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.