past different from the reality; the rose-tinted glasses that we wear, that I wanted to write about here. It all came to mind with, you guessed it, football. You thought you’d get away with reading one of my blogs without me mentioning football? Ha, how quaintly naive!

A lot of football fans here in Italy get all misty eyed when they think about English football in the 70’s and 80’s. Golden years when men were men, terraces were affordable riots of colour and passion, and the game was purer. Money hadn’t slithered its manipulative tentacles into the game yet, so winning the FA Cup was more important than coming 4th. The trip to Wembley for the Final would be a day to remember, either through tears of joy, or of pain, but either way, a memory to keep and store in our hearts until the day we died alongside that of our first love. Teams with ‘respectable’ supports are lionised - and without having done any real research, I reckon there are more West Ham and Millwall fans in Italy than there are in London. This is football. This is England. 

This is wrong. Bearing in mind that I was born in ’83, I wasn’t there, but having read a lot about it, people seem to forget that while many great players turned out in England in the 70’s and 80’s, British football was a savage, inhospitable place full of tragedy. Bananas getting thrown at black players. Streams of piss running down the stairs at Wembley because there were so few toilets that most people just turned around where they stood when they needed to go. The disasters at Ibrox, Bradford and Hillsborough. These disasters weren’t caused by hooliganism, but they were exacerbated by the unfit conditions that fans were crowded into. What’s glorious about all that?

I get that it’s nice to remember the past as some kind of ideal time. It’d be cool to have been alive in the late 60’s in the States and have the chance to go to Woodstock or live in northern California with all the peace, love, drugs and music. Still, Vietnam was raging, the Cold War was threatening mutually assured destruction, and the Summer of Love might as well have been Scottish, given how brief it turned out to be.

When we think about the past, we often just remember the good times. Reminiscing wistfully about Woodstock, but not remembering Altamont. It’s our brain’s natural defence system. It tries to protect us by filtering out most of the bad, and while that’s appreciated, I can’t help but feel that it hinders us a bit too. If we go through life thinking that the past was better than it actually was, then does this not make it more difficult to enjoy the present?

People who are more intelligent than me have done research into nostalgia, and while it’s a pretty hard phenomenon to pin down, they generally seem to think it’s positive. From improving your mood though to providing existential meaning, it seems that nostalgia can help us.

I understand the attraction of it - nostalgia is a comfortable blanket to wrap ourselves in. The warm memories of the past can help us forget about the cold realities of the present. But, as with most things, it’s a fine line to skitter along. Just like the news, we can’t trust it - if we wrap ourselves up too tightly in nostalgia, we can’t see anything around us. If we unquestioningly swallow what we’re told, we’ll lose sight of what the truth is. As with all things in life, it needs perspective. It’s pleasing to remember good times, but we also need te recognise that they didn’t exist in a vacuum. If we unblinkingly accept what we’re told/remember, then we’ll become blinded by the fog of misinformation that settles around us. By thinking critically, we can shine a light through this mist and hopefully see the truth beyond. In this way we can free ourselves of the tyranny of nostalgia, and hopefully, enjoy our lives more, and live them better.