on nostalgia

Feeding the ducks on the river Cam – 1976

Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Nostalgia  (noun)  a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past (OED)

To describe something as nostalgic is often a criticism, a snubbing of anything wistful or rose-tinted, sometimes even slightly sneering. But I love the sensation of nostalgia, the remembrance of something that is just out of reach or, as Kate Morton once described it, “the way we can feel homesickness, not for a place but for a time that can never be revisited, except in memory”, and personally I love it when my books are described as nostalgic or wistful.

I have a very strong sense of that place “that can never be revisited except in memory” – feeding the ducks on the river Cam on a Sunday afternoon (see picture above); the day my baby brother came home from the hospital, his head smelling of milk and newness; the excitement as we drove to Southwold on the Suffolk coast each summer and our first glimpse of the sea, my brother needing to get out his spade and dig a hole in the sand immediately; the first time I read my mother’s old copy of The Hobbit as I sat under the greengage trees at the bottom of our garden. I can remember each moment as though it happened yesterday, even though I will never experience any of them again – my parents sold the house with the greengage trees in 1993 (I wait patiently for it to come on the market again one day but no luck so far), Southwold is a different place now, although the river Cam remains – a flowing stalwart of my unsteady life (and a story for another day). Perhaps I look back with rose-tinted glasses, perhaps we all do. The summers of our childhood were always long and hot – even when they weren’t.

But it is not just memories of people and places that instil this wistfulness in me, it is things as well, even after those things no longer exist.

When I was sixteen my maternal grandmother died. She had lived with us for years and I missed her – I missed her red lipstick and her high heels and the bars of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut she stashed away to be handed out whenever it was needed (a broken heart, an unsatisfactory mark at school, period pain). When the hole in our lives started to feel less raw my mother asked me if I would like my grandmother’s old room – it was the biggest bedroom in the house and my parents thought I would enjoy the peace and space it would give to study for my upcoming A Levels. I jumped at the chance.

Along with the room I also inherited some of the furniture – a wardrobe, a dressing table and a writing bureau that my grandmother had owned for as long as I could remember. They were made of dark wood and were very grown up, having them in my room felt as though I’d taken a right of passage that I hadn’t been aware of. When I put my hand against the wardrobe door I would be transported back to my grandmother’s old house, the one she lived in when my grandfather was still alive. Inside, the wardrobe smelled of her, or her perfume and face powder, of her old fur coats that had been stashed away in the attic, When I put my hand against that wardrobe or gazed into the dressing table mirror, I was a small child again, exploring a house that wasn’t mine. Only the writing bureau remains now, perhaps my most prized possession, and every time I open it I’m taken back to my grandparents’ house, to my teenage bedroom, to studying for my A Levels, to my first flat where the bureau took pride of place in the too small room, to my lifelong dream of being a writer.

Books of course have always been my answer to everything, and it’s a long standing family joke that I have missed much of “real life” because my nose has been in a book – my stop on the tube, the Corinthian Canal, the time my commuter train almost crashed but I was too immersed in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to notice. But books are also a gateway to my own past. I can still remember all the paperbacks that stood, lined up with military precision, in a glass-fronted bookcase on the landing of my childhood home – Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Laura Ingalls-Wilder – and the bookcase next to it full of thicker, heavier adult tomes that I was desperate to read – Doris Lessing, Umberto Eco, Neville Shoot, PD James. I can still remember the floorplan of the local library I spent so many hours in as a child and the exact location of the Mary Poppins series that I read over and over again. The library is no more, razed to the ground to build luxury flats, but my memory of it is as strong as ever.

When my mother died I found my grandmother’s old fur coats and I buried my face in them to inhale the memories even whilst my adult principles told me I should be appalled by them. I also found a scarf that still smelled of my grandmother’s face powder. I didn’t hold onto the coats, but the scarf remains.

Places that can only be revisited in memory are some of the most important places in my life. They are an escape and a ritual, rose-tinted as they may be. And that nostalgia plays another important role because as long as we have those memories, the people we have lost along the way remain with us always.

And that is perhaps the most important thing.

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