Everyone’s always knocking this decade – Blair, Cameron, my mum. But whether it was good or bad is beside the point
A women’s liberation rally on Fifth Avenue, New York City, 26 August 1971 Photograph: Marty Lederhandler/AP
I’ve been experiencing a lot of nostalgia over the last few months, which is no surprise: the feeling often comes during moments of stasis. Lots of people are expressing a longing for the time before coronavirus, but we’ve been in this pandemic long enough for there to be nostalgia for earlier moments within it. From the wintry depths of the third lockdown, the experience of having to download a badly designed app to sit in a pub garden feels like a lost idyll.
More than this, though, I have found myself developing nostalgia for a time that I didn’t live through, the 1970s ( I was born in the 90s). One of my favourite ways to pass time under lockdown has been watching films from the New Hollywood era (Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich etc). I often found myself thinking, “Folks, they don’t make them like that any more!”, which is sadly correct. I also don’t think I’m alone: the allure of the 70s feels particularly strong, from various heralded “disco revivals” to well-received TV series such as Mrs America and Small Axe, and 70s-inflected trends in interior design and fashion. That said, I’m not sure these disparate aesthetic threads represent some kind of overarching narrative, as much as I’d like to think that everyone who streamed the Dua Lipa album was pining for a world without Thatcherism.
Instead, my interest in the 1970s is just one form of escapism that I happened upon, and I’m sure there are people who have spent lockdown dreaming of different eras (the wild success of period drama Bridgerton would be one example). The decade holds a particular allure for me, as a gay man, due to its positioning between the beginning of gay liberation and the onset of the Aids crisis in the early 1980s. This was the historical sweet spot when, particularly in the US, a lifetime of repression exploded into disco, BDSM clubs, political activism and some beautiful novels and works of visual art.
Whether it would have been a fun time to be gay, though, would have depended on who you were and where you lived. I know there is a narcissism in imagining yourself to be “born in the wrong era”, but I am susceptible to it. If I picture myself in the 70s, I am living in a charmingly dilapidated warehouse in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, best friends with Edmund White, and a major player in the disco scene. In reality, it’s probably more likely I’d have ended up a closeted schoolteacher in provincial Scotland, living a life of unbearable loneliness. Still, it’s my secret hope that the economic fallout of coronavirus could somehow turn London into 1970s New York: its boring inhabitants having fled; decaying and dysfunctional but with cheap rent and a flourishing gay clubbing scene.
I’m drawn to the 1970s precisely because of its reputation for failure, the way it’s become a reactionary bogeyman, condemned over the years by everyone from Tony Blair to David Cameron. As someone who supported the Corbyn project, I began to equate the constant spectre of the nation being “dragged back to the 70s’’ with the very thing I desired most. Please, drag me there! From our current vantage point, the 1970s can also be seen more clearly as the last fork in the road before the likes of Reagan and Thatcher brought into being the particularly vicious form of capitalism that dominates our lives today. Reflecting on this can be a way of reminding yourself that the current state of the world, rather than being inevitable, is in fact contingent on all manner of things.
It isn’t nostalgic to recognise that it was a time of rebellion and revolution. There was the Soweto uprising, a turning point in the popular, global mobilisation against apartheid in South Africa; the continuing advance of anti-colonial, “third world” and black power movements; the end of dictatorships across the world. In the UK, we had the Gay Liberation Front, the British Black Panthers, Rock Against Racism, the women’s liberation movement, and trade unions at the height of their power, with the highest level of union density in British history and, not coincidentally, the lowest levels of economic inequality too. The alliances between these various movements were often uneasy but fruitful all the same.
When I told my mum I was writing favourably about the 1970s, she was perplexed: “But it was miserable!” I’m sure this was the case for lots of people, many of whom remember it as a decade of blackouts, terrible food, and rotting bin bags lining the streets more than anything. While there were rich and interesting black and gay subcultures, it was doubtless more racist and homophobic.
But the point is that what we see in the past, real or imagined, is often revealing about what we’re missing in the present. This could take place purely on a personal level: I miss that relationship, I miss seeing those friends, I miss that city where I used to live. Sometimes, these realisations aren’t actionable: you can’t make yourself younger or travel back in time, it’s usually impossible to convince a former partner to give you another try. Fixating on these things is a path to despair. But sometimes it’s within your power to address the sense of lack that’s driving it in the first place.
At the level of politics, nostalgia can tell us something too, which isn’t to say it’s always a force for good. It can lead to inertia and melancholy, a dead end that encourages us to neglect the important movements of today, such as Black Lives Matter and the struggle for trans rights, in favour of romanticising the activism of the past. Obviously, as the past 10 years of British politics attest, nostalgia is an impulse for the most regressive nationalist politics. But it can be useful for helping you to figure out how you feel about the age you live in. Whether the 1970s was Actually Good or Actually Bad, it doesn’t really matter.
Even the most ill-informed yearning can still tell me something about what is missing, whether tangible or abstract: affordable rent, mainstream Hollywood films aimed at adults, a gay culture with a unifying politics beyond influencer-posted infographics, a strong labour movement, and a political sense that a different future is possible.
• James Greig writes about culture and society
Article Source: theguardian.com