Thursday, 21 February 2019


Nostalgia is readily dismissed by many as deluded sentimentalism.  But the more I think about nostalgia, the more I'm struck by its complexity.  For example, I don't think I'm alone in experiencing a kind of nostalgia even for difficult and challenging periods in my life.

Today, a completely fortuitous combination of temperature and the feel of a particular pen took me straight back to the experience of Finals (very Proustian).  I used to keep my college room ridiculously warm because it somehow helped me to concentrate, and I made a lump on my finger through gripping my old biro so hard.  Those two weeks were horrifically intense and stressful - and yet, the feeling they evoked today, was one very far from revulsion. I wouldn't go back to that fortnight for anything - but at the same time, the thought of it is oddly comforting, as if I was cocooned in cloud of adrenaline and ideas.

Arras, Grande Place. Image, wikicommons.

Similarly, a while ago a particular hand-soap reminded me of the archives in Arras in northern France, where I spent a couple of months doing some of my doctoral research.  It was altogether a rather miserable experience.  The archives are housed in a couple of large concrete boxes on the outskirts of the city.  The bus to reach them also served the local mental hospital - we were an eclectic group each morning and evening. It was a horribly lonely period, and the time of my parents' divorce - Arras is lovely, but too large for a temporary resident to feel part of any kind of community, and not big enough to offer much to get involved in.  I stayed in a grotty youth hostel, and completely freaked myself out one evening by going to see the Da Vinci Code (what an awful film) on my own and getting totally spooked walking back through the medieval arcades in the dark.  But the hand-soap and its memories were, again, oddly comforting.

I wonder what is going on in such episodes  - these were just involuntary memories, but certainly nostalgic ones: bittersweet and somehow warming.  Perhaps it's because there were positive dimensions of these experiences which I didn't recognise at the time - or perhaps nostalgia is altogether more complex, responding to the looping and interweaving of moments in time, the doubling-back which offers a kind of stability in the face of change.

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