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Something Understood: Keeping The Past Alive

Friday 5 July 2013, 19:03

Samira Ahmed Samira Ahmed Broadcaster

Editor's Note: You can listen to Something Understood - Keeping The Past Alive from Sunday 7 July

1950s pics

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.

Notre Dame

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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    Comment number 1.

    The past cannot be let go of as easily as you seem to suggest.

    My elder son, Jon, died on 22nd November last year. He had a form of cancer that would have been successfully treated - had it been diagnosed early enough. But his GPs failed for more than eighteen months to recognise his ongoing illness.

    He died alone, after collapsing and being rushed to the local ED. His wife was forced to wait outside the room in which the doctors were trying to save him. And wait for us to be able to reach the hospital.

    I'm ANGRY! And why should I NOT be?

    I cannot forgive the fool doctors who let down my son when his illness began - and then denied him the chance to gain early treatment for his cancer.

    As a Christian, I find myself conflicted by my anger.

    The one thing I CANNOT do is to forgive. I am constantly assaulted by memories of my son.

    I know that he's dead. That tiny plot in the local cemetery confirms it. It tears me apart every time I go there to place flowers, to light candles......Every time I meet with my bereaved daughter-in-law.

    I do understand what you're trying to say. Your point is political. But what I'M saying is that the past cannot always be released as easily as you seem to suggest. Sometimes, it haunts......And hurts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Dear Margaret,
    Can I offer my sincere condolences for the death of your son, Jon. Your family's experience has been so terrible. When the producer and I were putting together thoughts for this programme we were clear that we wanted to discuss the importance of memory; of keeping the Past Alive as a positive choice and an important one. We made a clear distinction between the loss of a love affair, and the profound grief of bereavement. We chose the lament of Psalm 137 for a part of the programme where we focussed on the need to recognise such deep loss and grief. I was thinking of a mother I'd met whose daughter had been murdered and we also wrote about the survivors of the Holocaust. We followed this with a poem by Primo Levi about the experience of losing loved ones in such violent and cruel circumstances.

    While other parts of the programme explored the lighter side of nostalgia, we focussed on the positive power of remembering the past and lost loved ones. It was perhaps not an easy transition to make. And if I left you with the impression that the past can be easily let go of, then that was a failure on my part. I wanted to convey the opposite. That keeping alive the memory of those we love and have lost matters more than anything.

    Thank you again for your honesty. And please accept my deepest sympathies.




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