The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley, book review

Pining for an age of austerity is based on a dangerous myth, says Marcus Tanner

Marcus Tanner
Thursday 07 January 2016 18:57
They never kept calm and carried on: queues in London on the day before bread rationing was introduced in July 1946
They never kept calm and carried on: queues in London on the day before bread rationing was introduced in July 1946

I am old enough to remember when the whole nostalgia thing kicked off in the 1970s. My parents were part of it. Primed on episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – a best-seller at the time – mum kitted herself out with a choker and a bombazine dress for those Victorian-Edwardian themed evenings that suddenly took off in the 'burbs. Dad got a Prince Albert-style stovepipe hat. To my horror, they stuffed me into a frilly Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, so that I could tag along, too.

Nostalgia is a product of anxiety and middle-class Brits like my parents felt they had much to be anxious about, what with power cuts, a three-day week, the hopeless Mr Heath, high inflation and a virtual civil war in Northern Ireland. The Victorian craze fizzled out in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher arrived and the middle classes decided that the future wasn't so bleak after all.

The 1940s craze, as Owen Hatherley says, got going just as George Osborne and the Tories began to peddle their message about belt-tightening and "going without". One age of austerity looked to another for support. However, Hatherley says the similarities are deceptive because while austerity in the 1940s was about equalising society – the better off took the biggest hit – the new austerity is the absolute opposite, as the Government steadily hacks the welfare state to bits.

A Blitzed docker transplanted from 1940 to 2015, Hatherley writes, "to see posters everywhere telling them to Keep Calm and Carry On, would, aside from being puzzled by a poster they had never seen before, have recognised that something they had actually fought against was being reproduced here as a nightmarish farce". It is also just baloney that the working class kept calm and carried on, he adds. By 1945, a large section of the population was not just red in political terms but purple – with rage, basically.

This book started out life as an article apparently and it feels stretched. I also wonder if there is anything very new here. Any number of books and BBC history programmes have exploded the myth of Britain's wartime solidarity. We all know now that when Coventry was blasted to bits, the response was not rugged defiance but blind terror, that when the King and Queen visited bombed-out areas, they often encountered sullen indifference and even naked hostility, that crime surged in the Blackout and that when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands, the locals did not keep a stiff upper lip but – often literally – jumped into bed with the Germans.

I do not buy the idea that we are pickled in nostalgia anyway. Back in the 1970s the cult of Victoriana was practically inescapable. If you didn't hit Upstairs Downstairs on TV, you bumped into a Dickens adaptation, or – worse – The Good Old Days, a dreadful pastiche of a 19th-century music hall. Today's cult of the 1940s is more thinly spread and amounts to little more than tat sold in museum souvenir shops. Hatherley finds this nostalgia "dangerous", which seems paranoid.

I think I have a Keep Calm tea towel buried somewhere in the kitchen drawer underneath a whole lot of others with birds on them. I use it for washing up.

Verso, £14.99. Order at £13.49 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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