Article Place & Self

The lure of nostalgia

Worldwide there is a strong revival of and reconnection with just about everything relating to nostalgia.

‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’

Who can ever forget the delectable Rhett Butler’s devastating parting words to a teary Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 movie, Gone with the Wind? Or another doomed film romance, Casablanca (1942) where the actors Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, gazed longingly into each others’ eyes until this poignant goodbye from the leading man to his woman: ‘…Here’s looking at you, kid.’

Now that’s pure movie nostalgia. And if these snippets of dialogue evoke bittersweet memories and you are the kind of person who chooses to, from time to time, see life through the soft sepia colours of bygone days, you are probably a hopeless nostalgia devotee. But you also find yourself in very good company. The celebration of nostalgia seems to be here and now and everywhere.

So, where does the term ‘nostalgia’ come from?

The origin is from two Greek terms: nostos meaning ‘return home’ and algos, being ‘pain’. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines nostalgia as: ‘pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again’ and states the first known use of the word was in 1756 [].

The German word, heimweh translating as ‘acute home sickness’ also aptly describes this sense of longing for people, places and things from the past. This allusion to melancholy strengthens the perception that nostalgia has to do with mental illness and that people ‘suffering’ from this can therefore be classified as having a psychiatric disorder.

Remember when?

You cannot escape nostalgia even if you try; it’s in your face. Wherever you turn there is sensory overload of the nostalgic kind: the sound, the smell, the taste, the look and the feel of yesteryear. Whether watching a classic old car spluttering past, sniffing the soft scent of a faded memento, feeling the sensuous caress of a silk vintage dress against your skin, hearing the opening notes of a golden oldie over the radio or relishing in watching an old movie: nostalgia is right there with you.

And it is interesting to note that the market for nostalgia is not only an older audience. People often pass down their passion for nostalgia to their children and in turn this longing to engage with the past develops in these youngsters too.

Relishing a blast from the past

Play it again, Sam

The movies and music are great catch nets to preserve stories and songs for posterity.

Music is a sure-fire way to trigger feelings of nostalgia, setting off a flood of memories of family holidays, hot summer nights and teenage heartbreak. Which songs will feature on your nostalgia playlist? Here are a few of mine: American Pie by Don McLean (1971), Stumblin’ In by Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman (1979), Imagine by John Lennon (1971), Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers (1965), Love me Tender by Elvis Presley (1956), Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson (1970) and McArthur Park by Richard Harris (1968). Allow yourself the luxury of slipping away into the magic notes of The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and the rest of the nostalgia-inducing music gang and let the memories flow thick and fast.

Numerous radio stations, including online stations, specialize in playing golden oldies. Try [] and [] to listen to music from many moons ago.

Also, vinyl LPs have become prized possessions again. Tom Waldman wrote in an article about nostalgia in the Los Angeles Times of August 18, 1991 [ 1 oldies]: ‘So who buys records anymore? Record wholesaler Martin Levy says that fans of bebop (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and their peers) insist that records are superior to compact discs. “There is a certain warmth in the LP recordings,” Levy says’. Then there’s the nostalgia factor. “The baby-boom generation still has a real affection for records,” Levy says’.

And, oh, the crime and the passion, the glorious romances and dastardly betrayals, the daring adventures and the sheer thrill of watching an old movie. So many movies, so many memories of sitting in a darkened theater, eating popcorn with eyes riveted to the screen.

Unforgettable silver-screen blockbusters include A streetcar named desire (1951) featuring the smouldering Marlon Brando playing a brute and a cad, the timeless 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz (starring Judy Garland) or the career-defining performance by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie of Harper Lee’s coming-of-age in To kill a mocking bird. And let’s not forget the master of thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock, with his Psycho (1960) showing us the pure evil of a psychotic mama’s boy played by Anthony Perkins and The Birds (1963) with the spine chilling attacks on poor Tippi Hedren by an avalanche of screaming birds.

Recent movies celebrating long-dead artists such as La vie en Rose (the story of Edith Piaf) and the remake of old movies like True Grit (originally released in 1969 with that old swagger of a cowboy, John Wayne) and The Mechanic (first with Charles Bronson, 1972) all point to a desire to reconnect with the past.

Devouring the past

You can have your fill with nostalgia eats. And some tasty products stood the test of time. Marmite spread (1902), Coca Cola (1886), Mrs Ball’s chutney (1914), Simba chips (1957), Chappies bubble gum (1940s) and Ouma rusks (1939) still hold pride of place on supermarket shelves.

Old time cupcakes, reinvented and wearing flamboyant dresses made from glorious ingredients, are snapped up in delicatessens. It is any foodie’s dream to bite into one of these sweet little delights and remember grandma’s older versions.

A latest craze is recipe books filled with nostalgia and cooking and baking traditions.

For biscuit nostalgia try British chef Jamie Oliver’s new cook book, Jamie’s Comfort Food (2014, Penquin UK). It contains his all-time favourites, including delicious biscuits remembered from his childhood and memories shared around the kitchen table like the one about the porridge ritual of his granddad.

Writer Sue Lawrence interviewed over 70 prominent Scots including Gordon Brown, Andy Murray and Gordon Ramsay to wax lyrical about their favourite childhood foods in her book, Taste ye back: Great Scots and the food that made them (2009, Hatchette, Scotland). Not surprisingly, unpretentious robust food dominates: Scotch broth, chicken soup, rarebit, and Mince and Tatties - a beef stew served over roasted potatoes.

Bill Habets compiled The Nostalgic Cook Book (2009, Windsor Group, UK) and especially likes the Woolton Pie, a rich and thick vegetable pie created at the Savoy Hotel in London during World War II. For American cuisine harking back to the 1950s where diners served, and still serve, good, simple food at reasonable prices within a homey ambiance, imbibe in Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett’s tome, The American Diner Cookbook: More Than 450 Recipes and Nostalgia Galore (2003, Cumberland House Publishing, US).

In South Africa, many households have a Cook and Enjoy It, SJA de Villiers’ iconic cookbook (originally published in Afrikaans by herself in 1951). The grand old lady of authentic South African food culture and heritage who made famous recipes such tomato bredie, koeksister and milk tart died on 20 September 2010 at the age of 91. This surely says something for the healthy and wholesome cooking and baking she stood for!

Read all about it

There are numerous magazines and books dedicated to publishing writing about nostalgia.

In Britain, for instance, for a nostalgia-fix read Memory Lane magazine [], giving you your season ticket to musical nostalgia. This quarterly has been going since 1968 and covers music of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s with particular focus on swing bands, dance bands and vocalists. There is also Best of British [], a monthly collection of stories and pictures covering every aspect of life from the 1930s through to the present day and showcasing what made Britain great. Evergreen [] is a pocket size publication which takes you on a journey through the English countryside, calling on ancient churches and unspoilt villages.

Books about nostalgia abound and are just a Google search away. There are even nostalgia book clubs.

Day-to-day nostalgia

Living and working with nostalgia

Tapping into nostalgia can be very lucrative while at the same time providing a working environment that is emotionally rewarding.

Living in Victorian splendour

Time seems to have stood still for the 1910-house that Sir Herbert Baker designed in Auckland Park (Johannesburg, South Africa). This sleeping beauty of a house, Lindfield Victorian House Museum [] is a museum but it is also Katharine Love’s home where she lives every day within the authentic setting of her lovely Victorian manor house. Love and her mother bought the 22-room house 48 years ago and have lovingly furnished it with period pieces from the era (late 1830s to 1900) to represent the living environment of a Victorian family at that time.

When her mother passed away in 2005, Love turned the house into a Victorian museum and started giving tours, dressed as a prim Victorian parlour maid. Eighteen rooms are open for public viewing, including all the principal reception rooms, the ladies’ drawing room, library, music room as well as the formal dining room, bedrooms, children’s dining room and nursery, bathrooms, pantry and kitchen. Various fascinating collections and bric-a-brac include period crockery, cutlery, postcards, photographs, documents, costumes and uniforms, fans, toys and dolls. The dolls’ house in the children’s nursery is deemed to be a worthy competitor to the Queen’s dolls’ house at Windsor Castle.

Love is quoted in an article written by Lucille Davie [], January 20, 2010) as saying that the house is cold in winter - she bundles up and keeps warm in the drawing room with a rabbit fur-lined foot muff - but she does use an electric blanket on her bed. And she doesn’t use the uncomfortable hip-bath!

The show must go on

Many singers draw on the nostalgic content of olden day songs and performers of yesteryear to enthrall their audiences.

One such songstress is the South African-based performer, Helena Hettema [], whose music performances feature strong nostalgic content and who is internationally well known for her moving rendition of songs by famous French singers such as Edith Piaf. Hettema says: ’As a little girl I twirled and swayed to Jacques Brel singing, Carousel, and was swept away by Piaf’s mesmerising voice. They made me long for far distant lands over the seas, the enchantment of snow covered streets in Paris and the enigma and power of the French language.’

TV shows with a nostalgia focus, such as the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow (over 8 million viewers per show), where antiques experts do valuations of objects brought in by the public, are hugely popular.

Wrapped in the arms of remembrance: heavenly bliss or toxic hell?

Is a tendency towards nostalgia beneficial or detrimental to mental health?

Some people tread gently around nostalgia; their need to engage comes to the fore only once in a while. For others it is a matter of great significance and passion and they choose to be enveloped in nostalgia almost on a daily basis. Does this necessarily mean that people who are deeply attached to nostalgia cannot cope with reality? Apparently not.

Asking the psychologists

Marina Krakovsky, a veteran San Francisco-based journalist wrote in Psychology Today (May 2006) that nostalgic people tend to have a strong self-esteem and are less prone to depression. And, in spite of numerous advices given to people nowadays to live in the present, Krakovksy stated that research showed that, to undertake a nostalgic journey into the past now and then, can uplift and comfort one’s soul.

Two clinical psychologists based in Pretoria (South Africa) have the following to say about nostalgia.

Marietjie Verster says: ‘Treasured memories touch the heart in special ways. A journey back in time allows people to get in touch with their roots and feelings. But it requires emotional maturity, and retaining a balanced approach towards life, as immersing yourself in the past and indulging in excessive introspection can potentially lead to depression.’

Dr Pierre Cronje says: ‘Nostalgia can add to a rich inner life and can be a positive resource. Fond memories can keep people going (especially in old age) as we tend to cut down on allowing new impressions and experiences into our lives during our twilight years.’ He also states: ’The down-side of nostalgia is the danger of becoming fixated on the past; then nostalgia becomes pathological, as such a person cannot move flexibly in and out of nostalgia. People can find themselves trapped in a ‘time warp’ as manifested in an inability to move on.’ He also believes that there is a tendency towards romanticising nostalgia. ‘We tend to forget negative aspects of past experiences. The German expression: “Ende gut, alles gut!” is so true. Through the ages there were both good and bad times; it is therefore a myth to believe that times are either just good or bad.’

Interestingly enough, the need to more fully understand nostalgia has attracted the attention of a number of academics who have conducted pioneering research over the last decade. John Tierny wrote an article for the New York Times (July 8, 2013) titled, ’What is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows’, in which he discusses the findings of Constantine Sedikides, a psychology professor at the University of Southampton who believes that the ‘nostalgia sensation may be a biological tool that allows humans to remember their past fondly so that they may be optimistic toward, and inspired by, the future.’

The article stated that research inter alias established that ‘Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.’ Dr Sedikides is quoted in this article as having said: ‘Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.’

Tierny also wrote: ‘Today dozens of researchers around the world are using tools developed at Sedikides’ social-psychology laboratory, including a questionnaire called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale []. Their general finding is that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be — it’s looking a lot better.’

Making choices

Do you yearn for the good old days and even gather inspiration for the future from these reflections? Or do you agree with George Wildman Ball who allegedly said: ‘Nostalgia is a seductive liar’?

It is totally your choice as to whether you want to lock nostalgia away or wallow in its depths. For those who believe that reminiscence is a comforting balm for their souls and that it forms an integral part of their identity, nostalgia can be healing.

And as for the rest of the world’s population who might not take pleasure in nostalgia? Frankly, speaking on behalf of all the nostalgia aficionados among us: ‘My dears, we simply do not give a damn.’

Photo credit: Hanekom family (next to a Hudson Terraplane car, circa 1937)

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