Nostalgia – a British disease?

There seems to have been a lot of this sort of thing recently on Twitter, etc.

You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at 6 o’clock and clean the newspaper, go to work down t’ mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt.

“The Four Yorkshiremen” sketch – Monty Python

We have a cost-of-living crisis in this country. Energy (gas and electricity) prices have soared to unimaginable levels. Food in the shops has become more expensive. Petrol prices have gone up, meaning that everything costs more. Many now have the choice between eating and heating – it’s not possible to afford both.

And yet, there are still those on Twitter who are saying that living in an unheated house with inadequate sanitation etc. “never did me any harm”. Actually, while it may not have done the writers of these tweets any harm, the average life expectancy has gone up by about 10 years. If the standard of living had been as high then as it is now, they might have enjoyed their grandparents’ or parents’ company for ten years more. The “good old days” were not all good. But let’s not argue about the causes and remedies of this present disaster. This is a symptom of a more general condition – instant nostalgia, and in many cases, I think it’s a peculiarly British phenomenon.

I recently went into a Waterstones nearby (The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, if you want to know) to promote my latest, On the Other Side of the Sky, and see if they would (a) take a copy or two, and (b) agree to a book event.

As it turned out, I ended up talking to a very sympathetic and friendly man, and we ended up talking “local authors”. Apparently, the most popular local author genre is “the hard times I experienced while I was growing up”. The French call this nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for mud) as exemplified in the four Yorkshiremen above. This is apparently what fills the shelves marked “Local Author”.

As a footnote, he did order one copy of On the Other Side of the Sky and said that he would order more if there seemed to be a demand. If anyone reading this is from Sutton or the neighbourhood, and feels that they need something different in the way of reading material, please feel free to pop into Waterstones and ask for a copy.

But I digress… When the first effects of Brexit started to strike (empty supermarket shelves, etc.) social media was full of people talking about “Blitz spirit” and so on. Most of these people were born long after the 1939-45 conflict, and had no idea what actually went on. Even today, it’s hard to find unromanticised accounts of the British reaction to the German air-raids. There was a class divide – the rich stayed safely underground in wine cellars of their clubs and hotels, the poor huddled under corrugated iron sheets with a few spadefuls of earth on top. That is, until there were riots demanding that the Underground stations be opened as shelters.

And even then, life wasn’t exactly all “White Cliffs of Dover” happy singsongs.

…there was widespread looting during the war. In 1940 there 4,584 cases of looting in London alone. People would come back to their bombed out houses to find their belongings stripped from the rooms. The black market in stolen goods and ration coupons was so widespread that the ‘spivs’ who operated it became a national obsession.

https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/14482-the-real-blitz-spirit

The happy days of evacuee children leading an idyllic existence in the countryside, far from the falling bombs and the dirt and grime of the big cities? Quite a few were abused, or used as virtual slaves by their “hosts” – it wasn’t all roses.

And of course, the grinding hunger and cold. The misery of blackouts (and how many crimes went unnoticed and unreported in the dark?).

Of course, it wasn’t all misery, but it seems to me that there is a hunger which is especially British for a past that was actually pretty crappy, but we have chosen to hang Union Jacks over the mouldy patches on the wall and glorify the days of WWII, the Thatcher/Falklands years, and no doubt in 20 years’ time, those who are children now will look back with nostalgia on the days when “we had to huddle in blankets and eat cold baked beans because we couldn’t afford the gas bill. We had it tough, not like the kids today”.

As far as I can tell, such a nostalgia is particularly endemic to Britain (or possibly even to England). Yes, other countries may regret the passing of older, simpler times, but I don’t think they glorify ice-topped toilets over central heating, or mouldy carrots over the range of vegetables that were available pre-Brexit (the range has been reduced). This seems to be a particularly British form of masochistic fantasy. I’ll be interested to hear others’ comments.

Anyway, I shall continue my own forms of nostalgia, for times and places that never were, and were never intended to be, outside the pages of my writing.

November 25 – a date for your diary

If you’re in Lichfield on November 25th, come along to Erasmus Darwin House at 6pm for a glass or two of mulled wine, a mince pie, and a good yarn.

For me, as the author, it’s incredibly exciting to be reading my fictional story in the real-life location where so many of the events in the book take place.

Jonathan Oates (“Jono”) will be hosting an event in which I shall be reading from and introducing On the Other Side of the Sky, my novel which blends local historical characters with fiction, and a splash of the paranormal.

£7.50 to include mulled wine and mince pie. Signed advance copies of the book will be offered at a reduced price, as well as copies of Jono’s book on the history of Lichfield. Tickets available for purchase here.

Book early – numbers are limited (COVID precautions).

My first novel

I wrote my first novel, Beneath Gray Skies, about 12 years ago, back in the days of George W. Bush, where I described a Disunited States of America – a world where the Civil War was never fought, and a wire fence stretched across the plains and the prairies, dividing the Confederate States of America from the United States.

In this universe the Confederacy, where slavery still existed in the 1920s, was ruled by a hereditary dynasty, but Jefferson Davis III faced problems as the leader of a pariah state, despised and ignored by the rest of the world.

Enter a young German politician who needs help staging a coup in his own country to put his National Socialist party in power. The CSA has raw materials and manpower, the Germans have technology as yet unavailable to the South. Deal struck.

“Alternative history at its finest”

Amazon review
The Bismarck airship here is a fictional hybrid of the German Hindenburg and the British R100

Along the way, a British agent, described by a reviewer as “a 1920s James Bond”, attempts to stop the giant Zeppelin Bismarck from delivering its priceless historic cargo and the Nazi leaders to the Confederacy. Real historical characters and fictional characters mingle, plot and counter-plot, and struggle to determine the future of their nations.

“If author was any more of a flaming liberal with a political agenda, conservatives could hold a raffle to burn him in effigy and sell enough tickets to pay off the national debt!”

My favourite Amazon review of any of my books!

And yes, there are political messages in here. I’m against slavery, racial prejudice and hatred, and autocratic bullies who seize power, and I hope I make this clear in the story. Of course, if you like these things, you probably won’t like this book. But in any case, I set out to write a ripping yarn, not a sermon, and I think I succeeded.

Special offer

But if you do, somehow it seems appropriate at this time for me to promote the book. I am therefore making it available for £1 as an ebook on Kindle or Epub (almost everything else). Available here (Amazon may mark down the price when they know that I am making it available cheaply, but for now…).

Payment by PayPal or credit/debit card (through SendOwl and Stripe):

  • Kindle (see here for how to “sideload”):
  • EPUB (iPads, Kobos, Nooks, etc.):

And if you prefer a “real” book…

It’s also available in paperback – from Amazon, or can be ordered through bookshop.org, that way you keep your money out of Jeff Bezos’ pocket, and you also help to keep local bookshops alive.

The Aeronauts – REVIEW

This is a novelty for me – I tend not to watch many films, let alone review them, but this popped up on my radar, and I decided to watch it. I spend a lot of time in the 19th century with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and I’m fascinated by lighter-than-air flight (once went up in the Goodyear airship, and wrote a book about a fictional Zeppelin), so a story about both sounded interesting.

And so it proved to be. The special effects were very well done – there were some genuinely suspenseful moments, and some moments of sheer beauty and wonder. I know a little about these things, though, so there was something that I considered to be an inaccuracy – that the balloon didn’t inflate as it climbed and the external pressure decreased. The film said the balloon was constructed of a non-elastic material – silk – so perhaps that had something to do with it, but it didn’t seem right to me that it maintained the same shape as it climbed upwards.

project-loon-israel-internet
These high altitude balloons expand at high altitude with lower ambient air pressure.

As other reviews have stated, the scenes in the balloon kept getting interrupted by flashbacks – would a linear storyline have worked better? Quite possibly, actually.

Was the acting good? Yes, it was. I don’t follow actors, but these (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) worked well together. But the casting! Yes, I appreciate diversity in casting, but… Were there ever any Indian members of the Royal Society in the mid-19th century? I think not. Black faces in the crowd, OK? Eminent Indian scientist (and yes, I know of Ramanujam), not.

But the script!!! Ouch. As I mentioned earlier, I spend a lot of time in the 19th century – I am somewhat familiar with the way in which people, especially the middle classes, behaved towards each other. Even in moments of extreme peril, would the two characters have addressed each other by their Christian names? What would be a Victorian man’s reaction be to being asked to unlace a lady’s corset? And there was a lot of (forced unintentional) physical intimacy, which would have caused considerable embarrassment on both sides, even to someone as unconventional as Ms Jones’s character.

Basically, the lack of realistic characterisation spoiled the film for me. While I enjoyed the premise and the cinematography, the dialogue and characterisation spoiled it for me. Maybe I’m just fussy, but this worked for me on the same level as the RDJ films which use the name of “Sherlock Holmes” – an entertaining romp set in a fictional past, while pretending to be historical.

Four stars (out of five) for entertainment, one for period feel.

Invasion 1940, Derek Robinson – REVIEW

My introduction to alternative history was Philip K.Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I read when I was about 20. I hesitate to call it my favourite, though.That prize goes to Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which combines an interesting alternative timeline where the Nazi invasion of Britain takes place with a detective/espionage thriller. Since Len Deighton has also written some pretty good popular historical books on related subjects (e.g., Fighter and Blitzkrieg), I took his ideas as being fairly accurate.

And now here comes Derek Robinson, whose books I also enjoy, who enjoys getting to the heart of matters – at least as he sees them – which he has done in novels such as A Piece of Cake and Damned Good Show, in which he explores the myths that have grown up around the historical episodes he is writing about. So Invasion 1940 is there to prove to the reader that the Battle of Britain, though important, had very little to do with stopping Operation Sealion (the planned Nazi invasion of Britain).

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