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Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain by Hannah Rose Woods

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

WH Allen, 2022

Using the current culture wars as a starting point, in Rule, Nostalgia, historian Hannah Rose Woods takes us on a backwards history of Britain (or more specifically, England) spanning some 500 years, focusing on attitudes to contemporary culture at the time. Its “backwards” format has been criticised as a gimmick by some reviewers, but I felt it entirely appropriate: the whole point is to examine how the attitudes of each period were influenced by perceptions of periods which came before - not by the actual periods.

Woods chooses to end in the sixteenth century, as this is where the myth of “Merrye England” ultimately originated – or is seen to have originated – though she concedes that she could have gone back in time indefinitely, to the days when our prehistoric ancestors wistfully carved pictures of times dear to them on the walls of caves.

From 2020s arguments about how Britain’s imperial past should be viewed, Woods takes us back through time, arguing that we have always sought sanctuary in the past and felt the need to claim it – or a version of it – for ourselves as an essential part of our identity in the present.

From the 1980s onwards, we have variously made the argument that we need to go back to a time when people "pulled together" as - apparently - they did in the Second World War. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Woods points out that both the Leave and Remain campaigns evoked veterans - though she shows that the famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster actually only came to light in 2000, because it was never approved for display.

But in the years following the Second World War, when many were displaced and moved to “New Towns”, and historic architecture was destroyed indiscriminately, the period of "pulling together" was seen as that before the war – even though people then invariably lived in abject poverty, but now had all mod cons and inside bathrooms (hence Harold Macmillan’s “never had it so good.”)

There was widespread feeling that the country was “going to the dogs” in the years following the war, but Woods shows that in fact, Britain’s economy grew faster in the period 1945-1975 than it did in 1855-1945.

Similarly, during the interwar period, people harked back the “endless garden parties” of the Edwardian era – but in fact, the real Edwardians were perturbed by rapid change and feelings of nihilism.

At various points in the twentieth century there was a cry to return to “Victorian values” – but then we see that, in reaction to intense industrialisation, Victorian social reformers such as William Morris literally wanted to go back to a medieval way of life (though undoubtably without the inconveniences caused by feudalism, grinding toil and limited life spans).

Looking further back, the eighteenth century country houses which we now see as the epitome of English order were viewed akin to Las Vegas at the time – the height of vulgarity and bling – as well as destroying forever what at the time was seen as the ultimate “English” way of life, namely a nation of small-holders grazing their stock on common land.

And if we think that twenty-first century attempts to “rewrite history” are bad, that’s nothing compared with the Reformation, which saw the destruction of 800 abbeys and pretty much all of our art and literature. A couple of toppled statues pales in comparison.

The book doesn’t make clear why the concept of nostalgia (which derives from “nostas” – homecoming and “algia” – pain) should afflict Britain any more than any other nation – and I’m not sure that it does – but ultimately I didn’t find that important.

Instead, Rule, Nostalgia brilliantly serves two functions. Firstly, it provides a comprehensive, superbly researched survey not of our history or even of our culture, but of our attitudes to our history and culture. History is always a “foreign country”, as the saying goes, so an examination of our attitudes to it and how we use those to shape our present really should underpin everything.

Secondly, the book offers a refreshing reality check – it makes the best argument I’ve come across in all the coverage of the “culture wars.” Whatever our personal perspective on our present, central to Woods’s argument is that nostalgia is inextricably part of the human condition, regardless of context. As beings able to contextualise our existence, nostalgia doesn’t so much afflict us but is a fundamental part of us.

As the book points out, it is not only “a way of articulating the timeless desire for social connection, for belonging; the need to feel part of a whole”, but it’s also “part of what it means to be modern”. It is frequently at its most potent in times of most rapid change.

Nobody is unaffected by nostalgia, so we can all take reassurance in the realisation that the time or place we hark back to never really existed. We may as well stop worrying about it and get on with our present: “Trace it back to its source, and you simply find more nostalgia … No one has ever lived entirely in the present, feeling that their nation or their community was a perfect whole, untouched by grief or loss or regret.”

Like Jason Cowley in his recent book Who Are We Now?, Woods makes the important point that nostalgia can be about lost futures as much as lost pasts: “Sometimes, it extends to anticipation…” But again she offers a constructive approach: “… perhaps, like the generations of observers before us, our best hope is that an awareness of what is being lost can be harnessed in the drive to preserve, create and restore.”

Reviewers who have fixated on which side of the culture wars Woods is on have missed the point of this book. The point is that there is no “side”: nostalgia is an intrinsic part of what makes us human.

It’s not to be scoffed at, but to be understood. Once we all recognise that – and realise that our feelings about whatever issues we might be obsessing about in the here and now are not unique to us, but instead are as old as time – we’ll be in a much better position to understand each other. Woods’s book is rare and important in taking a step back and providing this context.

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