My father likes to cling on to relics of the past, and I have that tendency too. Nostalgia isn’t just something which affects the elderly. I knew a thirty-something who bought himself a ‘seventies chopper bike to display, in honour of his daredevil childhood. My Dad’s generation still build Meccano structures in their dreams, and how many men in their fifties and sixties can still smell the Airfix glue and Humbrol paint of their laboriously-made galleons and planes?
They’ll all recognise the feelings behind this poem, from which I took today’s ‘Thought for the Week’ (the last three lines, with their poignant questions):
I had a bicycle called ‘Splendid’,
A cricket-bat called ‘The Rajah’,
Eight box-kites and Scots soldiers
With kilts and red guns,
I had an album of postmarks,
A Longfellow with pictures,
Corduroy trousers that creaked,
A pencil with three colours.
Where do old things go to?
Could a cricket-bat be thrown away?
Where do the years go to?
The poet, Arthur Waley, was born in 1889 made it his life’s mission to introduce Chinese and Japanese literature to (in his own words) ‘people who do not ordinarily read poetry.’ I remember first reading some of those Chinese poems years ago and realising how like each other – in the essential matters – people from different cultures area. I love them still. But this poem conjures up a British childhood before the first World War – and you can easily visualise the chilly bedroom of this schoolboy, full of his precious possessions. Those were days when a child would actually be thrilled to own an illustrated edition of the poet Longfellow, complete with exciting pictures of the Indian brave Hiawatha. And those postmarks! I hope they had some stamps to go with them….
His best trousers were made of stiff corduroy; he probably hated wearing them, yet maybe they were her first ‘grown-up’ garment, as boys in those days still wore girls’ clothes when they were little. Did you have a crayon which made rainbow marks? We could all come up with a similar list of favourite things: a ‘magic’ colouring book, plasticine with its pungent smell, the collection of Dinky toys, the beloved teddy which had all its plush cuddled off.
The last line is, of course, what the poem is about. Waley asks the question most of us often ask ourselves, as the space between the months seems to get smaller and smaller. These days I feel more and more anguish about he passage of time – the fact that it’s nearly October already and it feels like yesterday that I planted flowers in the Spring. What is to be done? Nothing. Even the twenty five year old will exclaim, ‘I can’t believe how quickly summer comes round!’ As human beings we are placed on this merry-go-round and it’s pointless to fret about it.
So is nostalgia damaging? Too much – yes. It can lock you into the past when you should be living in the present. On the other hand, all of us cling to treasured memories – often symbolised by objects. The poet wonders what happened to all the things that were his pride and joy, but he knows quite well that it is inevitable that things will be thrown away – just as we can’t avoid getting older. Waley died in 1966, but I like to imagine that his cricket bat and his toy soldiers ended up stashed in an attic, to be found and treasured by a later generation. Or perhaps in a museum of childhood. What’s more, it would be comforting to think we might return to an age when ‘throwaway’ was seen as wrong, modern minimalism boring, and people treasured old things once more.