“I’m looking for the real thing, yeah?”

…to quote the gnomic sage and prophet of our times, Mr. Mark E. Smith; but instead of “searching for the now”, it seems many people are searching for the “then”, myself included. More and more I find I am looking to the past to find meaning in both creative and day-to-day endeavours, and according to various reports I have noticed, this may be a growing trend. Not for reenactment (though I do kind of want to have a go), nor misplaced nostalgia, nor for atavism, but to make sure that modernity doesn’t sweep away valuable and rewarding activities just because they require a little more time or effort. It’s not just about the internet, though that’s obviously a big part of it, but atomisation and alienation are tangible dangers both of modernisation and of globalisation. It’s about not losing the valuable for the sake of the new.

For me this idea begins with a delicious Ginger Loaf that was made by an elderly neighbour when I was growing up, a recipe that went, handwritten, to my mum and then to me. Something simple, cheap, easy and repeatable which nonetheless required effort, planning and application. A rewarding, useful, modest and creative activity.

In Paris, working-class neighbourhoods are apparently reviving traditional communal dance on a scale not seen since the 1930s. In the English-speaking world, perhaps the most heartfelt and lasting musical revival of the last couple of decades is the one that needs no modern equipment. Classical music is being preserved in its original form alongside vibrant modern interpretations in a dual process which allows the retention of the worthwhile alongside the creation of the new.

New solutions are being found to the unexpectedly high (and growing) demand for allotments. Small steps are being taken in re-connecting urban areas with their green supply chains. Following the past routes of such supply chains can add historical weight to a modern stroll. Only two years ago Britain was treated to its first new steam train for fifty years. Even town-planning is going back down well-trodden paths.

Under the increasingly dark threats to the future of printed matter, both from outside and within the publishing world, some prominent writers and commentators remind us of the utility and value of the physical object. And a welcome and well-documented side-effect of the financial crisis has been a huge upswing in interest in representatives of long under-utilized economic theories (such as this one, this one, and this one (twice)).

This blog puts it better than I can, coining the term “the virtue of old-fashioned things“. Without wishing to evoke Luddism or twee reminiscence, this what I’m driving at. A tangible virtue that is emphatically not a conservative aesthetic but both useful and (in many cases) sustainable. We will have to reach back into our pasts to protect our future at some point – possibly not too far off – and if we have forgotten how we did things before processes became both so rushed and so obscured, we will find ourselves lost like spoiled children.* We will need to relearn – probably painfully – the lessons of tens of thousands of years of development towards civilization.

All of this may suggest – though not adequately explain – why one of these absolute beauties is on my Christmas list.

*Though not necessarily Victorian. I just wanted to shoehorn two Fall songs into this.

Published in: on July 27, 2010 at 1:23 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Have you read anything by Colin Ward, the British Anarchist theorist? (I’m sure you have, but never mind). This piece makes me think you’d really like him. He was documenting and writing about things like allotment culture long long before their current fashionability – looking at the small things, skills, spaces where people interact, and spaces where people defend their privacy which make up the texture of everyday life.

    • I read some of his work on mutual ownership/supply of water, and the background to privatisation, though that’s about it. I really want to read “The Child in the City” at some point (among others). I hadn’t cottoned on to the huge scope of his work before he died though. There was a good obit. at New Left Project (http://www.nextleft.org/2010/02/colin-ward-pioneer-of-mutualism.html).

  2. Hey mate, thanks for this – as you’ll probably be aware, we couldn’t agree more! Keep an eye on ozearth.org as we sew and preserve and garden and build our way along…

    • Cheers Helen – and I have corrected my shameful oversight of not linking to it sooner!

  3. I just remembered I was going to mention Matthew Crawford’s book (link below) in this context, and it is relevant, but the way it was jumped upon by a lot of prominent Tories as evidence for ‘things being much better when manual workers knew their place’ put me off somewhat.


  4. This LRB blogpost is apposite on e-books, but it’s the third comment that caught my eye. It’s culturally elitist, certainly, but it’s an important point. How will *anyone* find the gems among the “tide of shit” if there is nobody acting as gatekeeper? For me it is a point on which the practicalities (of production and, bluntly, hours in the day) trump the idealistic dream in which everyone writes their book and the cream naturally rises to the top.


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