One day on my way to work I walked past McDonald’s, over the zebra crossing and into 1966. The shop-fronts had been cleaned to a hand-buffed gloss, the signs replaced and painted with jaunty shadow. What had yesterday been a mobile phone repair shop was now a record store, what had been a Korean supermarket was now a grocers and a chemist and a shoe shine station. A Volkswagen Beetle waited where the recycling bins used to be. The feeling, walking back in time that morning with a podcast about racism in my ears, was one of extreme and jubilant calm. They were shooting a film – the lighting trucks took up the entire block beyond – but I will never forget that transcendent second before the truth became clear. Rather than seeking out nostalgia, I had fallen into it, and been allowed a moment to bask before modern life caught up.
A study into how the “entertainment landscape” has been impacted by Covid-19 found many of us are seeking “comfort in familiar, nostalgic content”. Which, of course, is no surprise to anyone, not least those of us who spent Saturday in their pyjamas watching an entire season of Sister, Sister on Netflix, or who have leaned heavily on Nigella’s recipe for twice-buttered toast, or – as the second lockdown was announced – immediately filled their freezer with Alphabites, or who have reread their poetry set text for English GCSE twice since March. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has taken up knitting, or painting, or who has sought out the fabric softener their nan used to use. It will come as no surprise to the people redecorating their homes after watching The Queen’s Gambit, or buying jumpers inspired by Diana in The Crown, or questioning their politics after seeing Gillian Anderson as Thatcher. Those of us abruptly tearful at a Fleetwood Mac song, or those who have become accustomed to seeing in the dawn with a game of Grim Fandango and a hot Ribena. Those moved by Lynx Africa.
While there has always been a market for nostalgia, it’s never before boomed quite like this – in September a vintage Disney T-shirt, printed in 1992 for the release of Aladdin, was sold at auction for $6,000. This wasn’t a piece, surely, bought to wear to impress peers or wear to the ball. This was bought by somebody to enjoy alone. A blankie, to soft their cheek at night.
At times of unrest the old and familiar are always in demand. Partly as an ejector seat, out of now, away from this, to a place foreign and perfect and complete; I write as a person whose tastes veer dangerously towards vulgar tat, and who wore vintage dresses exclusively until the wind changed on my 32nd birthday and suddenly I looked like Dame Edna Everage. Partly we are nostalgic for past pleasures because they have been proven to work – the feeling of relief that comes with a decent Nesquik after a hard day battling your way up the Year Five hierarchy. And partly because they can act as a time machine, to whisk you back to an age with fewer responsibilities, where somebody looked after you, and even scary films had happy endings.
Today I lost an hour when my computer suggested a “memory” from my photos, and I clicked, and then clicked again, and then I was in the summer of 2012 eating chips on a beach. I came to in the carpeted darkness of a Wednesday afternoon. There is an undeniable danger to nostalgia, to the silken ease with which we can go backwards, quickly. A woman eating children’s food, a man wearing a Disney T-shirt. It feels like we’re pouring money into the past as if hoping it will drown us, and sometimes as if hoping it will wake us up.
At a time when so many are struggling, these journeys back to our youthhoods work to jumpstart our faltering identities. It has become easier, hasn’t it, to forget who we are without the parties and props to remind us? Without the tipsy conversations with new friends where we are invited to display our personalities in three or four pithy jokes, or the tricky new boots, or a meal to show off with. These T-shirts and TV shows act as reset buttons, a window into who we were when they first formed us. And their watchful presence as we overcame previous struggles. How we anaesthetised our heartbreak with Dawson’s Creek; how we came home once from a bad test and ate three Pop Tarts raw.
I’m spending a lot of time at the moment on eBay looking at doll’s houses. Which is perfectly fine and normal for a woman just turned 40, or it would be, if I wasn’t looking for a very specific doll’s house, one I had as a child, but never successfully fitted with lights. The plan, I think, is to recreate my lovely youth, but this time to perfect it. To string it with small electric bulbs, and then to allow myself to stumble upon it blazing in my bedroom one day, and fall gratefully to my knees. To look wonderingly into its tiny rooms and see myself there, a little girl but better. To smell the toasted damp of nostalgia and let it transport me, for a second.