In Defense of Nostalgia: a Christmas Story

School and childhood were complicated, and I got out of both as fast as I could. Aged fifteen – that seems quite young to me now – I found a labouring job in a boat shed along the Clyde. The days of good apprenticeships in the Glasgow shipyards, or anywhere else for that matter, were fading fast, and I settled for poor pay and prospects in a badly ventilated box buffing fibreglass boats.

My hair, clothes and sandwiches were each day covered in a fine white powdery dust; I brought it home with me, and often expelled it as a gluey muck into my handkerchief or coughed it up to the point of vomiting. We were not issued overalls, boots, masks or safety instructions, and accidents were not uncommon – cuts, chemical burns and eye injuries – though they were minor by comparison to the sorts of injuries suffered by those working at the yards: the welders, riveters, boiler makers and sheet metal workers. I heard of men carried out on a stretcher whilst others in the line were still clocking in.

Somewhat ironically, whilst at the time I couldn’t wait to put at a distance the misery of (low paid) dangerous work, some way into the future I would undertake research on the memories of people working in high risk occupations, especially miners – interviewing them at their home and recording their recollections of the pits. Accounts varied. Most talked of the best of times, of union campaigns and camaraderie, and spoke of deaths or colliery catastrophes only when pressed. Among them was JL, an eighty-something from Tranent who, despite having only one lung, filled my reel-to-reel with hilarious accounts and bursts of wheezing laughter. He said he was fortunate in that he had never encountered much by way of major accidents; but hazardous working conditions was a key prompt on my open-ended questionnaire, and I probed into the darkest corners of pit life – areas of memory into which this ex-miner from Tranent was perhaps reluctant to go. “It’s not that there were no accidents,” he conceded: “I saw men lose a foot or a finger, and there were fatalities over the years – caught in the blades or under a fall – but I never saw anything on the scale of what you might call a pit disaster. Mind you, it was never far from our thoughts.”

And it was never far from my thoughts in the boat shed. There was no talking during work time, but workers could listen to the mindless oblivion that was Radio One, and for all but myself, this seemed to make the day go by faster. The Hollies sang a song, repeatedly, about the air that they breathed, and I longed for some of that. And so, despite the pleas of my parents, when I turned sixteen I entered one of life’s major transitions: I boarded an overnight bus destined for London, and after a week in youth hostels found a room in Talbot Road and a job in a factory putting rubber knobs on the legs of dish racks. It took months to find even the most rubbish work in Glasgow, but in London I managed it in a week – how much easier it was to get on in London!

It seemed everyone in Notting Hill lived in squats at that time: bohemian communes, clusters of nonconformity, arty types campaigning against everything all at once. And in a stucco-fronted house stuck in the centre and yet the periphery of this village, I paid rent to a shady landlord of the boat-shed-boss mindset in exchange for a dimly-lit room with mice, metered gas, and a tabletop electric cooker that took an hour to bring a can of tomato soup to bubbling point. It was the dreariest place in W11, the batteries in my cassette player drained constantly, I went to bed early to stay warm, I was lonely, hungry and homesick – how much harder it was to get on in London.

The Spanish squatters who lived opposite ran a stall around the corner in Portobello Road, and by way of ‘Hola’ I bought two large scented candles from them as a Christmas present for my parents. The candles arrived on the day their electricity was disconnected. ‘What a happy coincidence’, they said. They were told that if they paid the bill immediately, even though it was late, they would not be plunged into darkness over the festive period, and so they did but they were – the spirit of Christmas conveyed by the South of Scotland Electricity Board.

My dad moved the lifeless tree back from the bay window and closed the curtains to give the neighbours less to talk about. I rang from the corner phone box on Christmas Eve. “Back to the wartime blackouts,” said my mother, but it wasn’t, really: that was something shared communally. Reminiscences of that era flooded back nonetheless and, like JL, the ex-miner in Tranent, they would steer clear of dead ends. I suppose that was something my parents got through, the dismal war years, and they were getting through it again. The candles lit the room and my parents relived their past until the night and the memories blended with sleep. They assured me they were happy. It was the sort of happiness that had something to do with making the best of it, and the sort of cheerfulness that made me sad, but a sadness that, even yet, I want to hold on to.

Dwelling on the past was once linked to depressive states, but there is today a growing body of research that suggests nostalgia is a unique asset that enables us to make sense of our existence, to improve psychological health, and to reduce fears about death. Regardless of age or culture, nostalgia narratives are never absent from our lives. They might be tinged with sadness and triggered by negative thoughts or loneliness, but in the end they are always positive experiences, and frequently socially oriented.

The universality of nostalgia as a discrete aspect of memory suggests it evolved as part of selective pressures in our environment; it appears as an adaptive neurological protection system that strengthens neural pathways and builds resilience and motivation by reminding us who we are and where we are coming from.

According to research conducted by psychologists Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, nostalgia has three main functions: it increases positive (but not negative) mood, it defends our sense of self, and it reinforces social connectedness. Their empirical studies also suggest the centrality of its place in increasing relationship satisfaction, of strengthening belongingness and empathy, and of preserving a sense of meaning in life. It does this, says Wildschut, by connecting the past with the present to point optimistically to the future, and not surprisingly there are now multidisciplinary teams looking at ways of developing nostalgia narratives as therapeutic interventions for post-traumatic stress, depression and early stage Alzheimer’s.

Far from being a dark, depressive indulgence, nostalgia is a remarkable attribute of memory that helps dissolve barriers and give structure and meaning to our life. Just as the brain is set up for metaphor, nostalgic experiences, as my parents could attest, operate as an emergency generator when the power is cut. I see them clearly now in the flickering shadows alone together on Christmas Eve. I don’t suppose they said all that much. I don’t suppose they had to.

More articles by:
July 14, 2020
Anthony DiMaggio
Canceling the Cancel Culture: Enriching Discourse or Dumbing it Down?
Patrick Cockburn
Boris Johnson Should not be Making New Global Enemies When His Country is in a Shambles
Frank Joyce
Lift From the Bottom? Yes.
Richard C. Gross
The Crackdown on Foreign Students
Steven Salaita
Should We Cancel “Cancel Culture”?
Paul Street
Sorry, the Chicago Blackhawks Need to Change Their Name and Logo
Jonathan Cook
‘Cancel Culture’ Letter is About Stifling Free Speech, Not Protecting It
John Feffer
The Global Rushmore of Autocrats
C. Douglas Lummis
Pillar of Sand in Okinawa
B. Nimri Aziz
Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields by BNimri Aziz July 11/2020
Cesar Chelala
What was lost when Ringling Bros. Left the Circus
Dan Bacher
California Regulators Approve 12 New Permits for Chevron to Frack in Kern County
George Wuerthner
Shrinking Wilderness in the Gallatin Range
Lawrence Davidson
Woodrow Wilson’s Racism: the Basis For His Support of Zionism
Binoy Kampmark
Mosques, Museums and Politics: the Fate of Hagia Sophia
Dean Baker
Propaganda on Government Action and Inequality from David Leonhardt
July 13, 2020
Gerald Sussman
The Russiagate Spectacle: Season 2?
Ishmael Reed
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Perry Mason Moment
Jack Rasmus
Why the 3rd Quarter US Economic ‘Rebound’ Will Falter
W. T. Whitney
Oil Comes First in Peru, Not Coronavirus Danger, Not Indigenous Rights
Ralph Nader
The Enduring Case for Demanding Trump’s Resignation
Raghav Kaushik – Arun Gupta
On Coronavirus and the Anti-Police-Brutality Uprising
Deborah James
Digital Trade Rules: a Disastrous New Constitution for the Global Economy Written by and for Big Tech
Howard Lisnoff
Remembering the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Its Futility
Sam Pizzigati
Will the Biden-Sanders Economic Task Force Rattle the Rich?
Allen Baker
Trump’s Stance on Foreign College Students Digs US Economic Hole Even Deeper
Binoy Kampmark
The Coronavirus Seal: Victoria’s Borders Close
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Power, Knowledge and Virtue
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic