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Speed Read – nostalgia as a force for ill and a force for good

Every week The Friday Speed Read stands at its new stove and drops into its French cast-iron cookware a mix of the week’s biggest stories and a selection of half-considered musings in order to cook up a broth that it hopes you’ll want to drink.

Nostalgia is the most potent of drugs. And unlike the many recreational narcotics of which people outgrow as they age nostalgia simply becomes ever-more addictive as your years on the planet advance. Some of this may just be nature’s method of getting you out of the way while younger people do useful things; shoving you in a corner to bimble on about Rentaghost while those of sharper, fresher intellect can get on with the important business of, I don’t know, developing a Covid-19 vaccine. But whatever the Darwinian context of nostalgia, sometimes you need to battle it before it ossifies you; someone much cleverer than me once said that one of the reasons that he loved the songwriting of R.E.M. (and let me be clear now that this is not the only reference to the greatest band in history that will feature in this week’s column) is that it’s always in the present tense: Losing my Religion, Gardening at Night, Man on the Moon, Stand, It’s the End of the World as We Know it and I Feel Fine. This argument, neat though it is, does rather fall apart with the song “Nightswimming” which is all about the memory of skinny-dipping as a youth. ANYWAY, the point is that if you don’t fight back, nostalgia can overwhelm and ruin you.

This is especially right now when everything seems worse than it’s ever done before. I was engaged in a bit of old-school channel surfing last night when I stumbled upon one of those BBC4 documentaries that will be the first to be excised with the government succeeds in its pathological attempt to destroy our national broadcaster (and we’ll be poorer for it). A younger Dan Snow was presenting a history programme called Filthy Cities in which he and the usual ensemble of actors who’d hoped for better from their careers than dressing up as a medieval peasant and then dying silently from the Plague in order that we can better visualise medieval peasants dying silently from the Plague. The main premise was that Fourteenth Century London was a chronically overcrowded mass of faecal matter, putrefying offal, dead fish and disease. Dan Snow helpfully demonstrated what this might have been like by forcing BBC interns to collect large amounts of said waste and then dump it in a field for him to walk on in his wellies. “Oh it stinks”, he told us, putting that First Class degree from Balliol College Oxford to excellent use. There are no flies on Dan Snow. Except in this case there were a lot of flies on Dan Snow.

Finally, after another scene in which he tipped a truck-load of horse manure in the middle of the City of London for little discernible purpose other than satire, Dan stood next to an academic historian rather than a television one. To misquote Monty Python, how do you know she’s an academic historian? Answer – she’s not got shit all over her. This historian confirmed that such unsanitary streets led to a deadly outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that killed over 50% of London’s population. “Oh dear”, said Dan. “Quite,” said the non-shitty academic historian, “there was a complete failure of leadership that led to the deaths of many, many thousands.” “But”, she added, “it’s likely that modern governments would be much better prepared to cope with an epidemic.” “Well!”, snorted Dan, “they struggle even with just a foot of snow! Ha! Ha! HA HA HA HA HA! HA HA HA” (they both laughed for some time).

Meanwhile, I looked to my wife sitting next to me on the sofa and we were not laughing. We had tears in our eyes. All of which is to say that be careful when watching BBC4 in the midst of a pandemic.

Historical ironies aside, this is all of course just a massive swerve away from this week’s news that continued in the same soul-crushing fashion as the previous seven days. Infections rising, deaths rising, arguments about what should be done about infections and deaths also rising. On Monday, the government announced its widely trailed three-tier system for geographically specific coronavirus restrictions: Medium, High and Very High (although the different labels could well have been: Bad, Really Bad and Listen it’s got so Bad that You Probably Don’t Want to Know Just How Bad and Have You Tried Baking Sour Dough?) and promptly put Liverpool in the top tier and threatened other northern cities with the same. The PM employed some typically flamboyant imagery to describe Covid alerts “flashing like alerts on a jet”, failing perhaps to understand that he was, you know, the pilot. Tuesday’s front pages were morose. The Star featured a snakes and ladders board alongside the headline: “We’re back to square one”; “Back to the bad old days”, said the Mail and The Mirror sounded the pun alarm with “Tiers of a clown”.

As the week unfolded, further tensions between the government and its science advisors became public, as did rifts among the government itself with some in favour of an immediate, harsher lockdown, while others wanting to protect what’s left of the economy at all costs, even if those costs include more death. It’s all a bit of a mess. If by mess you mean something that looks like a national catastrophe. By comparison, Dan Snow covered in pig entrails seems like a picnic. Albeit a weird one arranged by your goth friend Dark Sarah in a Victorian cemetery.  

But I am feeling okay. This moment, this glorious second, is fine. It’s good. I am happy because I can remember better times and I believe firmly that these better times will be back. And maybe sooner than we think. So yes, sometimes nostalgia isn’t dangerous. Sometimes it’s essential.

As a coda to all of this, if you’ve not watched Song Exploder on Netflix yet then I suggest that you do so at your nearest convenience. Based on a long-running and brilliant podcast of the same name, Song Exploder breaks down songs into their constituent parts and discusses with their creators how they came to be. The episode with Lin Manuel Miranda about Wait for It from Hamilton is wonderful; the episode with all four members of R.E.M. talking about Losing My Religion would be an extraordinary highlight of any year for me; coming in 2020 it’s like manna from heaven.

Here’s a song.

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