1990: summer of cinema

This piece was an unsuccessful competition entry. The brief was “memories of cinema-going”.

Not for us the spurious joys of cider by the fountain, or Tennent’s behind the hut in the top park. The summer my friends and I turned sixteen we marked this coming-of-age by getting into the cinema to watch 18-rated films. With the benefit of a quarter-century’s distance, I can see now that all we were doing, in trying to collapse the two years between our actual age and our ascension to adulthood, was highlighting our immaturity and youth. The mere act of trying to pass as an adult only spotlights the fact that you aren’t one.

The summer and autumn of that year – 1990 – saw the release of four films that we, as long-standing horror fiction addicts, awaited with excitement: Robocop 2, Total Recall, Hardware and Nightbreed. That only the latter is technically horror is by-the-by: the others were “genre”, and by definition we were sympatico; fellow travellers.

 

Roll up, roll up

My friend Will, at six feet, could easily pass for someone older. Rick and I, though, had the build and the look of sixteen year-olds, and young ones at that. Surely wearing a baseball cap and standing in line on tiptoes outside the ticket kiosk wasn’t going to fool anyone? And yet it did.

Holding the soft paper ticket (containing neither film nor screen information, merely a serial number), I expected at any moment to hear a shout from behind me:

“Wait just a second!”

“There’s been a mistake!”

“What’s your date of birth?”

But no. At the time, it felt like we’d pulled a fast one on the adult world whose number we aimed to join. But with hindsight, the demographic for these films would wait until the evening showing; at that late hour we would have been laughed out of the building. But for a 2.30 showing in a quiet county town, what ticket-seller was going to turn away a few more bums-on-seats? Maybe we’d even buy some popcorn.

 

The cinema in question was the Perth Playhouse. Perth was, and would be until our schooldays ended and we went our separate ways, our Saturday afternoon destination: there was no other realistic choice. Dundee was too far; neither Glenrothes nor Kirkcaldy held any attraction; Edinburgh may as well have been abroad. Will, travelling from outside our village, would come to Rick’s for lunch; I’d meet them on the bus up to Perth. We’d go to the record shops, the bookshops and the indoor market where pulp horror paperbacks could be picked up for as little as 25p; and, if anything good was in town, we’d go to the Playhouse. Afterwards we’d get a chip butty while we waited for the bus home; I’d go to my paper round and we’d convene at Rick’s in the evening. So routine, so circumscribed, so safe; everything about these actions showed up how far from adulthood we were.

Until I went to university, the Playhouse was – barring a trip to Glenrothes to watch Return of the Jedi – the only cinema I’d ever been to. It was entirely typical of its kind and even in its small size generated an unmistakable aura. When I later worked at the ABC (now Odeon) on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road I got a frisson when sticking the little white plastic letters which spelled out the films and the showtimes onto their hole-studded board. Never mind that the job was done in a dusty, chilly basement last decorated in the 1970s; I was like one of Santa’s elves. I was, in however small a way, helping to create the magic.

 

Do I remember the first time?

I don’t remember now which of the two – Robocop 2 or Total Recall – was released first. I think it was Robocop 2, but it doesn’t matter. I could easily check IMDB or Wikipedia and find out, but that would miss the point. The narratives we create about ourselves, our tiny mythologies, are created as much from memory’s failing as from its assiduity.

I’ve not seen Robocop 2 since then, and by all accounts it’s much poorer than the original. My only memory of it is that we whooped when Chris Quentin (Coronation Street’s Brian Tilsley) appeared in a minor role. Other than that – if indeed it came out before Total Recall – its only significance in my life is that it was my first cinema “18”.

I’d seen 18-rated films before, of course. As a horror fan, it would have been neglectful of me if I hadn’t. Videos were passed around the playground, and late night TV at the weekend would often have something worth recording (furtively, hoping my parents had gone to bed before the VCR kicked noisily into action). But a cinema door is something different. It’s a liminal zone, but one where the crossing of which, as soon as you’re old enough for the entertainments within, is taken for granted and then never considered again.

 

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Disney’s live action “The Cat From Outer Space”, which my aunt and uncle took me and my cousins to. They went back the following day to see it again, and I can still remember being faintly bemused that you’d go and see something you’d already watched. The cinema “bug” had not bitten me and in a way it never did: my parents were infrequent cinema-goers, so it wasn’t part of the fabric of my youth like it was for others. But the rarity of my visits made each one a major event. My Dad is tall and finds the seating uncomfortable, and to this day I have never been inside a cinema with him. Besides, we had a Betamax VCR and anything that came out on the big screen would eventually be available for the small one, no?

I had also had a deeply disappointing experience which perhaps instilled a basic mistrust of the big screen. The local community centre, one Saturday, converted its main hall into a makeshift cinema, with rows of seats and a reel-to-reel projector. They were showing, my aunt told me with great fanfare, Star Wars. I loved Star Wars; loved everything about it, yet had never actually seen the film. You can imagine my excitement that day; I expect I was a handful for my parents. So imagine, also, my disappointment at reaching the centre and finding the blackboard outside bore the words Star Trek.

No doubt it was all the same thing to my aunt: “space film”; very different to me. Nonetheless, we went inside to give it a go. I know Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not actually the longest film ever made, but on some deep, suppressed level you’ll never convince me.

 

What do we want?

Total Recall was controversial at the time, for the levels of violence and in particular the unprecedented number of onscreen deaths. Unlike Robocop 2, it’s a film I’ve re-watched and enjoyed since. It’s as over-the-top as you’d expect of anything involving Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. There was no sex to speak of in any of these films, nor was the subject matter too mature for our immature minds, nor were they too complex in structure. No; we were prevented by age and the BBFC from viewing them legally because of the violence and the blood. And that was the attraction, of course. I don’t remember being bothered by the bodycount; it wasn’t gratuitous in context: any less of it would have affected the internal credibility of these films. Were the films themselves gratuitous? Of course they were, but very few are not: that’s entertainment. As I said at the beginning, we were bookish teenagers (not nerds: nerds didn’t read Clive Barker or listen to the Pixies; and we’d never have encountered the term geek), unworldly despite our aspirations. Our thrills were vicarious, and if that meant messy celluloid deaths, so be it. But the posters for the films in question were not lurid or grotesque; these were neither video nasties nor experiments in grand guignol. The Robocop 2 poster was “what it says on the tin”; Total Recall featured a moodily-lit Schwarzenegger and a Martian horizon, which was pretty classy by Arnie standards, even if it barely hinted at the Philip K Dick mindfuck that was the source story. Hardware gave less away: a menacing chunk of robot. As for Nightbreed, well, we’ll get to that.

Yes, we revelled in the violence; maybe what critical faculties we had were surrendered the moment we obtained the forbidden ticket. We pretended to maturity, like wearing an older sibling’s clothes: always conscious that the cuffs flapped, and the legs needed rolling up, and the belt had to be taken in another notch.

Will and I went to see the low-budget Brit-horror Hardware; perhaps Rick was unavailable, or didn’t fancy it. Either way the pair of us made up exactly half of the audience that afternoon. Some films leave you able to recall entire scenes; others maybe isolated images. Hardware, which again I haven’t seen since, leaves me with just an atmosphere. A dystopian shade of amber and a production design that evoked The Crystal Maze after a nuclear accident. However, I am backed up by a contemporary review in Starburst magazine which described it as a film to “enjoy immensely for what it is…and then immediately forget about”. Even so, you don’t go to watch films – or do anything – at that age with the purpose of retaining them for posterity (“anticipatory nostalgia”). The present moment is all; the fascination is with immediacy and surface glamour. That changes as you age. The self-consciousness of the adolescent is not the same as self-awareness. I’ll no doubt watch Hardware again at some point, but it won’t be in the cinema. However, though I may later remember more of the film, I’ll not remember the act. Watching a DVD is not the same experience.

 

The one that got away

Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation came out that summer and my younger brother was keen to see it. Buoyed by the ability to get into a film for which I wasn’t old enough, I told him I reckoned he could get in to watch it with me. Excited, he naturally ran off to tell our parents. I don’t remember it word-for-word but the conversation which followed with my Dad probably ran like this:

“What rating is Dick Tracy?”

“Fifteen.”

“How old is your brother?”

“Seven. And a half.”

Still never seen Dick Tracy. But the real film that got away that year was, agonizingly, the one we wanted to see the most: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Adapted from his own novella Cabal, this was going to be “the Star Wars of monster movies”. The creatures – the ‘Breed – looked awesome, and still do. But the studio got wind of what was coming (“what’s that? Redneck humans are the bad guys? The outcasts are goodies? Get out of here!”), savagely edited it and marketed it as a slasher thriller. To do this they played up the role of David Cronenberg as an urbane psychiatrist-cum-serial killer, and downplayed the whole “monster” element. The proposed poster by Les Edwards was a wonderfully enticing monster montage above the Nightbreed’s necropolis refuge; the actual poster was a badly cut and paste line-up. Neither one thing nor the other, the film flopped. A lopsided beast to be sure, but posterity has offered it a rebirth: a Director’s Cut was released in the US a few years ago, giving it a chance of some redemption. But that came far too late for a posse of Fife teenagers.

Despite our requests Perth Playhouse, perhaps sensing a dud, passed on the opportunity of showing Nightbreed. Scouting the listings in the local paper showed that Dundee’s Steps Theatre showed it, but a trip to Dundee was beyond the limits of an evening paper round, and was logistically difficult. Surely it’d arrive in Perth at some point? I was unaware of the realities of film release schedules. It was “out”, in the way a book was “out”, wasn’t it: available on the shelf forever?

The film as yet unseen is, of course, far better than the real thing. None of the flaws exist. Nightbreed was therefore going to be amazing. When I finally saw it ten years later, recorded late at night off a tiny combined TV & VCR unit, it looked awful. The 16-year-old me may have been blind to the flaws, but the 26-year-old me wasn’t. I look on it more fondly now, and for all the good work by the SFX team of Image Animation, wish only that it had come out late enough to have benefitted from the Jurassic Park CGI boom.

Nightbreed’s non-appearance helped open my eyes to the small stature of Perth’s cinema; helped me grow up in the sense that when you’re young your immediate environment seems to be the whole world, when in reality it was just a small corner of rural east-central Scotland. Not that big a deal.

 

Roll credits

Total Recall (or Robocop 2, whichever was the latter release) may have seemed to herald an exciting age of cinema-going for us but was really an ending: the last time all 3 of us went to the pictures together. Saturday jobs and (whisper it) girlfriends intervened; within a year the cracks were showing in our friendship and though we remained together until the last days of high school, it was largely through lack of any alternative.

We left genre behind, to an extent. Its film and literature had given us the rush our hormone-flooded bodies craved. Where it was reactionary (“expel the Other!”) it soothed our anxieties; where it was transgressive (“embrace the Other!”) it opened our eyes to new possibilities. But now journeys had to be made. My four years studying literature at University involved little that you’d find in the genre section of Waterstones. However, long after disowning these films and books in favour of Romantic poetry, the nouvelle vague or post-colonial narratives, their tug pulled me back. Not (solely) for the questionable balm of nostalgia, but because what other mode lets us frame a world becoming increasingly, well, weird? It’s too big a claim for our experience of the cinema that summer to say that it equipped us with the mental tools to process the world; but if it didn’t give us the tools, maybe it showed us where they could be found. And that, at any rate, is part of growing up.

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All change: Jan Mark’s “Thunder and Lightnings” (1976)

In my previous post I wrote about nostalgia and the loss of contiguity that can trigger it. There are books, though, that I have always had: every house move has seen them boxed, shifted and unpacked; and, in time, re-read. For these books, each re-reading reveals new aspects: a form of anti- or a-nostalgia. One of these is Jan Mark’s debut novel, Thunder and Lightnings (1976).

I loved this book as a ten year-old. I took it everywhere; read it countless times. I can remember being on at least one visit to a family friend’s and immersing myself in it, to the exclusion of the other children present. I love the illustrations by Jim Russell, and the cover (above, again by Russell, such as you’d never see nowadays) of my battered edition, but I also love the current edition’s cover art.

It was not, however, the book I’d hoped it would be. When it was advertised in the school book club brochure (“The Chip Club” or “The Lucky Club”, I forget which), as an aircraft fanatic I read the blurb and expected it to be about planes. The cover did nothing to dispel the notion. So when it came, I was a little disappointed. Surely I can’t have been surprised: I knew it was going to be fiction, after all. But it wasn’t “about planes”. What was it about?

Andrew Mitchell moves with his family from Kent to a tiny village in rural Norfolk. At school he meets local oddball Victor Skelton, who is obsessed by aircraft: specifically the Lightnings that fly from nearby RAF Coltishall. The two become friends: Victor is an outsider and although never spelled out as such, Andrew is too. As Andrew becomes familiar with Victor’s idiosyncracies (which are largely his means of keeping the rest of the world at bay), he worries about how his new friend will react to the imminent replacement of Lightnings by the newer Jaguar aircraft.

That’s it, in a nutshell: two boys meet, new boy is drawn into local boy’s hobby, worries about how his friend will adapt to change. There’s no plot, as such; something I’m not sure I realised aged ten. Events occur, a friendship develops, and although it most certainly is about things, that’s pretty much it.

On a surface level, then, it’s about a friendship. But what it’s really about is change, and adapting to it.

Andrew is used to change; his family have moved many times in his twelve years: “I went to three junior schools and two secondary schools”. Victor has lived in Pallingham all his life; Lightnings have flown overhead for as long as he can remember. He is anxious about a future without them; the recent retiral of the Hawker Hunter has plainly given him a foretaste of what life without his beloved interceptors may be like. But Victor’s friendship with Andrew – evidently his first close one – and his newfound fondness for guinea pigs suggest a diversification of interests will help him through the loss.

Although Andrew is plainly used to change, he is unmoored by the move, and is feeling his way through his new life. His baby brother, Edward, is too young to be affected by the change, and accepts everything with a nonchalant interest. Until encountering Victor, Andrew’s schooldays are a vacuum: he makes little effort to reach out to other pupils, and is consequently ignored.

Andrew’s personality only comes out in relief, as he is the character through whose eyes we (mostly) read the story. In many of his conversations with Victor he is highly pedantic (not that Victor notices; or, if he does, he bats it back to Andrew). In his favour, he is self-aware enough to realise this and tries to stop, but can’t help himself. I’ve maybe re-read it three or four times since childhood, and the most recent time (last week) I was surprised by how much Andrew needles Victor, unable to reconcile the other boy’s contradictions. Throughout the book there is a face-off between a type of low-level chaos and a desire for order. Andrew’s family and Victor represent the slightly rough-around-the-edges chaotic side, while Victor’s uptight parents with their spotlessly clean house, and (arguably) Andrew with his need for tidy explanation, represent the desire for order. Such dynamics help show both boys that one person’s normal is another person’s weird, and vice-versa.

Much of the boys’ discussions take the form of low-level arguments: in the proper sense of considering each other’s point of view and revising one’s own accordingly. In this manner, Mark makes many points that no doubt escaped me as a ten year old. The boys – and Mrs. Mitchell – read the action strips in boys’ comics, but as they begin to use a nascent critical intelligence, they see through the jingoism and fantasy that usually1 underpins such characters. This is reflected in a trip to a war grave near Coltishall, where the militarism that’s never far from the surface in the UK is simply and elegantly dismantled. It’s an impressive feat the author pulls off, in getting across a genuine love of aircraft with a recognition of what purpose these multi-million-pound weapons perform, while simultaneously recognising the historical feats of the Battle of Britain yet not romanticising or idealising them.

The main theme of adaptation to change by-passed me at the very time in my life I could have done with learning from it. A parental divorce when I was very young, though I was spared the worst, left me at some subconscious level wary of upheaval. Years later, around the time I devoured Thunder and Lightnings, my Gran died. I used to go to her house for lunch every day; in her absence, rather than join my classmates in the school dinner hall, I’d head up the high street and eat my packed lunch on doorsteps, hidden from view, as if repeating the forms of the ritual would restore the substance of it. Taking pity on me, I was occasionally invited into friends’ houses by their parents to eat with them. I’ve no idea how long this went on for – no more than a week or two – before my Mum and Dad found out and I had to go to the dinner hall.

In denial? Maybe a little.

On a slightly more bathetic note, I went off football (having been a big Aberdeen fan, like most boys in my part of the country in the early 80s) when Alex Ferguson and some of the team’s best players – the ones who’d brought so much glory to the club – left throughout 1986. Like Victor, never having known the team to have changed more than just a little at the edges, the wholesale transformation (for the worst; they won only three more trophies in the next decade) was not something I could accept. I went off football almost overnight, and for the best part of a decade2.

Mark wrote the book for a competition (which she won) soon after moving to Norfolk; she based the Mitchells’ shock at the jets’ noise on her own. Coltishall replaced its Lightning fleet with Jaguars in the summer of 1974 (the year I was born), though they continued to fly from bases such as RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1988. Jaguars were scrapped in 2007, though Coltishall itself had closed down the year before. There is a photograph of me, in my Aberdeen shirt, standing in front of the Lightning “gate guard” at Coltishall, taken one summer evening in (I think) 1985. Yes, I pestered my parents to drive from the caravan park we were staying at near Yarmouth, through the back roads of East Anglia, purely to see where Thunder and Lightnings was set.

As well as being the first I’d heard of Green Shield stamps and the phrase “a fine and private place”,  it taught me (pace Andrew’s Mum) “there’s no such thing as fair”. Many years later I gave a cameo role to Andrew and Victor as adults, in my story The Other Field, as a tribute.

Victor, as Andrew’s mother surmises, is more adaptable than Andrew imagines. While Andrew fears that their new friendship may already be waning, Victor is planning cycle trips to RAF Marham to see his namesakes, the Handley-Page Victors. He sees no reason for the rest of the summer holidays not to provide a deepening and a furthering of their friendship. At the end – no spoiler alert needed; this isn’t a plot-driven book, and the replacement of Lightnings by Jaguars is a matter of historical record – Victor seems accepting of the end of the era. A lone aircraft does a trademark vertical ascent:

“”forty thousand feet in two and a half minutes”, whispered Victor…he grinned, his old and famous grin, and made a searing dive with his hand.

“Well, if that wasn’t [the last Lightning of all], that ought to have been…”

There are books you start again as soon as you’ve finished them, but the ambiguous ending of this one meant that was never the case for me. No matter, I’d return to it sooner or later.

 

 

1 I’ll look at this in a future post. In my previous post on nostalgia, I split artefacts into three categories: those which were lost and which when regained are the “true” nostalgic items; those which travel alongside you and grow with you, revealing something new each time (Thunder and Lightnings); and those which also travel alongside you but which do not grow, and form a sort of halfway-house between the other two. Into that category falls I Flew With Braddock.

2 And when I got back into it, it was as a fan of Aberdeen’s big 1980s rivals, Dundee United.

 

Source:

Mark, Jan: Thunder and Lightnings (Puffin, 1978)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman

The lure, the lie and the lessons of nostalgia

“Proust had a bad memory…The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”

Samuel Beckett, ‘Proust

To begin with, the first part of the quote above must look like exceptional contrariness on Beckett’s part. Proust’s most famous work is, after all, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the prime subject of which, explored at great length and from every conceivable angle, is the working of the passage of time on memory. Surely Proust, of all of us, had a good memory?

But no. What Beckett means is that if Proust had a good memory, he would never have forgotten his past in the first place; it would always have been with him. In this case, his memories would have been subject to the mind’s processes – re-remembering, mis-remembering – which render memories unreliable because they irreversibly distort the original mental “image”.

It is only because Proust’s memory was so poor that the taste of the famous madeleine (dipped in tea) brought everything rushing back to him, fresh and undisturbed. He’d forgotten everything about his early life in Combray. So, untouched and unsullied, it comes flooding back with an intensity and vividness not available to the person who has periodically revisited those memories in the interim. These recollections – the result of involuntary memory – are not “sepia-toned”; on the contrary, for the brief period that they can be grasped (before the conscious mind seeks to falsify them by expanding the captured moment, or by attaching other, non-contiguous memories), their immediacy renders them as vivid as the present moment.

Nostalgia is big business. Ebay could barely exist without it. As I write, Blade Runner 2049 is in the cinemas (and explores the role of memories in the creation of the self), and Episode VIII of Star Wars is not far off release: two movies whose existence owe much to nostalgia on the part of the post-baby-boomer generation that makes up the bulk of their fanbase; a generation to which I, born in the mid-70s, belong.

Nostalgia has been big business for years, of course. Using Star Wars as an example again: after Return of the Jedi, with the saga finished, interest in that particular universe dried up over the next few years. By their own admission, Lucasfilm never wanted to experience anything like the period from 1986-1992 ever again. But in the early 90s1 fans slowly rediscovered the trilogy, and haven’t let it go since. Of course they hadn’t “forgotten” Luke Skywalker in the same way Proust had forgotten Combray, but the crucial thing in both cases is that the continuum was broken. If something ceases to be a continual presence in your life, when it is later summoned to mind it will trigger associations up to – but not beyond – the point that you and it parted company.

To switch to music; when we shared a student flat in Dundee, my friend Dave and I were into the electronica that was coming out (including Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series) at the time. There are tracks from the early 90s which I have listened to ever since but Dave hasn’t, and vice-versa. As a result, tracks that have formed part of my soundtrack for two decades immediately take Dave back to evenings in a damp-smelling maisonette because he hasn’t heard them in the interim, while they maybe take me back to the bus journey home from work a few weeks ago, because that was only the most recent time I listened to them; or they don’t spark any association at all because they’re a background part of my life.

“”Something to do with eBay”, Johnny reckons
He’s bidding on it now, for a Subbuteo catalogue ’81-’82
He’ll win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it.”

Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter

The key thing about the items in the photo above is not that they date from the 1980s. They don’t necessarily come from contiguous parts of my childhood: I may have devoured Look-In intensely in 1981 but a few years later it would have been a distant memory because I was reading Asterix, and then a few years later Zzap!64. Each stage of childhood is lived intensely; but when it passes, it’s dead. For a child, a decade feels like a geological era and at 14 you are no longer the person you were at 7, or even 11.

What links these items is that they are all things which I had – or which I remember, or my friends had – at the time but were thrown out (or lost) and which I purchased much, much later, usually via ebay. Although during this time (and to this day, though my son has custody of them now) I had, for instance, a Star Wars annual and other books and magazines from my childhood, the things pictured above had long since ceased not only to be present in my life, but even to exist in my voluntary memory. As a normal and healthy part of growing up I had forgotten the existence of these things, and from day to day my memory wouldn’t even stray down pathways that would lead me to recall them. This is what the Star Wars generation had forgotten: the memorabilia and paraphernalia that – while the films remained – had long been thrown out, passed down to younger siblings or given to charity shops

There are studies which show that nostalgia can trigger positive feelings in the brain and certainly the pleasurable shock of recognition when confronted with something long-forgotten is a thing you can crave. The photo at the top is proof of that.

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But what is it we’re looking for when we’re nostalgia-hunting? The idea that things were better in the past, that there was some golden age that we can hark back to, is a reactionary one that I do not subscribe to. But for the vast majority of adults, childhood was a time largely free of responsibility, when life had an intensity that is experienced much less frequently when you’re older. And nostalgia needn’t mean looking as far back as that; as I said above, the continuity of presence is the key, and once that is broken you can be nostalgic for things that happened (relatively) much more recently.

The things in the photo above date from roughly 1981-1986. A little after that, my main interest was horror fiction, much of which I’m happy to re-read today. But revisiting things from earlier, from pre-adolescence, should not surely be done with the expectation of gaining anything of worth, should it? Most of these items are annuals, comics and magazines, and their very form is significant: they are ephemera, weekly or monthly output designed to be read and discarded. Books are different, or can be (the gamebooks in the photo are a bit of an outlier: not disposable but still unlikely to be of any real worth to someone older than their target market of boys aged 10-14). So these things represent the little background forgotten elements of my childhood. The nouveau-roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps surprisingly, sums this up perfectly in his autobiography:

“the importance of things…obviously doesn’t lie in their intrinsic significance but in the way they stick in our memory”

The associations are the key. The items above don’t actually offer anything significant other than their existence, and the fact that they remind me of a particular time of my life. Is there anything deeper that my obtaining them seeks to reach? What did I actually gain from buying these things? From watching dodgy VHS transfers to YouTube of 70s and 80s kids’ TV opening titles? “A walk down memory lane” is an inappropriate metaphor. It isn’t a bucolic stroll the nostalgia-junkie seeks, it’s a jolt; a hit.

The initial thrill is just that: initial, a short-lived burst of – what? A moment wherein your own personal Combray opens up; the layout of the bedroom you had when you were eight; the wallpaper, a mood, an atmosphere, whatever was in the charts at the time. You thumb through the magazines for a brief diversion: maybe some of the stories are better-written and better-drawn than you appreciated at the time, maybe some others aren’t, and even the adverts – those least important, most peripheral pieces of cultural jetsam – give you the hit. “I remember that! And that!” And what of it?

Because our oldest memories were created by a child’s perception, which is very different from that which we have as an adult, it lends those mental snapshots an incomplete, hazy quality, into the gaps of which can easily slip a sense of the eerie. It is this disjoint – an adult playback of a childhood recording – that has made hauntology such a successful aesthetic in recent years.

In using nostalgia not solely for its own sake, but by acknowledging and actively promoting the argument that the past is not a golden age lost, but exists instead as a weirder place than we can now “properly” recollect, hauntology is in this respect a progressive mode.

But, my interest in hauntology notwithstanding, I’d be kidding myself if I’d bought a thirty-year old copy of Look-In for anything other than that first rush of familiarity.

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The ten minutes spent leafing through the magazines above were the mental equivalent of the junkie hit: intense but fleeting; maybe leaving a sense of wasted time and money, a slight feeling of shame, and a promise never to do it again. What were you looking for? A time that’s passed, long past. An impression of it, then: for what reason? To do what with it? A retreat, anaesthetic.

Buying such items again is a form of reclamation; an attempt to recapture the time in which they were part of our lives. But all we end up with are the artefacts; the associations we hope to rekindle with them – temporal, ephemeral – are long gone.

Nostalgia can be a sugar-coated trap. Life should be lived facing forward, not back. Brexit is only the most extreme version of what happens if you disengage with the present and wallow in nostalgia (or, worse, nostalgia for a time before you were born2, the reality of which you therefore can’t verify and which has been pre-packaged for you).

However, Proust, in his final volume (Le Temps retrouvé – Time Regained), has the epiphany that all of one’s past still exists, and can be accessed via involuntary memory by finding the relevant triggers. For him, these include an uneven cobblestone, a ringing doorbell and, obviously, the madeleine. But he also realises that this time must first be lost before it can be found, in order for it to contain meaning.

As I’ll examine in a subsequent post, there are things from childhood that grow with you, in which you can constantly find relevance and meaning. Other things don’t, and we may regard them with a sense of bewilderment that we ever invested so much emotional stock in them. A further type of things, also, don’t speak to the person we are now but can still offer a briefly enjoyable visit to the past. They give nothing new, they speak only to us like a crackly recording.

This last category, I think, covers the things photographed above. The things from childhood which still speak to me are those whose presence in my life has never been interrupted: for the very reason, possibly, that they still held meaning for me. There are countless items – and I’ll look at them too in the future – that I have not sought to re-obtain, even though they ostensibly belong to the same category as Look-In and Zzap!64. The items in the photo, then, represent those things in which I have tried, and failed, to find contemporary relevance and which have delivered the (pleasurable, but ultimately sterile) hit of nostalgia for its own sake.

 

 

1Someone (not me) could write a thesis (furthering the work of Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher in this area) on the part played by the events of the late 80s and early 90s (downfall of Communism/”the end of history”, etc.) in creating a cultural environment which could give rise to the burgeoning nostalgia industry; ironic given that from the viewpoint of 2017, the early 90s seem like a lost utopia.

2The “WWII/finest-hour/time-when-the-population-was-entirely-white” mentality that led us into this mess.

sources:

Beckett, Samuel: Proust & Three Dialogues (Calder, 1965)

Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time, (six volumes, Vintage, 1996)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1987)

 

photos: Jamie Gorman