This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia Issue
The funny thing about nostalgia is that mine is not yours. My holiday memories are of the bucket-and-spade, Mediterranean coastline variety – crazy golf and trampolines, baguettes stuffed with swiss cheese and white asparagus, squeaking neon lilos, glittery jelly shoes, foot-shaped ice lollies dripping down my swimming costume, sandcastles that always, always crumbled, and singing We’re All Going on a Summer Holiday in the car on the way to the airport (an alarmingly twee tradition that I can’t believe we faithfully upheld each August).
Order Vol. 26 Our memories are a jumble of personal ephemera that while meaningless when viewed from the outside, possess a psychological potency for their keeper. They have the potential to be a tonic or a poison, a dream or a disorder. The term “nostalgia” was first termed by a physician in 1688 as a psychopathological illness, a debilitating homesickness. While today we might see it through a gentler – perhaps rose-tinted – lens as a harmless harking back to halcyon days, the truth is that our memories can be weaponised or marketed back to us, the personal truly turned political – particularly when they morph from individual snapshots into a collective desire to turn back the clock.
Today’s world is awash with the effects of this powerful pull towards the past. In an era characterised by instability – artificial intelligence and the threat of automation, the resurgence of extremism and global challenges to democracy, climate change and environmental crisis – our tendency is to cling to idealised days gone by. On the softer end of the scale is the millennial obsession with retro technology, fashion and pop culture – we wear slip dresses and Fila stompers, regram teenage Kate Moss memes and filter everything to look like it’s been ripped from our family albums. Perhaps more worryingly, many recent political shocks have been fuelled by nostalgia, whether it’s Brexiteers hoping to “take back control”, Trump supporters seeking to “make America great again”, or the rise of xenophobia worldwide.
Yet what unites both is the impulse to escape, to locate our future in another time and place. Yes, nostalgia can trap us in an imaginary utopia that may quickly turn dystopian – but it can also inspire, teach and give us an anchor both to where we came from and where we hope to go. This sense of calm evolution permeates the classical antiquities of the Eternal City of Rome, as well as the Cuban capital of Havana, a city on the cusp of great change where nonetheless “nothing is discarded”.
This timeless glamour is captured by the photographer Gray Malin in his images of the island of Bermuda. He explains that “nostalgia looks to the past whereas optimism faces the future. I feel they are most certainly linked, as both are rooted in positive emotions.” It’s this Golden Age appeal that is encapsulated in the modern resurgence of vintage travel posters, the revitalisation of train travel, the return of the humble Australian beach shack and even the sudden vogue for faded European seaside towns
Our collective nostalgia can go even deeper into our shared consciousness, sparking a recognition of what it means to be human or even alive. In Jordan’s Wadi Rum Desert our Digital Editor-in-Chief tested her resilience by facing sandstorms and saddle-soreness while retracing the Silk Road. Meanwhile I was repeatedly struck by a prehistoric sense of blood-level belonging in the southern African country of Botswana, its ancient landscapes and wildlife stirring an awareness of our fleeting time on earth and duty to protect it while here.
At its best, this is what nostalgia does – it forces reflection upon our progress up to this point and helps us to understand the potential futures we can achieve. As the first shoots of spring herald another year in which we inherit the earth, I hope the next 12 months of travel will inspire you to dream up brighter possibilities both on a personal and global scale.