It seems that all around us is a continual lust for things from the past.
The proliferation of ‘hipstamatic‘ retro photographs is just one example. It’s just not right if your latest facebook profile photo doesn’t feature a slightly blurry, red tinged, square photo of yourself looking wistfully into the distance.
TV shows like Mad Men have brought us back in touch with the fashion of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Then we have the ever growing trend for ‘fixies’ (fixed-wheeled bikes) and retro bikes. We’re sticking retro laminates in our kitchens. Even the more recent past is making a come back lately with everything ‘80s coming out again – though I haven’t seen any kids playing with Rubik’s Cubes or wearing hyper-colour t-shirts (but they were probably ‘90s and so maybe they’ll be back in fashion next year).
Everything seems funkier if it makes us look like we’re living in an earlier era.
But (perhaps for a change) I don’t think this all about image, and appearance, and wanting to be ‘fashionable’. I’m sure that’s a large proportion of it (and heck I think some of the stuff is really cool!). But there is more to it.
I think we’re all still yearning for the ‘simple life’.
There are those of us who are quite open about wanting to have a ‘tree change or sea change’ and escape the ‘rat race’ and hustle and bustle of life in the city. There are those of us who wouldn’t give up city life for anything, but we’re still seeking out the farmers’ markets and artisan bread or trying out our hand at making our own bread, jam or other preserves.
Maybe it all ‘boils down’ to the all pervasive influence of the television God ‘Master Chef’. But it seems to me almost too coincidental that these things are rolling out all together – that there is more behind it.
I think we yearn for the past when we don’t like what the future potentially presents.
Sure people have always had a sense of romanticism about the past. Millions of women have long been obsessed with the Jane Austen era. Again perhaps television is to blame thanks to Colin Firth and the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice. But there were still avid readers of Austin before the TV version. But similar things come up as to why we attracted by these eras:
People interacted with other people – there were balls, there were visits (yes the ‘drop in’ existed and was a highlight of life!). People had time to do handicrafts like sewing, or learn a musical instrument and in fact (at least for some classes) there seemed to be a whole lot more leisure time (just don’t ask the servants about this!).
Yes we ignore the reality of a lack of equality for women and that homosexuality was unacceptable, and that inequality was rampant with servants rising before dawn and working till well after dark for a room, board and at the most half a day off a week. But it can tell us a lot to examine what we are wistful for.
In their book Affluenza, Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss pose the idea that to help break out of the cycle of endlessly wanting more – continuously setting the bar higher for the level of income and luxury goods we want to acquire we should turn our minds to the question of what we want that money cannot buy. Examining our love affair with Austen, Hipstamatic and all things retro beyond the ‘style factor’ is important. And I think many of the attractions are the more existential things like ‘time’ and ‘family’ and ‘community’.
Tom Hodkinson’s How to be Free and How to be Idle talk about how we should be looking to restore some of the aspects of the medieval era. Hodgkinson writes of the appeal of the self-sufficiency, craftsmanship and cooperation of the medieval era. Workers formed guilds and the highly competitive nature of work that arose out of the Victorian era which saw longer and longer working hours just didn’t exist. Most people’s aim was to work just enough to cover their expenses, and to pursue a pleasant leisure life. There was a spirit of cooperation and justice in society and people were in many ways far more charitable, self-sufficient, eco-friendly, anti-competitive and anti work than in modern times.
I’m sure Hodgkinson glosses over the many downsides of the medieval era, but his exploration of the positives is highly compelling. Heck, ever since reading the Trixie Belden series as a kid I’ve been sold on a life living at Crabapple Farm and making apple pies and bottling fruit (plus solving the odd mystery on the side).
Above all I think we want time – time to explore who we want to be and what we want to do beyond work and then time to act on our explorations.
Today work is the major focus of most of our lives. So the job you have and how you do it (full-time, part-time, flexible work, work for yourself, work at home…) influences so much. Most of us are just too time poor to contemplate other things in life. But that’s the subject of another post….
Do you look back to the past wistfully when thinking about the future?
What era do you long to return to and why?
What is it that you want that money cannot buy?