Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be

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On most days the elderly woman sits and watches the world from her balcony, waving to people she knows, peering at people she doesn’t.

She offers gossip, sometimes cake. She’s eager to tell the story of her dodgy leg and she tells it well. But beyond that she keeps her feelings to herself and her home is dark and quiet.

Once in a great while, however, she plays her music.

It fills her flat and spills out onto the street. And then you know that she is missing her late husband terribly.

The music, she tells you, is the soundtrack of their love. It was their music when they were first married and the world was perfect and everything would last forever. Sometimes they danced to it. Sometimes they just lay and listened.

When I first heard it, I thought she was having a party. But when she came out onto the balcony, her cheeks wet and her face softened and brightened by nostalgia, I realised my mistake.

But I was confused. Because her music, full of longing for and joy over times past, is disco.

Once I knew her story it made sense. When people fall in love, the music of the time often becomes the melody of their happiness. Love can turn the Macarena into Mozart. But still it seemed strange to me because it wasn’t what I understood the past to sound like.

As a child of the 1980s, I still believe, in some eternally 10-year-old part of me, that elderly widows reminisce over the music of Glenn Miller, recalling that first waltz in the air force hangar the night before he shipped out to France. They do not listen to the Bee Gees.

But of course they do, and my inability to grasp this says much more about my understanding of time and age than their taste in music.

In my defence, however, I think that it’s getting more difficult to tell the past from the present, mainly because the old technological signposts are melting away.

When I was a child, I could tell old from new in an instant. Film from 40 years earlier was a monochrome mushroom cloud rising jerkily over Hiroshima. Old music crackled and ticked and sounded as if it was being recorded in a cistern.

But for a modern child, 40-year-old footage is Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi duelling in smooth, lush colour, and music recorded half a century ago can sound as clean and rich as music recorded yesterday.

Now, we carry the past with us

Last year, as famous people kept dying, I wondered if the global reaction – a sense of mounting disbelief – had something to do with this change in our relationship with the past.

Once, the past slipped away quickly. Pictures faded, letters were eaten by fishmoths, mementos were lost. Now, we carry the past with us; cleaned up, backed up, remastered and catalogued. The 20-year-olds at Woodstock in 1969 would have considered the songs of the early 1920s to be terribly quaint and old-fashioned, but today’s 20-year-olds are proud to listen to the almost 50-year-old music of the Rolling Stones or David Bowie.

That’s because we’ve frozen our stars at their most magnetic. And when their bodies age and die, the disbelief can be profound.

Intellectually, I understand that people age and that somebody I first saw in 1990 is not going to look the same, unless that person is Samuel L Jackson. But there is a difference between intellectual understanding and belief, and I simply cannot believe that Gene Hackman is turning 87 this month. Tell me that William Shatner turns 86 this year and I will suggest that the Enterprise has veered off course into a parallel universe. And the only thing I find more implausible than Roger Moore’s Bond is the fact that Moore, the eternal 55-year-old, will be 90.

People like us have been around for about 7500 generations. Photographs have existed for seven. Voice recordings for six. But perfectly life-like copies of people and their voices, beamed into our rooms to talk to us and move us and inspire us? Those ghosts have only come into our lives in this generation. Given that we’ve been trying to figure out death and time and change for millennia and we’re still struggling, is it any wonder that these beautiful phantoms in our living rooms should leave us so confused?

Sixty years ago, the star culture of Hollywood was going supernova, transforming into modern celebrity culture. Now, a great glittering beautiful demographic bulge is arriving. The first young stars of the modern celebrity era are entering their 80s. There will be many more ghosts this year, and loud cries of alarm.

But there will also be music and memories and the Bee Gees; and the knowledge that ghosts will come to us whenever we need them most.

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Published in The Times

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