The Sinister Nostalgia of London

My host was unnerved. His neighbors had been talking loudly outside of his apartment again. He explained to me that there is a “certain class of people” who behave this way. They have loud conversations in public, behave and speak crassly, and they have taken over the public spaces of the city. He supposed the volume of their conversations might be because of cultural differences. In London there are ever increasing numbers of immigrants from beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. It didn’t used to be this way, he told me.

Typical pre-war housing in Islington. Photo by author.

I had known Andrew, my host in London, for only a couple of hours before it was apparent that he appreciates the London of yore more than he does the city today. As we walked around his neighborhood near the Angel area of Islington, he talked at length about the differences between old and new architecture, pointing these out to me as we went. He is fond of buildings that were rebuilt or preserved as they were after the Blitzkrieg of World War II, and disapproves of post-war modern installations. He took pains to point out to me windows, doors, and wrought iron fencing that appeared to be original elements, and talked longingly of what London was like when he first moved to the city over three decades ago.

Antique sport equipment for sale on Portobello Road. Photo by author.

Nostalgia is everywhere in London. Whether a plaque on a building that reports that the site was reconstructed after WWII, the antiques market of Portobello Road in Notting Hill, or the multitude of museums, monuments, buildings, and artifacts that preserve and celebrate the events and people of the past. Such nostalgic displays are certainly not unique to the city–in fact, the commodification of the past and of an aged appearance is all around us in contemporary culture–but it does seem to be central to the presentation of the city to its visitors, and to its image in the mind’s eye of some of those who dwell there.

The main attractions are old with a capital “O,” and mostly linked to the monarchy, past and present. The impetus for my visit to the city was the opportunity to present research at the Royal Geographical Society, which is nestled in the heart of Westminster, and flanked by the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington Palace and Gardens, and a spectacular monument to Queen Victoria in Hyde Park. One will find Buckingham Palace, seat of the current monarchy, just down the road. I visited Kensington and took in the “Enchanted Palace” exhibit, which showcases the lives of seven princesses who have lived there, the most recent of whom was the late Diana. This exhibit told the stories and celebrated the secrets that encased the daughters of the monarchy throughout time, replete with the riches, romances, and sorrows of London’s most privileged women and girls.

An installation in the “Enchanted Palace” exhibit at Kensington Palace. Photo by author.

Sites like these emphasize the wealth, power, and the deeply entrenched class system that have coursed through Britain’s history and continue to shape its present. I felt uneasy touring the Tower of London, which is actually a large castle, with towers of only modest height, on the banks of the Thames. Walking through the interior and the grounds, I felt it was a mistake to have given money to a place that was historically a seat of wealth, power, domination, and in some cases, torture. I noticed though that these places of royal historical significance also keep alive the myth of a London that exists in a certain telling of the past: it is the noble white man’s, and sometimes woman’s, history of the place. It is this version of London that the nostalgia seems to search for.

It doesn’t take much excavation to see the thinly veiled racism that makes this a sinister nostalgia. While riding “the tube” one late afternoon–London speak for their subway system–I picked up a copy of The Evening Standard, the free daily that is circulated when offices let out for the day. An item about John Cleese on the front page caught my eye. The short article expressed popular rejection and discontent with a statement Cleese made during a recent appearance at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. He reportedly said: “I’m not sure what’s going on in Britain. Let me say this, I don’t know what’s going on in London because London is no longer an English city and that’s how they got the Olympics. They said ‘we’re the most cosmopolitan city on Earth’ but it doesn’t feel English. I had a Californian friend come over two months ago, walk down the King’s Road and say to me ‘well, where are all the English people?’. I love having different cultures around but when the parent culture kind of dissipates you’re left thinking ‘well, what’s going on?’”

Cleese’s comment reveals a resistance to change among the “parent culture,” as he identifies it, or among the dominant middle and upper class, white culture, as seen through my sociological eyes. The conveniences of modernization are of course welcomed by Londoners. No one turns their nose up at technological advances, so long as they do not alter the aesthetic of the city. But the movement of people that comes with technological advancement, and as a consequence of the economic and political relations between London and foreign lands, is not as welcome. Cleese’s statement reminded me of a scene from the web coverage of the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Kate Middleton in April. As a camera crew made its way through the crowds gathered between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, a middle aged white woman remarked, “It’s nice to just be British.” “British,” in this context, would seem to mean white, and appreciative of a monarchal structure of power, wealth, and class.

Of course, not all Londoners feel this way. I do not mean to suggest as much. Rather, what I wish to point out is a tension in the culture, and the resentment and anger that simmer below the surface, and, on occasion, bubble over to dangerous effect. The protests and riots that recently raked pockets of the city and other points in England offer a prime example of this. Public outrage over the police shooting of Mark Duggan, an unarmed black man, just outside the city seemed to catalyze the poor and working class youth into a collective expression of outrage over the conditions of their lives. On a small island nation, the struggle over resources is hyper-present. Andrew, my host, recounted to me the anger and resentment that builds among working and middle class Londoners when recent immigrants are awarded “social housing,” the British equivalent of American public housing, despite the fact that people often wait up to five years for a flat.

These feelings of discontent structure everyday interactions in the city. One evening while editing photos on my computer in my temporary bedroom, I was shaken out of focus by a man shouting from a window at the children playing in park below. Andrew had told me that children from the neighborhood had been gathering in the park behind the apartment complex. He explained to me that they did not live in the building, that they were “gang members,” and “rough children.” While I had heard them playing, and occasionally swearing at each other, I hadn’t paid them any attention. The seething, violent anger that poured out of the man as he shouted at them did, however, steal my full attention. To be frank, his rage frightened me. He shouted at the children a string of threats constituted mostly of curse words for about five minutes. I had never heard anybody speak to children this way.

Advertisement on the tube. Photo by author.

I suppose the noise from the children is the kind of public “aggression,” or “anti-social behavior,” that Londoners like Andrew and his angry neighbor dislike. They prefer a London of days past, when sweet old couples whispered conversations to each other on the train, so as not to disturb their fellow passengers. Apparently, British social norms cast the eating of crunchy food in public too loud to be considered good behavior, as indicated by this advertisement on the tube. Yet, people are making noise. The kids who lack a space to assemble in their neighborhoods are finding it in others. The children of immigrants and the working class are enjoying their lives and fighting each other with exuberant volume. Those who oppose the social changes these kids represent are just as loud.

Maybe the nostalgia I observed is not just for a London past, but for a time when social conflict was not such an obvious part of everyday life. Gloria Anzaldua wrote of borderlands that they grate against each other where they meet, opening old wounds, creating new ones, and generating conflict. Today’s London is marked by both minor and major confrontations, some with physically violent outcomes, some with structurally violent ones. Like it or not, today’s London does not exist in 1670. As the film of the same name plainly states, “This is England.”

6 thoughts on “The Sinister Nostalgia of London”

  1. Great post, Nicki! I would bet also that what some people are expressing nostalgia for is something that never really existed — a simulacrum of a past without social conflict. The history of Britain is a history of the ongoing influx of new people over centuries and centuries. That has always created cultural and class conflict. The sentiment you’re describing reminds me of, in the US, the grandchildren of immigrants calling for the expulsion of “illegal aliens.” Instead of wishing for a past homogenous, “peaceful” society that never existed, people should look back on the real successes and failures of reactions to immigration and look forward, at how to build an actually peaceful, functioning and welcoming society, where people can not only lead a decent life, but be themselves without being punished for it by historical revisionists.

  2. What a great read. And how uncomfortable I am about it. I love how you make your point, but I can’t agree with you or Anne’s insight.

    I think what is so shocking about the riots is not the noise or the conflict. I think a lot of people could even accept the conflict. (They accepted the student’s riots a year ago quite well.)
    The problem and the difference to say ’69 is the disregard and the intentional destruction of their own community. And that for the ‘nostalgic’ Londoner is just impossible to understand.

    1. Hmm, I think maybe my post was unclear for you. I actually didn’t write at all about popular reaction to the riots, but about the various forms of nostalgia I observed while visiting. But I hope we will have a chance to discuss in person while I am here in Zurich!

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