An interesting article
in the G2 section today on the rise of an industry dedicated to serving a growing nostalgia for 1940s and 50s Britain. Andy Beckett proposes that this is indicative of an abandoning of the British inferiority complex. This is wrong: instead, it indicates the continuation of that complex, and the rise of conservative urges to return to a more innocent and better past.
Beckett gives examples of the success of shops specialising in nostalgic products – the picture shows a 1950s sweetshop, fronted by a man with a waxed moustache; the article opens with the change in fortunes of a couple who used to own a clothes shop selling 1940s garb which had to close, and are now having great success with a very similar shop in the middle of Norfolk; there is talk about he rise of fish % chip shops, and their conversion to (I presume) gastro-chippies. The value of beach huts, the regeneration of seaside towns, and the trend to buy ‘knobbly old potatoes from farmers’ markets’ are all given as evidence of the resurgence of interest in all things British. I can’t help but feel that he is a little misplaced.
The trends do not indicate the discarding of the British inferiority complex. If that was the case, then people would be interested in British invention of the early 21st Century, not of the mid-20th. British fashion and style would be popular now, and held up with pride by the media – as it is, British fashion designers go and work for European fashion houses, and the London fashion week has become a showcase for Princes Trust teenagers making clothes from the contents of a rubbish bin. The fact is, the trends do not show a resurgence in desire for British things per se, but very specifically a resurgence in British things from the past – the 50s are in demand now, just as the 60s were in the 1990s.
The 50s represent a golden age of innocence: Britain was coming out of a war victorious, and heading into a period of prosperity - they had never had it so good. The mood of the country was buoyant, and it was epitomised by the 1951 Festival of Britain, which celebrated all things British. Why would channel 4 choose the 50s for a television experiment comparing the education of two eras? Because the 50s epitomises so many things in the mind of the viewer – life was simpler then, neighbourhoods were friendly, children were safe playing in the street, the state provided for all our needs – and did so effectively, and we were unimpeded by all this modern political correctness rubbish. The real threat of nuclear war was not yet hanging over the country in the early decade, and while relations between Russia and America were growing colder, they were still relatively stable. The world felt safe.
It is easy to see how this particular sandbox can seem appealing to us now. If we believe everything we read – and many people do – we live in a world of uncertainties. 9/11 threw the western world into a state of turmoil: we were no longer safe, and what is more, we cannot see our enemy. George Bush’s Star Wars defence system couldn’t stop the planes hitting the twin towers, no more could Spain’s intelligence services stop the Madrid bombings. We don’t know whether to trust our Government any more. We’ve started fighting a war against an invisible enemy, an enemy which we can never catch, which produces a war which will never end. We have been told to suspect everything – bags in airports and in train stations, people acting suspiciously. We need ID cards, we need to put people under house arrest, we need to torture people in prisons. We must kick out these Muslim hate agents. We must curb immigration. We must stop immigration. We’re letting in terrorists, the terrorists are already here, they’re being trained in their hate-mosques. It’s not a call to prayer, it’s a call to arms. Left and right are no longer there – left is in the centre, right is out of sight. The left went with the miners and the Trade Unions. Call-centre workers don’t form unions – which doesn’t help when their jobs are outsourced to India. Everybody has a 2.2 in business management, nobody has any skills any more. Get a vocation, people say, but then complain that the vocational courses offered are meaningless. How simple the 1950s must seem to people caught up in this madness. In the 50s, boys learnt woodwork at school, the girls did sewing – wholesome, practical skills. People went into apprenticeships, very few went to university. Women stayed at home, men went to work, children went to school, nobody wore hoodies. It is a balanced, calm, certain idyll.
Why did we look to the 60s during the 90s? Because the 60s represent revolution. Coming out of the Thatcher years, we felt staid and grey – and John Major reflected this. In came Blair, with his charm, charisma, giving ‘party politics’ a whole new meaning. It was a breath of fresh air through the place. Many people wrote before this years election about how they felt let down by Labour. The expectancy in 1997 was there: people were ready for change, and people would embrace change. ‘Cool Britannia’ came in (albeit briefly), and people looked back to the last time Britain was cool, the 1960s, and drew its own parallels. In place of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were Blur and Oasis; instead of Alfie, The Italian Job and If… there was Trainspotting and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (not necessarily good, but popular); George Best and David Beckham. But the 60s was also charged with revolutionary feeling – feminism, student protest and all that. This was the thing that was lacking in the 90s, where people were still too stuck to their material wealth gathered under Thatcher, and too focused on getting nice wooden floorboards and a lovely minimalist living space. This could possibly be one of the reasons people felt let down by New Labour.
The nostalgia for the 50s is nothing more than the collective ostrich burying its head in the sandbox of a rose tinted history book. However, it also represents something which could be slightly more sinister – the move towards a more conservative agenda. 50s Britain is overwhelming white and middle class – that simply isn’t reconcilable with the reality of Britain today. (The fact that the Windrush arrived in 1948 has been neatly edited out.) There is a desire for conservatism – we want to be safe in our homes, we want to have our children educated properly, we don’t want to be overrun with immigrants. We want to be able to trust our Government to do this for us.
Britain is still in the grip of its inferiority complex. Britain today is adrift in uncertainty, and the trend to go back to the 50s is simply people trying to recapture a seemingly more innocent and simpler age. It is possible that with this trend will come the more disturbing move towards a conservative agenda, to try and recreate 1950s Britain, or at least the feeling of it.