Monthly Archives: July 2016

On nostalgia

Of course I was a Remain voter. I’m an academic, well aware that most of the research in this country is funded by the EU. Most of my friends and many colleagues are EU but not UK citizens. I once spoke fluent French and German, can get by in Italian, understand some Spanish, Dutch and Icelandic. I am more bothered when we run out of olive oil than when we run out of milk. I’m the descendant of middle-European refugees, educated at private school and Oxford (the clue was in the languages). I blame those in power for manifest social injustice, not immigrants. I donate to charities helping refugees and campaigning for human rights and have probably not, honestly, paid similar attention to local need, not beyond talking a lot, making a fuss about libraries and putting the odd tin of soup in the food bank. Come the revolution, I’ll be up against the wall. For the first time in my life, I find myself wanting things the way they were.

The serious study of history is probably the best protection against nostalgia. It helps if you’re a woman working in a profoundly conservative field; the gender pay gap in academia is apparently intractable and surprisingly wide. Many of the senior men earning fifty per cent more than I do for the same work are loudly nostalgic for the golden age of academia in which their working lives were unregulated and unaccounted, which also happen to be years in which academia was even more white, male and upper-class than it is now. These men’s outrage at the end of the university as gentlemen’s club is unceasing, and often dressed in the language of Marxism in which, despite six-figure salaries and hours arranged to suit their convenience, some professors are able to imagine themselves as the oppressed proletariat. I have always been awed by the privileges of academic life, grateful to be well paid for work I enjoy and in no way able to imagine my position in the world as unfortunate or oppressed. Any turning back of a historical clock would give me fewer opportunities and a harder time, because however much I might enjoy resenting the baby-boomers for their free education, ride on the property market and final salary pension schemes, the women of that generation opened doors for their daughters and the women and men leave us equal opportunities legislation that makes it harder for racists, misogynists and homophobes to order our society.

There are plenty of less individual, less class-specific, reasons to disdain nostalgia. I am not suggesting that the apex of progress is the admission of half-Jewish middle-class white women to the professoriat. Here and now we have clean water, indoor plumbing, sterile surgery, antibiotics. Contraception, dishwashers. State education. The Clean Air Acts (at least we know how to deal with air pollution now, and please note that all of these useful things come to us through academic research of the sort for which this country now has no plans). If I could choose to live anywhere in the world at any time in history and could not choose my position in the hierarchy or my state of health, despite all the rage and despair of the last few weeks and months and years I would still choose to be in northern Europe in the early twenty-first century. Probably not in Britain, though for a British writer being here still has some fairly obvious advantages because writers make and feed on national stories and local languages, but not very far away.

So I would really like to find a way to move away from my newfound nostalgia, from my persistent sense that things are worse now than they were and that my children’s lives will be harder than mine has been and that the students whose graduation I will attend later this week have been exploited and betrayed by those whose deepest human instincts as well as professional responsibilities should have been to protect and inspire. I do not wish to spend the second half of my life pining for what I did not recognise at the time as an era of hope. I do not want to despair of England now and I do not want to become conservative. I would like to find intelligent reason for hope and to remain progressive.