On the whole, my points of disagreement with New Statesman journalist Laurie Penny are numerous, but in late April I thought she was absolutely spot-on when, ahead of the wedding of William and Kate, she attacked the United Kingdom’s ‘retro’ culture as “a fantasy of lost Britishness”, and pointed out that “the accumulation of cultural relics is [rooted in] the belief that modern Britain has little to feel proud of, and less to look forward to.” Penny meant these words in terms of the political sphere - but, interconnected as they are, I suggest that they also apply on a cultural level.
Inherent within the retrospective culture is the assumption that lifestyles, overall, were better in the past. (Who could ask for a more disconcerting parallel with the essence of Conservatism?) Music was better in the past. Literature was better in the past. Food, fashion and film were all better in the past. In the words of Michael Gove and Nadine Dorries can be inferred the contention that government policies, too, were better in the past. It must be granted that, in certain cases, some of this might hold true. It would indeed be fatuous of me to argue that our heritage isn’t strong, or that it is undeserving of our attention. I think it is equally fatuous, however, to fetishize that heritage and endeavour to bring it all back to life - especially with the fervent attention to detail that we are currently seeing. It is always important to observe what any culture isn’t doing, as well as what it is doing. The retrospective culture looks ever backwards, currently at the expense of even a nod towards the future. Nor, I contend, does it even stop to look at the present. Other than as a thoughtless aesthetic, for old times’ sake, what explanation do we have for the proliferation of Union flags that were waved around the United Kingdom during that sentimental weekend in April? Did that phenomenon not die out in the political shiftings of three decades ago? The omnipresence of the Union flag was entirely facile.
When the current retrospective culture first began to galvanise, I could appreciate that its advocates were daring to do something different, and I could also appreciate the fact that people were bringing some fine material from the past back to the surface. I greatly enjoy the all-too-rare radio appearances from our city’s very own DJ78, for example, as well as the music of Duke Special, who re-imagines music from the age of shellac into superb contemporary songs. Looking a little further back (indulge me for a moment), the Jeeves & Wooster television series, which superbly showcased the acting of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, brought the joy of P.G. Wodehouse to millions. I, myself, am profoundly influenced by photographers and writers who are nowadays studied by few. There is a clear difference, however, between broadcasting, re-imagining or taking influence from talented artists of the past, and organising concerted, combined efforts to resurrect derelict decades. It isn’t just fancy dress, rooted in fun - it’s also fantasy dress, rooted in escapism. It goes hand in hand with nostalgia - a self-evident sentimental falsehood. Name one activity more disconnected from reality than pretending to be in a different decade. This retrospective culture has approached its saturation point. We can see this because even the Telegraph has begun mocking it, and because aspects of the past - aspects that may have been considered inconvenient or even laughable in the past - are becoming enshrined as wondrous artefacts. Low quality film cameras are lauded, simply for not being digital. Some people appear to forget the palpable relief, to give an obvious example, which took hold when the CD first replaced the cassette. Would you like to know what I think whenever someone informs me that the muddy hiss of old tapes, or indeed the lilting hums of warped vinyl, were “better” - not just “good”, but “better” - than our contemporary digital technology? I wish myself into any decade before these individuals were born…
My heart sank a little last week when, in a bargain bin in Great Yarmouth, I spotted a poster inscribed with the archetypal retro platitude: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Once more, I find myself in alignment with Penny here: does our society - or any society that hasn’t been ravaged by two world wars, for that matter - have any reason in the least to trudge blithely on and not get angry? I love Great Yarmouth, and it was momentarily pleasing to see that poster in its rightful tacky place, but I do understand that when turgid, vacuous waste of this order reaches seaside bargain bins, they don’t get forgotten easily. In this instance, I fear that it may be some years before we excrete some of the cultural detritus we are presently digesting.