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The Circle of Nostalgia

For as long as humans have formed into social groups, a recurring pattern has manifested itself writes Tom Wheeler


One in which the older and younger generations find themselves at cross purposes over a broad range of issues. The reasons for this are so complex and varied that you could spend years exploring the tensions between ingrained societal norms and the conflicting priorities of a new demographic cohort. Or you could save yourself a load of time by just reading any nostalgia meme shared by boomers on Facebook.

You know the ones. Rambling, chronologically dubious lists – usually in all caps, and always in an indescribably hideous font – of arbitrarily recalled details of a perceived shared childhood. Hardy perennials on these lists include playing out in the street (back lanes preferred) until nightfall, mild to medium corporal punishment, identical beige meals served daily, and being restricted to three TV channels (this, incidentally, is the appropriate point to insert a reference to Saturday afternoon wrestling on ITV). The list will then conclude with some emphatic variation of “…AND IT NEVER DID US ANY HARM!!!”.

What folly, scoff the young. You’ll never catch us living in the past so pathetically. Except, of course, you eventually will. The medium will be different, as will the specific subject matter, but the premise will be identical.

The world around you will change in ways you struggle to comprehend fully, and your default response will be to regurgitate a slew of childhood memories – mostly awful ones, conveniently reappraised – in a desperate throwback to a society you understood slightly better.

Now, as a person in the throes of middle age, I really ought to have a foot in each camp here. In fact, I should be ideally placed to comment sagely on both the ludicrous wistfulness of the generation above and the callow idealism of the one below. My physique and mental agility might resemble those of an octogenarian; but my intellectual maturity and financial profile would befit someone a third of my age.

But it doesn’t seem to work quite like that. Instead, I’m caught in the worst of both worlds: old enough to realise that most of the things I believed in my twenties were demonstrable nonsense, but too young to have blindly convinced myself that those currently in their twenties are dafter still.

Overall, my sympathies tend to lean towards the young’uns – it can’t be fun to be dismissed as feckless wasters by a generation who bought their homes outright with spare change from their paper rounds – but every now and then, I’ll catch myself tacitly agreeing with some element or other of the Universal Boomer Meme.

At the moment, it’s the three-TV-channel thing. Now, I had the comparative luxury of a four-channel childhood, but the principle largely holds true. (Incidentally, I was 19 when a fifth analogue TV channel arrived in 1997, complete with grand fanfare and fuzzy picture. In retrospect, this seems as chronologically improbable as your average nostalgia meme, given that satellite TV and the internet were already taking hold by then, but there you go.)

Now, I’m not for a moment advocating a return to a three channel pseudo-utopia. But I am very much of a group that grew up with strictly limited choices of information and entertainment, before being presented quite suddenly with almost unlimited ones.

Those who grew up in an online society are, naturally enough, well placed to navigate it. People a couple of generations older might be inclined to steer clear of all such dangerous nonsense – other than Facebook, of course, the one-stop shop for the promulgation of nostalgia memes.

My generation, on the other hand, fully appreciates the power and significance of a connected world, while lacking most of the skills and instincts to realise even a tiny fraction of its potential. The more choices unfold in front of us, the more we’re confronted with our deep-seated inability even to begin to narrow them down.

So what we do in practice is marvel at having so much of humanity’s accumulated knowledge at our fingertips, fail entirely to decide upon which bit we’d most like to explore, and end up watching old YouTube clips of the wrestling on ITV.

Meanwhile, the specific life skill that made us feel superior to our parents – that is, the ability to programme a VHS recorder – is finding fewer and fewer practical applications.

And my point is? Well, there’s a question. When generations do battle, as they always have, there rarely is much of a point.

So for want of anything more practical, I’ll probably get to work on my own later-life memes, for when I inexplicably but inevitably become convinced that mine was the finest generation of all.

TETRIS ON THE GAMEBOY! BLURRY CHANNEL 5!! PROGRAMMING THE VHS!!! BLUR OR OASIS?!?!? (To which the correct answer is, of course, Pulp.)

Once that’s done, I’ll get ready to shuffle off my mortal coil; but not before passing the baton on to the next generation of nostalgists, who will demand to know “WHO REMEMBERS 4G?!?!?”.

And no doubt it will never have done them any harm. ■

Overall, my sympathies lean towards the young’uns, it can’t be fun to be dismissed as feckless wasters



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