The slowly dying art of nostalgia

When my grandmother hears the Andrews Sisters croon out the first lines of their 1944 hit Rum and Coca Cola, she’s transported back in time. Her big brother Ernie, off to Canada to complete his WWII air force training, had bought the family a record player so he could send records home for them to listen to during his absence. The player sat proudly above the tea trolley that held the records, and all the neighbourhood’s teenagers would gather at the house on a Saturday, sprawled out on the tiny living room floor, to soak up the latest tunes months before they arrived in New Zealand record stores.

When Gran talks about that time, her little shoulders jerk up and down as if the calypso rhythm is trapped in her bones, forcing an Afro-Caribbean cadence to peel from her throat: “oh you vex me, you vex me”.

It’s a favourite story for me because I’ve never experienced what she feels. And not because I’m not old enough, but because, in the same way that one too many rum and cokes will spoil your night, the advent of the world-wide memory bank has robbed this generation of nostalgia.

You know when you visit a toy store as a child it’s the biggest, most exciting place you’ve ever seen, and then you go back as an adult and it’s actually just a poky, under-stocked hovel with Classic Hits keeping that same lady company behind the counter? It’s the very same disappointment. For generations we dipped into our past, something someone said triggering a flint of a memory that sent us off on a purposeful adventure to the record store to hunt down that song. We were fishing with hand-held rods, one pool at a time, for something loved, long-lost, for a version very particular to us; now we trawl the net with a trawling net, catching everyone else’s memories in one excursion.

We’re a generation obsessed with the past, simply because it’s all right there for us to peruse. How often do you scan YouTube to discover that you can’t find the memory you were looking for? Never. Right there you find not just the Spice Girls songs that as a seven-year-old you forced your family to play non-stop on a two-week trip around the East Cape, but a whole community of people to scroll through with the same memories. While it is temporarily validating, it’s just not the same as dipping into your private memory bank to watch you and your best friend dressed up as Sporty and Baby, playing a Spice Girls cassette tape over and over until it jams in the tape deck, bursting into flames along with your little tone-deaf heart.

Yes, I am a member of Gen Whine, and here it comes: it’s technology, not my generation, which has caused this loss. I’m having a personal crisis here. Someone has deleted my personal nostalgia. Are these even my memories? I’m a replicant, aren’t I, Mr Deckard? Waaaaa.

There’s something to be said for a little bit of mystery. When nothing is lost, there’s no joy in discovering, and as with life, the journey is often better than the destination. Maybe we don’t need all the answers at once, or to know everything about a song to simply enjoy it. Next time you remember something from your past, don’t look it up. Keep it safe in your head, where it can snuggle right up to you and whisper, “I’m forever and I’m only yours”.