BBC Radio 4

    Something Understood: Keeping The Past Alive


    When I proposed a Something Understood programme on Keeping the Past Alive I wanted to explore both physical and spiritual memory. How the idea of keeping the past alive can trap you, unable to move on, as in Patsy Cline’s mournful “She’s Got You” – when she finds herself clinging onto the physical trappings of a lost love – his photo, his records, his class ring. “I’ve got your memory, or has it got me?”

    There’s the power of the duty to remember, as embodied in the Jewish faith, and notably in the writings of Holocaust survivors, such as Primo Levi. I also look at the power of the anonymous folk song, bringing a human voice alive across the centuries, with Joan Baez’s version of 'The Trees They Do Grow High'.

    But I also wanted to look at a current social trend  – the growing fashion among 20- and 30-somethings for dressing in the styles of the 30s, 40s and 50s. How far is it different to the reenactors of Western enthusiasts or the Sealed Knot Society? What were they looking for that’s missing in modern life?

    A few years ago I’d read an intriguing interview with a teenager who ”lived” in the 1930s. He sourced period clothes, listened to the music, even tried to live in 30s flats and buildings (quite easy in this country). He spoke about seeking out the gentlemanly and more glamorous attitude of those days and admits he was probably the only boy to take Bing Crosby records to play at his nursery school. We all know the 30s had much that was grim and threatening, but the choice to re-animate any past decade in a personal way, is all about creating a version of its essence.

    I put out a request on Twitter and found plenty of people such as Mat, from Southern Retro, in Brighton, who’s been photographing dozens of young men and women in their retro style. A beautiful visual document of a revived past. As their website puts it: “Not just a look but a way of life!”

    But within a couple of hours, someone on Twitter had found the young man I’d been looking for via a friend who’d been at university with him. 

    His name is Brandyn Shaw and luckily he has a mobile phone and email. He’s 24 and is a singer, modelling his style on Al Bowlly (the famous 30s crooner who was killed in the Blitz). He agreed to talk to me and you can hear his interview (and the music of Al Bowlly) in the programme.

    In my own youth, the 70s were obsessed with the 50s – hence the success of American Graffitti, the Happy Days sitcom, and the musical Grease. Is it just a cyclical event in an economic downturn, with people turning for comfort to “safer” times? It seems the fashion with remaking the past really began in the 60s, which pillaged the dressing up box for Victoriana even as the youth quake seemed to be tearing down the old ways. The programme ends with Kate Rusby’s lovely cover of The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society. A song which seems to both satirise the British love of nostalgia, and acknowledge the emotional power of holding onto the traditions and values of the past.

    But the programme begins in Notre Dame – the Cathedral we think of as embodying Paris, but which was nearly razed to the ground in the 19th century rush to refashion the old muddled city anew in the clean Classical lines beloved of the Parisan elite. Victor Hugo wrote that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was not just a work of fiction, but a rallying cry to the nation to save the past.

    If we sometimes think of heritage culture as a retreat from modernity, Hugo reminds us that protecting the buildings and the spiritual values of the past was once itself a radical new idea.

    Listen to Something Understood: Keeping The Past Alive

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