Misplaced Nostalgia: places and memories? – January 2017

I am not quite sure when, but at some point I became aware of Facebook “Memories” groups for my home town of Wallasey. These generally operate by someone posting a photograph, often historic, and inviting contributions. All sorts of interesting photographs have been circulated over the years, and comments have often provided more clues about the places (and sometimes people) depicted; in many cases, these help to enlarge the informal history of this town and others on the Wirral and elsewhere. I have been surprised to find that the Wirral is something of a hot-spot for such groups, and that it is not possible to find equivalent ones for every town or area.

To set up and run groups, posting photographs and indeed comments, must be a somewhat thankless task, and I must be among many people who are grateful to those who have formed these groups, and pleased to find a constructive role for new(ish) social media. I have learned quite a lot about my home town, and other people’s memories of it, often jogging my own memories. This has proved often to have been pleasurable and enlightening. I have, sadly, not been able to find anyone who knew my late first wife in her younger years, although people have tried to help, and someone may come forward eventually. I was especially pleased to find more details about someone with whom I was at primary school, and who lived in the same road as myself in infancy. In June 1982, I was very sad to read that Stewart McLaughlin of Wallasey had been killed in the Falklands conflict. For 32 years I would pass his old home and wonder at the loss of someone so young. An item about Corporal MacLaughlin’s grave drew many comments after it was posted in August 2014, but I was puzzled by his birthdate (1954), which meant that he would not be in my year at primary school. A kind contributor confirmed that there was another Stewart MacLaughlin, the one I recalled from school, born in the same year as me, and seemingly still alive! Another essay would be needed to explain my feelings about this revelation, but this discovery alone made it worthwhile to wade through extensive quantities of (sadly) irrelevant and semi-trolling comments over the years.

The closing part of that last sentence may seem unduly harsh, but it reflects a regrettable truth. The owners of the We Love Old Rhyl Facebook page (with 6000 members) felt it necessary to discourage “debate” about derogatory negative views of present-day Rhyl and various figures (mostly councils and councillors) deemed to be responsible for its current state. They sought the sharing of photographs and memories only. Sites about Wirral have no explicit rule to this effect, and the posting of images sometimes leads to a concatenation of adverse comments. In short, for many, the past seems to be a place of golden memories, until some awful people (usually the local council, councillors or council officers) came along to wreck it. In many cases, there are accusations of conspiracies to burn down buildings that were vandalised and destroyed by fire a long time ago. Often this is just an expression of sadness that interesting buildings and scenes have gone. Sometimes it feels more sinister – displaying a great deal of anger against people – “planners” in particular – who seem to have robbed a past. Language of a “trump” nature has sometimes been used – like “idiots”, “criminal”, “do-gooders”, “backhanders” – all aimed at people who seem to have taken away something that was important.

It would be easy to dismiss such concerns, but what they express is nostalgia, and often painful feelings. The photographs and memories clearly evoke strong emotions, and a striking sense of displacement – even from people who emigrated from the Wirral long ago. Nostalgia has been made into a commodity, selling goods and services, even whole experiences. But it also expresses feelings of dislocation from the experienced past, or even a past that might have been experienced had not significant places been taken away. I am not so sure that this can always be deemed “misplaced nostalgia”, a desire to return to a place that never really existed, although such feelings can be evoked. It is more a reconstruction of younger days, with buildings and places that formed a background re-inserted into memory. The disappearance of those places and buildings – usually, frankly if regrettably, for good reason – must be like taking down parts of the stage set within which an earlier life, now recalled fondly, was lived.

I have to concur with the sadness that so many places have changed, especially one that I knew in my younger days. The photographs enhance memories, putting me in good company with those that wish that they had appreciated places and buildings when they were standing, and regret that some of these were not conserved, with suitable new uses. This may be irrational, but there is much in the reminder that so many years have passed and so much that was familiar has been lost.

This may develop into the notion of a golden age in which one belonged but which has now passed. I don’t think that those who voice this sense of loss would like to return to eras of lower life expectancy; of rickets, diphtheria and TB; when a diagnosis of cancer was almost always terminal; when a visit to the dentist was a terrifying experience; when most children were written off by an arbitrary test around the age of 11; when people slept four to a bed in damp house with no heating and outside toilets; or when those who could afford televisions had a total of two channels. Against these aspects of the past that have, rightly, passed, the loss of structures like New Brighton’s piers, the two open air swimming pools, the Tivoli Theatre and various cinemas, “traditional” shopping streets or the Christmas tree on Liscard’s vanished roundabout, might well appear trivial. Yet, if there had been a means of keeping such features, I would be pleased should that have been possible, and my reaction to their loss is one of mild dismay.

It is the anger that often accompanies loss that worries me, especially anger against unspecified people from the past, because this anger can be transferred to people who make decisions today. Decisions may be unpopular if they involve change to places that are loved, but there is usually a logic, of money, finance and law, rather than stupidity, corruption or sheer greed or destructiveness. I should make my own position clear – very often, the wrong decisions are made, over the construction or destruction of the wrong buildings, in the wrong circumstances. Yet some places that are venerated today, or have a posthumous veneration when they disappeared years ago, were not always made with any sense that future generations would regard them with affection. Most properties are developed for commercial reasons, and once they cease to provide sufficient returns to private investors, are downgraded, abandoned and redeveloped. It is rarely that “planners” come along aiming to destroy something beautiful, more that planners respond to decay and decline, and to privately developed proposals, that are already in place. If people wish to see that buildings and places are retained, they need themselves to get involved with conservation – something that has only taken off since the 1960s – and seek usage and adaptations of places that they wish to see kept. This would have to extend to finance – perhaps to being prepared to pay higher taxes in order to ensure that valued places remained.

If, however, people really do want environments that will matter to them and to future generations, they need to take control (not “take back control”, when that was never possible in the past) and responsibility, so that societies no longer make the wrong decisions over the wrong buildings and places. This may seem a long way from the unfocused nostalgia that an old photograph can raise, but it would mean that connections with valued pasts of places (and people) could be forged and retained. It means much more planning, not less, and much more public involvement and discussion. I would hope that future generations would not have to look back and regret our impotence in the face of forces like those of the golf course developer who is now US President; one whose support for British withdrawal from the EU is so that he and his type can build what they like in countries that have abandoned planning and regulation and given his class a free hand to destroy and build whatever they want. I hope that a new nostalgia, for a regulated past in which people could stand up to billionaire developers, will not have to arise.