For a long time I did not understand why people would say the word ‘nostalgia’ with contempt. I couldn’t see what was so awful about it. Perhaps it was something to do with its proximity to kitsch? I once asked a friend to read over an artist statement for me and he said I should remove a few things to make sure that it did not come across as too nostalgic.

Now I can see a problem with nostalgia: if we are always lamenting over the past, we forget to attend to the present. The danger with nostalgia is that if you can get people to fall in love with the past you can convince them that they should try to get back there somehow, no matter what the collateral damage is in the here and now. This is one possible explanation for the unexpected result of the 2016 referendum on EU membership in the UK. For too many people, the idea of the UK has never been reshaped post-Empire, and no positive notion of the country besides the old ‘Britannia Rules The Waves’ imperial mentality existed. The strength and pride of the UK is measured against, not with, that of Europe. In times of increasing hardship for many, then, the impulse was to cling to this idea, and an inferiority complex (could that date back to the Norman Conquest, even the Vikings, the Romans?1) sowed suspicion that our European neighbours were to blame for all our ills. Or perhaps it was just too collectively tempting, given the chance, to protest the status quo in whatever way was available2.

Thinking about this argument made me worry that there is something unethical about my own interests in the past, painting and reimagining scenes from my family past over and over again. Is a love for the past (perhaps one way to define nostalgia) always to the detriment of the present moment? And who gets pushed out of the picture in that backward gaze?

A Common Treasury, 2020. Oil on canvas, 90x110cm.
1. The notion of a native British people as distinct from continental neighbours is of course entirely unscientific. It is not possible to say that you are descended from one national people, and I am descended from another. As pointed out by Adam Rutherford on his radio series How to Argue with a Racist, ‘You carry DNA from only half of your ancestors 11 generations back… It is therefore possible that you are genetically unrelated to people from which you are actually descended, as recently as the 18th century.’

Adam Rutherford, How to Argue with a Racist, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 12th February 2020, produced by Waters Company. 13:33.

2. There is a huge amount of conjecture in journalism about what Brexit reveals about the UK’s national psyche. I find a lot of it to minimise the important facts that those who want Brexit are facing challenges as public services decline, living costs rise and wages do not. Some of the problems people face probably are linked to EU policies, even if it is hard to say whether they will be better off after Brexit. Most of the problems are more to do with the increasing inequality created by a decade of government austerity.