The Weasel: History ain’t what it used to be

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The Independent Online

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young the very heaven." From Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited to In A Silent Way by Miles Davis, I recall my teens as aurally amazing. Dozing in the back of my parents' car, I was thunderstruck when I first heard "Strawberry Fields". "Eight Miles High" by the Byrds was so intoxicating – it still is – that you couldn't believe it was legal. The same applied to "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane and, in a home-grown way, "Itchycoo Park" by the Small Faces. One day, someone brought into school Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix. On the following day, someone else arrived with Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd. Or it might have been 5,000 Spirits by the Incredible String Band or We're Only in it for the Money by the Mothers of Invention or Sgt. Pepper ...

Every day in the late Sixties, you heard something astonishing – or so it seems. The reality is somewhat different from the partial, highly dubious memories preserved in the aspic of nostalgia. In the psychedelic era, the airwaves were actually packed with musical stodge. Gruesome Englebert Humperdinck, cocky Tom Jones, cosy, cardiganed Val Doonican, squeaky-clean Cliff. They were everywhere. I remember a news report in the Rochdale Observer about the police being called to quell the racket in a flat where Ken Dodd's "Tears" had been played 250 times on the trot at full blast. It was like that with the Bachelors on TV. The hits of Con, Dec and John are still etched in my brain, like serviceable but rarely-played waxings in a juke box waiting for the right buttons to be pressed.

Someone eager to dispel the magic of the time once pointed out: "Mostly, the Sixties was standing in a car park, waiting for the rain to stop." The music might have been intermittently remarkable, but the beer was terrible and the wine was Hirondelle. Unless homemade, the food of the era was unspeakable. A gastronomic saunter down memory lane for this special issue (see page 18) put Mrs W in bed with a gyppy tum for three days. I came through the experience unscathed, though I agree with the view of Fray Bentos Steak-and-Kidney Pie expressed in Nigel Slater's Eating for England: "Some things are best left to our rose-tinted memory." More predictably, Stuart Maconie's attempt, described in his portrait of the north, Pies and Prejudice, to recreate a transcendental experience of his youth with Heinz Spaghetti Bolognese proved a dire disappointment: "Cold, rancid fishing bait."

Nostalgia for an era – and we all tend to believe we grew up in a special time – is highly selective. It is a Brigadoon of the mind, usually as fictitious as Lerner and Loewe's tartan confection about a village time-locked in the 18th century. In fact, it is quite easy to be nostalgic about an out-and-out fiction. Jan Morris's Manhattan '45, one of her best books, is a glowing portrait of a wartime city she only came to know many decades later than 1945. Created on a Hollywood back lot in 1942, the movie Casablanca whisks us to an implausible milieu and even provides its own in-built nostalgia: "We'll always have Paris." Utterly fake, but utterly transporting. Similarly, Holmes and Watson move through a London that we can all share: "It was a bitter night, so we drew on our ulsters and wrapped cravats about our throats. Outside, the stars were shining coldly in a cloudless sky, and the breath of the passers-by blew out into smoke like so many pistol shots."

Like most maladies, nostalgia gets worse as we get older. As life fails to provide the glittering prizes, we luxuriate in a period when all things seemed possible. There is nothing sadder than those poor saps who spend their lives looking back at golden days at university. A history master at my northern grammar school made us all write "Hilary Term" in our notebooks in January as if the Oxford jargon for the new year term would magically catapult him (presumably without his spotty entourage) from a Lancashire mill town to the Bodleian and the quadrangle. But even those who spend their lives in the more gilded groves of Academe tend to look back to a happier time. A while ago, Mrs W and I passed the night in a distinguished Oxford college. Our post-dinner drinks in the college bar were enlivened by a prolonged and vigorous exchange of views between two senior academics about the relative merits of their public schools.

Like Clement Attlee obsessed by the cricketing performance of Haileybury or P G Wodehouse on tenterhooks about Dulwich ("Dulwich have a red-hot team this year," he wrote in 1928 when he was 47), an intense attachment to the old school provides an emotional outlet for buttoned-up individuals. But all of us tend to look back at lost loves. In one of his finest songs, Ray Davies, the great bard of nostalgia, sang: "Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me." Maybe everyone needs the drug of nostalgia, as addictive but less harmful than any opiate. As T S Eliot noted in Burnt Norton: "Humanity cannot bear much reality." However, you can go too far too far with Proustian indulgence. A madeleine is one thing, but, as Mrs W found out, a Fray Bentos Steak-and-Kidney pie is quite another. Of course, it could have been the Heinz Sandwich Spread.