Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nostalgia and imagination: early memories of a seaside resort - 8 January 2011

In the early 1960s, when I was an infant, I spent several short holidays in Rhyl and Llandudno on the North Wales coast. After a gap, family holidays in Llandudno and Rhos-on-Sea resumed, and, later still I visited these places on numerous occasions from Wallasey. I could write much about my later experiences, in which many people close to me have been involved. It is, however, those earliest visits, about which memories are hazy, that form the foundation for a kind of imagined nostalgia. To revisit Llandudno today is to experience the re-framing of a wish for a home that I know never existed. This essay attempts to consider the nature of this nostalgia and its virtues.

“Nostalgia” has become a literary trope, an opportunity for irony, of ridicule, even self-ridicule. To discuss an element of private history need not involve public ridicule, even though it might seem to invite it. “Private history” seems an appropriate term to define a time for which memories are minimal, evidence limited and inference predominant. Unlike much public history, the need for verification is also minimal; if what seems to be remembered never happened, it hardly matters, since I am (and can be) the only real audience.

Imagination is essential to fill the voids between the shards of memory and the inferences. This is not the same, however, as “imagined nostalgia”, whereby we may be induced to feel connections with objects, people and places that we could never have experienced. Seaside resorts may try to trade on such emotions, so that their fading and decline may be seen as a lighter form of “dark tourism” inducing regret at loss, but this must have limited purchase.

Mine was probably the last generation in the British middle class where holidays were taken in places that previous generations had enjoyed. Thus one of the last photographs of my great grandfather was taken on Llandudno Pier in 1953, and his children all shared holidays with my father and his family in the same town. They certainly knew the heyday of places like Llandudno and Rhyl, whose declining attraction reminds me of worlds that my ancestors too, would have lost had they survived. Yet my imagination induces a different kind of nostalgia, one not remotely public or marketable.

A good historian gathers evidence from available sources, analyses it, and presents a coherent account that is verifiable (unless further research proves it invalid or limited). In my case, I have consulted enough sources to present, if one was required, a passable historical portrait of Llandudno and district in the early 1960s. Some of those sources are recent, as enthusiasts (they have their own website, to which I contribute occasionally) have brought forward their own scattered memories and copies of photographs and other artefacts. For personal memories from survivors, I have consulted my sisters and my mother, now 85. Mum recalls why we went there, but her memories have become mixed up with many other visits, including one during which she nearly died. Her most insistent memory, which provides an uncomfortable challenge to nostalgia, is that I always suffered from digestive disorders. The connection between these and sources of stress in my life provoke a different set of traumatic memories, but I do not recall how I felt, only that, in a factual sense, storms did accompany the sunlight. Maybe these were unhappy times, but that evidence provides me with no secure basis for any reconstruction of my life on these visits. I could, in fact, write an account that would probably accurately describe what a middle-class infant from Wallasey did on holiday. But none of that would come close to the past that I imagine.

My only positive impression from these visits is of places, like the Promenade and the roads round and up the Great Orme. Perhaps my lifelong interest in geography began there, and in history from realising that so much would change. The rest is best described as cloudy, surrounding the droplets of memory, amorphous and unclear but very positively present. I can imagine the small boy sitting behind Dad in the car, on steep hills and round the tight bends of the road leading down from the Great Orme; eating in the hotel restaurant in which my parents were at home but I uncertain; and playing on the beach framed by the semi-circular bay. It is my later self that has coated these fragments with a sense of place akin to home, so that later visits have felt like a return to the familiar. The sense of loss is imaginary, literally, in that I do not know what experience it is that I miss.

The word “nostalgia” was coined to characterise a pathological yearning for home, but there is nothing traumatic about my own sense of nostalgia. It is not melancholic or laden with grief; instead imagination is a root of creativity. I turn over every possible piece of evidence merely to make an opaque vision slightly clearer. The rest essentially provides a pleasure of place – illusory, no doubt, but a private pleasure borne by the intimacy of contact with a past that cannot be contested. The historian in me is irritated and perplexed by the lack of clarity and verifiability, but in this case the rest of me is content to let imagination dominate.

I know one reason for this. In that world so dimly glimpsed, many traumas had not been experienced, and I did not know that they would. With part of an historian’s sensitivity, I can imagine a life of literal naivety, in which nothing threatening had yet happened. I can reach back to a world from which I have grown, but from which many other possibilities could have developed. I feel no wish, however, to return to a childhood that I know was unhappy. It is the desire to revisit, as an adult, to know the lives of people who now provoke limited recall, and places that seemed to matter to them. Imagination can help to allow the intimacy of place to draw closer to lives, long extinguished, of people who also felt some of that intimacy, albeit in very different ways.

This very early past is glimpsed from a hinterland of much more solid memories from many subsequent visits. There is no real way back, I now perceive, to a greater level of recollection of the early 1960s, and reconstructions, even using the dry evidence of visual and oral witness, might produce only false memories, although harmless ones. Such nostalgia, reflecting temporal dislocation more than spatial dislocation (from an area in which much remains recognisable), can be harnessed as a creative force. The gap between an imagined past and the probable “real” history need not prompt contempt or disdain. If we often live as though fa├žades represent reality, that does not negate the value of discovering the influence of the imaginary, and the role of imagination in producing a richer sense of the past than that founded solely on factual evidence.

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