Kynren — a Brexit spectacle

Anyone interested in Britain’s post-Brexit mood would have done well to visit Bishop Auckland this summer. A small, sleepy market town of about 16,000 inhabitants between Newcastle and Durham, Bishop Auckland seldom makes it into the national news. Between July and September this year, however, it twice weekly attracted an audience of 8,000 with a spectacular outdoor show called Kynren: An epic tale of England. We, too, followed the call of Kynren, curious how its makers had chosen to re-enact the history of England. What we did not expect was a full-on Brexit spectacle.

As soon as we arrived we were impressed by the dimensions of Kynren, which bills itself as the “UK’s most spectacular open-air live action night show since the opening of the London 2012 Olympics”.  What may sound a little grand is, in fact, no exaggeration. Kynren features a cast of around a thousand people, mainly made up by volunteers from the region. A huge auditorium faces an even huger outdoor stage, complete with an artificial lake, out of which a hunting lodge and a fully equipped Viking ship rise during the show. There are fireworks, fountains, projections onto screens of water and what surely must be the fastest sheep in the world. But there is also “the story of us”.


At the beginning of the show we meet Arthur, a young boy from Bishop Auckland, who wants to become a professional football player. When Arthur accidentally kicks his ball through a window of a hunting lodge in the grounds of Auckland Castle, he “encounters the Bishop, who urges him to think beyond football alone, and offers to take him on a journey of 2,000 years of British history, to open his eyes to the greatness of his land.”1

The journey begins with King Arthur and the withdrawal of the Romans, quickly jumping forward in time to the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), when King Harold fights off the Normans, immediately followed by the Battle of Hastings (1066), when Harold is beaten by William the Conqueror. We meet Henry VIII jousting with Francis I in France and Shakespeare flirting with Queen Elizabeth. We visit the Civil War, mourn after the Felling mining disasters of 1811 and celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. We witness the First World War through the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914  and we listen to Winston Churchill’s famous “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. The play ends with Arthur, now old and frail, speaking directly to the audience bestowing upon it “my love of England, my dear England”. All ages and epochs assemble on the stage to cheer for England. Pomp and circumstance sounds through the loudspeakers. The spectators rise collectively from their seats waving plastic flags.


As spectacle, Kynren was impressive and captivating. But as history, it was as problematic as it was one-sided. While it could not tell the history of England without featuring Romans, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, French and Germans, they all figured merely as fought-back invaders, who had left no mark on the English nation. Scotland, only a two hours’ drive away, was cast much in the same role — no mention of the Union or Britain. No mention, too, that England had once ruled over a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. Only the scene about the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria referred to the Empire — by showing Indian dancers (played by white English women in yellow face) whirling their skirts in celebration of the Queen. There was not a single non-white face in the audience and there would be none on the stage. But then again, this was the story of “us”, people, who had come here so long ago, they had forgotten they were sons and daughters of immigrants too, not of the “others”, the enslaved and exploited.

At any other time, Kynren could have been shrugged off as harmless entertainment, as an innocent eccentricity — but not this year. It was impossible to watch Kynren without thinking of Brexit, especially as the North of England (with the exception of Newcastle) overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union. County Durham, to which Bishop Auckland belongs, was no exception: 153,877 people voted Leave compared to 113,521 votes cast in support of Remain.2

Some commentators saw Brexit as connected to nostalgia.3 Kynren could be seen as evidence for that but it was mainly bad history, history made to serve an agenda. “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum said recently. ((Kate Connoly, Britain’s view of its history ‘dangerous’, says former museum director, Guardian (7 October 2016)) Kynren is a good example for this. It distorts the past, literally whitewashing it. Kynren is an Our Island Story for the twenty-first century, a history of England as those who voted to Brexit would like to see it, and a comforting story about the past to make audiences feel better about the present. But that does not make it any more true. Kynren 2016 is over, tickets for Kynren 2017 have just gone on sale. I wonder if it will feature a new scene: how brave English voters fought back yet another foreign power — the EU.



Stephen Smith, Cue the levitating longboat: the £35m all-singing, all-dancing history of Britain, The Guardian (21 June 2016).

Charlotte Runcie, Kynren, review: a historical epic painted in primary colours, The Telegraph (30 June 2016).

Charlotte Metcalf, Kynren: the live show that tells 2,000 years of British history with a rough-and-ready charm, The Independent (25 July 2016).



  1. []
  2. []
  3. Sara Abbasi, “Nostalgic elderly Brexiters have stolen my future,” Guardian (25 June 2016), Volker Wagener, “Opinion: In Brexit vote, UK nostalgia beat EU dreams,” Deutsche Welle (27 July 2016); Kehinde Andrews, “Colonial nostalgia is back in fashion, blinding us to the horrors of empire,” Guardian (24 August 2016); Ishaan Tharoor, “The other side of the global right-wing surge: Nostalgia for empire,” Washington Post (2 December 2016 []

Review: “Fashioning Memory” by Heike Jenss

In early summer last year I found myself in Newark-on-Trent watching an English Civil War battle re-enactment. Afterwards I interviewed several of the participants. They enthusia51vCgX19EsL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_stically spoke about their life as re-enactors, their interests and motivations and what it is like to take part in a staged battle. Clothes came up in every conversation: what garments they were wearing, what they meant to them, if they had made them themselves or where they had bought them, how much they had cost and how comfortable—or rather uncomfortable—they were and how their clothes transported them back in time. I was reminded of these conversations when reading Heike Jenss’ book on ‘sixties stylers’ in Germany. Sixties stylers are people who collect and wear clothes made in the 1960s, often supplementing what they find on flea markets and in second-hand clothing stores with home-made fashion items based on period patterns and styles. Jenss interprets these practices as a work of memory that ‘bridges past and present’ (p. 1).

Given Jenss’s background in fashion studies and anthropology, she is not so much interested in how retro fashion developed historically (although she has something to say on that too), than in fashion practices today: why and how old clothes come into fashion again and what they mean to the people collecting and wearing them. To this end, she has interviewed a number of German sixties stylers since …

The review will appear in the next issue of German History. For the full text go to

Heike Jenss, Fashioning Memory: Vintage Style and Youth Culture, London: Bloomsbury. 2015.

Review: Michael Dwyer, “Back to the Fifties” and Gary Cross, “Consumed Nostalgia”

On 21 October 2015 people all over the world got together to celebrate the arrival of two time-travellers from the year 1985—this was the day when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in 2015 in the film Back to the Future II.1 As with Orwell’s 1984 and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey it was another instance of yesterday’s future turning into the past before the very eyes. In not just a few cases those eyes were doubtlessly glazed over with nostalgia, nostalgia for the time when their owners, then in their teens and twenties, first saw the film.

Ironically, Back to the Future II foreshadows this very development. After his arrival in 2015, Marty visits a 1980s-style retro café and looks through the shop window of an antiques store, selling such 1980s artefacts as lava lamps, videotapes and a Macintosh 128K. The two scenes neatly link the film to its prequel, in which Marty travelled from 1985 to 1955. This was no coincidence—the 1950s occupied a central position in the nostalgic imagination of the time: indeed, it was the revival of 1950s Rock’n’Roll in the early 1970s that first made nostalgia a household term. [2] It therefore comes as no surprise that nostalgia for the 1950s features heavily in two new books on nostalgia in the United States.

future-1Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 20.47.01

Back to the Fifties by Michael Dwyer not only refers to Back to the Future in its title, it begins with an instructive close reading of the first film of the franchise, paralleling it with the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. (An avowed fan of the film, Reagan referred to it in his 1986 State of the Union address.) Commonly Back to the Future has been seen as an exemplar of what Dwyer calls “the ‘amnesiac’ model of nostalgia” (22). Dwyer rejects this interpretation, arguing “that nostalgia must be understood not as a reduction or denial of history but as a fundamentally productive affective engagement that produces new historical meaning for the past as a way of reckoning with the historical present” (22).

9780199356843Marty travels back in time not to live in the past but to change it in order to correct the failures made manifest in his present (essentially turning his father into the fifties hero he is not). Reagan similarly rewrote history in his speeches, invoking the fifties as a moral compass for the present while ignoring everything that would not fit into his picture of the period. In both instances the past is used to change the present with an eye to a better future. Neither Back to the Future nor Reagan, Dwyer argues, erased history. Rather, they fostered “nostalgic affect prompted by critical reflection on contemporary historical conditions” and promoted “selective versions of the past to suit their visions of the future” (43). In short, their nostalgia was less about wallowing in the past than creating a future.

The second chapter deals with George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti which, thanks mainly to the literary critic Fredric Jameson, is considered the progenitor and archetype of the “nostalgia film”. It is hard to see how anything new can be said about a film over which so much ink has been spilled but Dwyer does so with panache. He argues that the film, though romanticising the 1950s to some extent, treats nostalgia quite critically. American Graffiti “acknowledges the appeal and value of nostalgia, while simultaneously warning of the dangers of overindulgences in it” (74). In the end, the film’s protagonist decides to leave his idyllic hometown—and thereby the 1950s.

Dwyer’s astute analysis of Back to the Future and American Graffiti raises the question whether they can be seen as examples for nostalgia at all and this is exactly his point: nostalgia is much more complex than the common cultural critique of the phenomenon allows. American Graffiti has become a “nostalgia film” not so much because it idealises the 1950s unreservedly. Rather, its subsequent commercialisation, its role in paving the way for a whole new genre and the critical writing on the film have shaped how it is understood today. Dwyer therefore stresses the “importance of analyzing the ways films acquire new meaning and associations as they move through time” (51) and this is what he does in his book.

In the three remaining chapters, Dwyer explores the soundtracks of nostalgia films and the invention of the Oldies as a genre, MTV and the “crossover nostalgia” of Michael Jackson as well as the “star legacies” of James Dean and Sandra Dee. While all these chapters are informative, well-argued and convincing they are perhaps not as significant for general historians as the first two. All in all, however, this book is a compelling read for anyone interested in the 1970s and 1980s and their attitudes towards the past.

Back to the Fifties demonstrates that popular culture was crucial for the perception of the 1950s in the 1980s, and that this perception was far less homogenous than is often claimed.2 Reagan and the New Right’s recourse to the 1950s was only one of many ways to use the period. Since then time has moved on and so has nostalgia. Dwyer ends his book by looking at films about the 1980s since the 2000s, arriving at the conclusion “that for contemporary America, the Reagan Era has become the new Fifties” (181). If this observation should culminate in Back to the Eighties, this reviewer is certainly looking forward to it.

9780231167581While cultural, media and fashion studies have produced a number of books on nostalgia recently, the same cannot be said for history.3 Most historians use the term nostalgia pejoratively to describe an affective, distorting and ultimately false perception of the past. Only a few have deemed the phenomenon worthy of investigation. One of them is Gary Cross. His book Consumed Nostalgia understands nostalgia as a modern phenomenon that “was practically absent from our ancestors two centuries ago” (6). This is certainly true for what Cross calls “consumed nostalgia”, the “longing for the goods of the past that came from a personal experience of growing up in the stressful world of fast capitalism” (10). This form of nostalgia “binds together not community nor families but scattered individuals” (14), it is “less about preserving an ‘unchanging golden era’ than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its ‘authenticity’” (15), it helps “us cope with the extraordinary speed-up of time by letting us return to our childhoods” (16), and is “rooted in special emotions linked to recovering memories distinctive to the objects of childhood and consumerism” (17).

Unlike most books on nostalgia which concentrate on a single subject, Consumed Nostalgia explores these assumptions by looking at a wide range of examples. It covers some of the same ground as Back to the Fifties—films and TV series (chapter 4), radio and pop music (chapter 5)—but also takes into account the collection of objects such as childhood memorabilia (chapter 1) and cars (chapter 2) as well as sites of nostalgia such as heritage sites (chapter 6) and theme parks (chapter 7). This approach allows for a much wider perspective. On the downside, each aspect cannot be explored in the same detail.

More problematically, it becomes increasingly vague what nostalgia means in this book. Instead of questioning whether the chosen examples are demonstrative of nostalgia, Cross assumes this a priori. While nostalgia may often be a yearning for one’s childhood, this does not always have to be the case. The nostalgia for the 1950s, for instance, first became a subject of cultural criticism because it infected a younger generation without recollections of the period. Likewise nostalgia may be a driving force for collecting but not every form of collecting can be reduced to nostalgia.

Cross’ hypothesis that nostalgia is a reaction to social acceleration and fast capitalism has a lot going for it. In fact, the sociologist Hartmut Rosa makes the same argument in his theory of social acceleration. According to Rosa every surge of acceleration is followed by nostalgic sentiments.4 However, Cross does not cite Rosa and neither does he spell out how exactly acceleration and fast capitalism produce nostalgia or how nostalgia helps to cope with their effects. Given the commercial value of nostalgia, his claim that nostalgia “often has been and remains a subtle protest against consumerism” (237) does not seem particularly convincing.

Despite these critical objections, Consumed Nostalgia is an important addition to the growing body of literature on nostalgia. It proves that it is not only possible but instructive to consider different types, forms and examples of nostalgia together to get a broader view of the diversity, complexity and ambivalence of the phenomenon in the twentieth century. Consumed Nostalgia raises many interesting questions in need of further exploration—not least if its findings are applicable to other consumer societies.

Back to the Fifties and Consumed Nostalgia both point out that the academy has long eschewed nostalgia: it “has earned the deep scorn of most intellectuals” (Cross, 12) and garnered “skepticism and disdain from many academics and critics” (Dwyer, 8). Far from defending nostalgia, Cross and Dwyer make a case for taking it seriously as a subject for investigation. Dwyer rightly calls for “thinking—really thinking—about how cultural attitudes toward the past structure our engagements with the present, and how the historical conditions of the present structure our affective engagements with the past” (183). Cross emphasises that “the public understands and uses the past in ways very different from the historian” (13)—and these ways do not have to be bad or inferior. Whatever historians think about real or alleged nostalgic phenomena and practices, they are surely here to stay and they cry out for better understanding and historical contextualisation. Cross and Dwyer demonstrate not only how revealing, useful and necessary such research is, they also show how it can be carried out. This makes both books important beyond their field of study.


Michael D. Dwyer, Back to the Fifties. Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties, Oxford  2015.

Gary Cross, Consumed Nostalgia. Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, New York 2015.

This blog post is a slightly extended version of my review of the two books on H-Soz-u-Kult:


  1. See Sarah Larson, Happy “Back to the Future” Day, in: The New Yorker 21.10.2015,; Hannah Ellis-Petersen, Back to the Future Day: It’s 21 October 2015 – and we still need roads, in: The Guardian 21.10.2015,; Kendra Stenzel, “Back to the Future”-Fauxpas: Willkommen zurück in der Zukunft — schon wieder, in: Spiegel Online 21.10.2015, []
  2. Dwyer builds here on Daniel Marucs, Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics, New Brunswick 2004. []
  3. See []
  4. See Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, New York 2013, p. 41. []

CfP: Pop Nostalgia: The Uses of the Past in Popular Culture

Pop nostalgia, we are told, is everywhere. Our current golden age of television—from Mad Men to Vinyl, Downton Abbey to Call the Midwife—lovingly recreates earlier periods of the twentieth century, while club nights devoted to the 1980s or 1990s allow us to return to our youth. What is more, popular culture is, in the words of music journalist Simon Reynolds, addicted to its own past. It not only reminisces, it revives, reissues, remixes earlier forms and styles instead of coming up with genuinely new. Finally, our most modern technologies are always also time machines: producing sepia-coloured images of the present for an anticipated nostalgic recollection in the future.

15391.books.origjpgThese very different cultural phenomena, which are often subsumed under the term nostalgia, raise a number of still under-explored questions. How new is this development, given that period films are as old as the cinema and that popular culture and music has drawn on earlier periods as long as it exists? Can, contrary to Reynolds’ argument, the recycling of old styles and forms not also be highly creative and result in innovations? Are period settings and costumes, retro and vintage styles as such indicative and synonymous with nostalgia? Is it really nostalgia—a sentimental longing for yesterday—that drives our interest in and our engagement with the past? And if not what other motivations are at play? What role, for example, have media technologies such as film and the internet played in preserving the culture of the past in the present?

These are some of the questions the workshop Pop Nostalgia addresses. It explores the uses of the past in popular culture across all media and genre, from literature, cinema, television, and video games to theme park, club nights and sports events. It is interested not only in representations of the past but also in their production and circulation as well as in audiences and reception. The workshop is particularly interested in the historical dimension of pop nostalgia, namely how it has changed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

We welcome proposals for twenty-minute presentations from all disciplines and particularly encourage comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives. Please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words, along with a short CV, by 30 June 2016 to both Dion Georgiou (BSSH South Sport and Leisure History Network) at and Tobias Becker (German Historical Institute London) at The conference will take place from 10 to 11 November at the German Historical Institute London. Accommodation during the conference will be covered. Up to 100£ of travel costs will be reimbursed to those traveling within Europe; 800£ for those traveling from elsewhere.

High-Rise Nostalgia

Recently I went to a preview of Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise at, fittingly enough, the Barbican. High-Rise is based on J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same title. Both the novel and the film take place in a forty-storey tower block, a microcosm of the British class society, whose inhabitants begin to wage war against one another.

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This narrative—civilisation plunging headlong (and not without enjoyment), into chaos—was a favourite of Ballard. It is the narrative most of his novels are based upon. Luckily it offers so many possibilities that one can read them without diminishing returns. As has often been pointed out this narrative was based on Ballard’s own childhood during the Second World War, when he and his parents were interned in a Japanese camp for two years, an experience he later fictionalised in Empire of the Sun (turned into a film by Steven Spielberg).

Another feature of Ballard’s novel is a charming but sinister character, who helps people to discover their inner primate. Often it is a psychologist, in the case of High-Rise it is an architect called Anthony Royal (played by Jeremy Irons). Royal was probably based on the Hungarian-born, London-based architect Ernö Goldfinger. However, there are many examples of modern architects—Le Corbusier being the most famous one—who wanted to create a new society by designing new cities and houses.

These ideas had been around for a while, at least since the 1933 International Congress of Modern Architecture in Athens, but would probably never have come to fruition without the Second World War—or the “mechanical congestant” as German architect Hans Scharoun called it—and the subsequent demographic and economic boom. Out of the rubble of the war rose tower blocks like the Goldfinger-designed Balfron and Trellick Towers in London.

However, this vision of the city of the future, dominated by majestic high-rises, was not to last. While high-profile projects like the Barbican demonstrated what modernist architecture could achieve if it commanded the necessary resources, other buildings where erected with less oversight, endangering their inhabitants and discrediting the project of modernist architecture. A case in point was Ronan Point in Newham, East London part of which collapsed on 16 May 1968, the day, according to Jonathan Meades, modern architecture died.1

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 17.48.43

Even before the collapse of Ronan Point criticism of modern architecture and town planning had arisen. On the face of it, High-Rise fits into this criticism. While Ballard believed that place and architecture has an effect on our mental state, he did not believe that newer, better living quarters would turn us into better human beings—especially if they turned out not to be better at all as so many housing estates did. Yet Ballard’s attitude to modernity was much more ambivalent. Not only was he one of the few modernist writers Britain has produced, he was generally on the side of the new.

Ben Wheatley’s and Amy Jump’s film is set in the seventies and is largely faithful to the book. There is one minor deviation and this is where nostalgia comes in. In the book, there is a “recreation garden” on top of the high-rise, intended for the “amusement of the resident’s children” (46). The film, too, shows a roof garden. This garden, however, looks as if it had been lifted from a British country house. It is is solely there for the use of architects’s wife, whose “chief distraction is the careful cultivation of an intense nostalgia”, as Royal explains in the film.2


This scene is absent from the book and would not fit its narrative. It is hard to imagine someone less nostalgic than Ballard, who despised what he called “heritage London”, consciously moving to suburban Shepperton, which, he believed, gave him a “close up view of the real England”. As Wheatley and reviewers of his film have stressed, Ballard anticipated many developments, which since have become reality (such as social media).

The folly on top of the modernist high-rise, whose inhabitants have descended into class warfare, is an invention of the writer and director of the film and seems like a metaphor of Britain today. Seen from above the folly on the roof makes it seem as if the high-rise was a peaceful place, a perfect marriage of concrete and flowerbeds. What is missing from this view are, of course, the conflicts that are brewing beneath its benign roof and that will tore the structure apart.

There is yet another aspect where nostalgia comes in. If projects like Ronan Point fell out of favour in the late sixties, they are admired again today. As Owen Hatherley argues in The Ministry of Nostalgia, flats in housing estates from the fifties and sixties are now fashionable. According to him social housing is “the new front line of gentrification”.3 At the same time as Britain is undergoing a new housing crisis, buildings erected to solve exactly such a crisis are now privatised and fetishised.

While housing estates from the fifties and sixties are taken over by estate agents and hipsters, a new high-rise has grown into London’s sky. The Shard exhibits all the swagger of modernism and none of its values. It is, to borrow Jonathan Meades’ expression, a ghostmodern building. Whereas Ronan Point was erected by the local council to provide affordable housing for all, the Quatari built and owned Shard is there for the happy few—one the symbol of the welfare state, the other a monument to postmodern capitalism. Rest assured this high-rise will not descend into class-warfare.

Tower_Bridge_and_the_Shard_at_sunset_2013 (1)

High-Rise has been reissued recently by Fourth Estate with an introduction by Ned Beauman. High-Rise the film is now on general release.

Further Reading:

Ed Frith, ‘Is it burning yet?’: The buildings behind J. G. Ballard’s writing, in: The Architect’s Journal 20 April 2009.

Will Self, Will Self on the meaning of skyscrapers — from the Tower of Babel to the Shard, in: The Guardian 27 March 2015.

Chris Hall, Why J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level, in: The Guardian 3 October 2015.

Oliver Wainwright, A long way down: the nightmare of JG Ballard’s towering vision, in: The Guardian 13 March 2016.

Sam Jordison, Nearly normal: J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and the ‘uncanny valley’, in: The Guardian 15 March 2016.

Will Self, What would J. G. Ballard have made of the new High-Rise film?, in: The New Statesman 18 March 2016.

David Gritten, ‘I had to go outside and vomit’: Tom Hiddleston on the making of High-Rise, in: The Telegraph 22 March 2016.

  1. Jonathan Meades, Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism, in: idem, Museum Without Walls, London 2012, p. 170-184, here p. 170. []
  2. Quoted in an excerpt of the film on Saturday Review 19 March 2016. []
  3. Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia, London 2015, p. 198; see the blog post from 10 February 2016. []

The Ministry of Nostalgia

Last night I attended the discussion of Owen Hatherley’s new book The Ministry of Nostalgia at the London Review Bookshop. Hatherley is a politically engaged and stylistically engaging journalist and architectural critic. Architecture also plays a role in The Ministry of Nostalgia but here it provides only one example for a much larger trend that Hatherley calls “austerity nostalgia”.

Ministry-of-Nostalgia-cover600-3b7c5ce80849e4134ecee7ec54dec494The book starts with an analysis of the omnipresent invocation on posters, coasters, fridge magnets, buttons and stickers to Keep Calm and Carry On. The original poster was designed in 1939 for the British government to raise the public morale but was never publicly displayed—until 2000 that is, when it was rediscovered and quickly became a global phenomenon.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-467x700For Hatherley the Keep Calm and Carry On slogan is not an innocent joke but ideologically charged: it embodies “all the contradictions produced by a consumption economy attempting to adapt itself to thrift, and to normalise surveillance and security through an ironic, depoliticised aesthetic” (17). The slogan stands for the willingness to endorse or at least accept the austerity policy of the current Conservative government. It “isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself. It is nostalgia for the state of being repressed…” (21).

The Keep Calm and Carry On poster is only one expression of what Hatherley sees as a larger nostalgia for the age of austerity—the period between roughly the 1930s and the early 1970s. Although he lists a number of expressions and phenomena to back this up— from hipster beards, army surplus jackets and the retro folk Mumford & Sons to Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of 1945, Jamie Oliver’s series The Ministry of Food and the sudden popularity of former council houses—I was not convinced that something like a nostalgia for austerity exists. It would be easy to come up with similar lists for any other decade of the twentieth century. After the 60s and 70s fads have exhausted themselves, it was only a matter of time for the 1940s and 50s to be rediscovered by the heritage industry.

In fact, the term nostalgia first became common currency thanks to the revivals of fifties Rock’n’Roll in the early 1970s. In some ways The Ministry of Nostalgia reads like a remake of such 70s and 80s texts on nostalgia as Robert Hewison’s The Heritage Industry, Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country and Samuel Raphael’s Theatres of Memory, the last two of which Hatherley cites in his book. While new nostalgias are discovered all the time, the discussion of nostalgia—its causes, meanings and dangers—has not much progressed.

And then there is the question if nostalgia is the right term at all. Reading The Ministry of Nostalgia, I was wondering if what Hatherley describes has more to do with nationalism than nostalgia—or rather the appeal to warm feelings of nationalism, the “We’re all in this together” slogan of the 2010-15 coalition government. It can’t be a coincidence that the shops selling the Keep Calm and Carry On posters are also selling Union flags of all shapes and sizes. Recently, the Labour politician Tristram Hunt called for Labour to embrace English nationalism. If nothing else, Hatherley’s book raises doubts that this strategy will succeed.

What is called for, Hatherley suggests, is not nostalgia for the past but political action in the present. In the face of welfare cuts and increasing surveillance, Hatherley wants people to stop being calm and carrying on. And he sees signs for this—albeit small ones—in, for example, the occupation of a housing estate in East London by a group of working-class moms: “These people have not shown the Blitz Spirit, they have not kept their upper lips stiff, they have not kept calm or carried on… they did not demand that the buildings be used because they’re part of the great history of British democracy… They took them over and tried to use them because they are useful, and nostalgia played absolutely no part in their actions.” (202)

The Ministry of Nostalgia is a somewhat disjointed narrative that is propelled by associations rather than a continuous argument. However, the book is a polemic and as a polemicist Hatherley unquestionably succeeds, describing Jamie Oliver as “as decent and sincere a person as you’ll find on the Sunday Times Rich List” (23) or the Evening Standard as “the free Boris Johnson propaganda and property porn rag” (183). The Imperial War Museum (“the name is bad enough”, 191) becomes, thanks to its gift shop laden with nostalgia knick-knack, “The Museum of Keeping Calm and Carrying On” (194). Whether one agrees with Hatherley or not, he is certainly never boring. For me personally, however, there is only one conclusion:


The Ministry of Nostalgia is published by  Verso. An excerpt of the book appeared in the Guardian. It has been reviewed in the Guardian, the Independent, the Spectator, the Evening Standard and Review 31.

Heritage and the “Heritage Industry”

On a dreary day in October I took the overground to West London to meet the historian Robert Hewison. He had generously agreed to be interviewed by me and had invited me to his comfortable home overlooking a local park. Hewison, born in 1943 and educated in Oxford worked for many years as theatre critic for the Sunday Times. He is also an expert on Ruskin and a freelance historian with a four volume cultural history of Britain since the interwar period under his belt. However, he is perhaps best-known for his book The Heritage Industry, which came out in 1987. Three decades on, it still feels very contemporary.

IMG_5155The trigger for the book was the steep growth in the number of museums, which, for Hewison, pointed to “the imaginative death of this country” (9). In his eyes the growing interest in — or even obsession with — the past was down to nostalgia, “a sickness that has reached fever point” (10) and that had become “a dominant characteristic”. (28) The heritage industry played up to the nostalgic mood by selling a cosy, neutered version of the national past to a public graving stability and harmony. By making “the present conform to the image of the past that we have created” it produced “bogus history” (143-4).

For all its polemic, Hewison’s take on nostalgia was not unambiguous. For instance, he conceded that nostalgia “can have an integrative effect by helping us to adjust to change” (10). In the meantime, his position has become even more ambivalent. Though Hewison stands by his original analysis, he admits that the heritage industry has at least partly improved since his book came out and he hopes that the criticism he, Patrick Wright, David Lowenthal and others voiced, has contributed to this improvement.

news-headlineSince the “heritage panic” of the 1980s, the terms heritage and heritage industry have lost a lot of their negative and polemical undertone. They are common currency now. This makes it even harder to define what they actually mean. The term heritage
is applied to buildings and sites but also to nature and culture. Best-known are the World Heritage Sites listed by the UNESCO. Generally we think of heritage as something positive, something worthy to be saved from the erosion of time. Many university offer program
s in “heritage studies”, “heritage management” and so on. In The Rise of Heritage the historian Astrid Swenson traces this understanding of heritage back tothe late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when the first museums were founded and the conservation movement began.

EriksenFromYet, there are many who are still critical of the heritage concept. In her book From Antiquities to Heritage, the historian Anne Eriksen investigates how attitudes towards the past have changed since the eighteenth century. Whereas Swenson stresses continuity, Eriksen highlights discontinuity and differences. For her, the heritage concept is not rooted in earlier approaches to the past, rather it is a “distinctly contemporary concept” (6). “[A]nchored in the present of the inheritors, not in the past of the inherited objects” (149) heritage cares less about the past than about its use for the present.
Though Eriksen’s criticism of the heritage concept is reminiscent of Hewison’s book, The Heritage Industry does not feature in her analysis. Instead she builds on the work of the French historian François Hartog, whose book Régimes d’historicité (2003) — it came out in English last year as Regimes of historicity — features a chapter on “Heritage and the Present”. Eriksen and Hartog explain the rise of the heritage concept by how the understanding and perception of time has changed, by what Hartog has termed the “presentist” regime of historicity. In many respects, however, they come to similar conclusions as Hewison thirty years ago. As this shows, the discussion of what the past means for the present and how the present relates to it, is very much rooted in 1970s and 80s, often unconsciously building on arguments first developed in that era.

Hartog’s criticism of the heritage concept can be accessed online for free.

For my review of The Rise of Heritage and From Antiquities to Heritage see the October issue of the American Historical Review.

Nostalgia: Historicising the Longing for the Past

Today, the conference “Nostalgia: Historicising the Longing for the Past” begins at the German Historical Institute London. It features keynote lectures by Constantine Sedikides and Achim Landwehr and includes panels on the theory of nostalgia as well as on political nostalgia, industrial nostalgia, media nostalgia and object nostalgia.  For more information please visit the conference blog.

Family History: François Weil and Alison Light

For awhile I wondered whether family history research would provide a useful case study in my project on nostalgia. Before I did the research for my Ph.D. I was hardly aware it existed. Yet, at every archive I visited, I encountered family historians bend over census reports or starring watery-eyed into microfilm readers to find out, where Nanna Jones had lived in the 20s or what Uncle Bob had been up to during the war. When I discovered the family history magazines and Who Do You Think You Are?, I did not doubt anymore that family history was a popular hobby. Indeed, genealogy is said to account for the second largest use of the internet after porn. However, there is surprisingly little research on family history and family historians—especially when it comes to the twentieth century. What decided me to pursue this avenue, was reading two books that were published last year: Family Trees by François Weil and Common People by Alison Light.

51EF4bdytML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America is what its title says it is: a history of genealogy in the United States from the founders to the present day. It is written by Francois Weil, the Chancellor of the Universities of Paris and a professor of history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Being interested in the twentieht century, I skipped the first five chapters to read the sixth: “Everybody’s Search for Roots”. Here Weil describes how genealogy developed from an elitist pursuit into a democratic hobby. This process began in the 50s and 60s but really gathered momentum in the 70s. Of crucial importance was Alex Haley’s book Roots and the television series it inspired. Though the chapter encouraged me to look at family history, I found it somewhat lifeless as Weil seems not to have spoken to family historians. I’m interested to see how the American stories compares to Britain and Germany.

51vgWz3KUAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Common People: The History of an English Family recounts historian Alison Light‘s venture into the history of her own family after the death of her father. Like Weil, Light comments on the democratisation of family history: ““What was formerly an eccentric hobby for a handful of antiquarians, or the territory of Burke’s Peerage and the Herald’s Office, is now or” (xxii) The book is beautifully written and brimful of acute observations —not only on family history but on history genereally: “Like all historians, family historians are resurrectionists, repopulating the past, trying to put flesh to bones and bring past eras to life. But they are also salvagers. More than any others, perhaps, they are motivated by the search for lost objects. If family history is for some an extended mourning, they hope to recover and reuse the past, which otherwise seems like wreckage. The central moral or ethical questions of historical inquiry are unavoidable and immediate in family history: why does the past matter? How much what do we owe the dead?” (xxvii) Together with the question why people are interested in the past at all, these are exactly the questions behind my project on nostalgia and it seems as if a better understanding of family history might contribute to answering them.

Britpop nostalgia

Yesterday Dion Georgiou from Queen Mary University gave a paper on ‘Where Were You when We Were Getting High?’: Britpop Nostalgia and Technological, Social, Cultural and Generational Change in 21st Century Britain at the Institute of Historical Research. The paper looked at the nostalgic revival of 90s Britpop over the last ten years that was driven both by the producers—record labels, clubs, television and streaming websites—and by the consumers: former fans now in their late twenties and thirties pining for the good old days of Cool Britannia. It was interesting to see how far removed the 90s appear today—as historical as the 70s or 80s. The talk very much tied in with Simon Reynolds observation in Retromania and I’m looking forward to see this published. In his day job, Dion writes a PhD thesis on Carnivals in Greater London, 1890-1914: Locality, Leisure and Voluntary Action on the Metropolitan Periphery, which also sounds like a very interesting project.

Homesick for Yesterday

This blog accompanies a research project on the “nostalgia wave” in the 1970s and 80s at the German Historical Institute London. I want to use it present the project, share ideas and information, chart its progress and to get in touch with other researchers in the field.