War, conflict and violence are not immune from retrospective glamour and nostalgia. The writer Paul Gilroy makes a good argument, for example, that when England finds itself having to deal with its complex multicultural present, and all the imperial history which that is a reminder of, its reaction is to simply sticks its head in the sand and think about Dunkirk and El Alamein, Lancaster bombers and Dambusters, Montgomery and Churchill. It’s not that we should be surprised that a war can be a subject of nostalgic reflection and longing – we should be surprised that more wars aren’t. So is there such a thing as Troubles nostalgia? Would we dare?
The Second World War can be looked on with nostalgia, at least in Britain, because it symbolizes a togetherness (however fictional this is), and a common cause – like many things that people are nostalgic about, WWII is also thought of as happening in a ‘simpler’ time. And, of course, if you’re going to be nostalgic about a war it’s very helpful if you managed to win it. The main reason that there isn’t more Troubles nostalgia is that nobody won (not obviously anyway). The Troubles didn’t get solved, nor did a revolution happen. The combatants became worn down and jaded – not something which brings about a collective, fond, backward look. Equally the reasons for the Troubles beginning did not disappear, but they did eventually get managed. So those causes and their symptoms simmer away and nostalgia’s reach back to them is not really feasible. For nostalgia to work properly it needs a small element of threat in an otherwise sanitized present. A real urge to return to the past, rather than a nostalgic indulgence, is an extreme form of politics. Most nostalgia simply performs a containing function. It distances the past (because nostalgia implies that it has gone) and yet it expresses the hope (knowing that it is hopeless) that the past could be brought back. In this sense nostalgia is critical, since it regards the present as lacking something (usually cohesion) which the past had. Northern Ireland is not overwhelmed by Troubles nostalgia, but that is not because it’s impossible to be nostalgic about a ‘war’ – it’s because there is no clean break with the past and no clear winners or losers who can indulge their nostalgias.
Not all nostalgias are equal, but they do all have the necessity to be either inaccessible because what they represent will never return (even if it’s recent) or inaccessible because they are so remote from the present that it is relatively harmless and ultimately pointless to imagine what is yearned for being reinstated. The most infamous form of nostalgia in Europe in recent years is ‘Ostalgie’, an East German phenomenon which harks back to the days of the GDR. This is manifested in film (‘Goodbye, Lenin’) and in television programmes fondly recalling the lifestyle of times lived under the GDR. Most interestingly it manifests itself as a physical hunger for the actual tastes of food under the communist regime, so that enterprising German companies have made a profit recreating the products on the regulated, pre-capitalist shelves of pre-1989 East Germany. ‘Ostalgie’ has been controversial in the reunified Germany, and it does have its extreme elements, but it is largely contained by its own understandable perversity. This perhaps contrasts with Russia where the break with the communist past was never a clean one. Gorbachev brought about the downfall of the Soviet bloc slightly against his will, and did so from within the party. After Yelstin the party more-or-less got itself back into its previous position, albeit stripped of its old ideological clothes, if not its manners and customs. There is now a resurgent Bolshevik party is Russia, though it’s not seen as much of a political threat – though being actively nostalgic for Bolshevism does seem more committed than the consumerist nostalgias which are peddled in the West, where we are encouraged to coo about Spangles sweets, or Blur v. Oasis, or strikes.
There is nothing quite so impressive or coherent in Northern Ireland as there is in the former Soviet Bloc, nothing which might yet be called a real Troubles nostalgia. We’re hardly going to want to reconstitute an old political ideology – we still have the same ones we always had. We largely eat the same food (with added cappuccino); and we can feed off British and Irish forms of social nostalgia we feel the urge. In any case the period of the Troubles may have sucked most of the nostalgic energy out of Northern Ireland, since there was a form of nostalgia running through the Troubles years, perhaps most strongly in unionism, which tended to look back on the pre-Troubles era as one with a settled social order in which things weren’t so bad. Even in nationalism this understandable desire for a bit of peace could be manifested as a remembrance of rural or urban community and for better ways of living.
We live in nostalgic times though. Most of Northern Irish ‘culture’ has been made nostalgic through tourism or an idea of heritage which is a handy way of packaging the past in order for it not to be too intrusive in the designs of the present. The Troubles is nearly all that is left for nostalgic commodification. The undercurrents of the process are starting to flow. The British Army didn’t figure large in the pre-Troubles period, but their withdrawal gives some hints of the shoots of nostalgia as they begin to sift through the rubble left over from the Troubles. When the Second Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment left Bessbrook for the last time in 2007 Colonel Wayne Harber (as reported by the BBC) cautiously regretted the moment, saying:
The Army doesn’t deal in sentiment but there’s a hint of nostalgia and that thread of continuity and the significance that this is the longest military campaign in the army’s history.
Nostalgia can be very subjective.
Nostalgic forms of history are usually commodified in some way that hides their existence as a product or sales item. One turn that nostalgia takes, through heritage and into a quiet form of commodity selling is via the route of the hobby. Why, for example, are railways, cars, tractors and ships so frequently the object of (male) nostalgia? Partly because they lead to male friendships in which men don’t have to talk to each other about anything important. If there is to be a Troubles nostalgia (and the industry which creates and markets it) it will come surely through a mixture of geekiness, local history, and displaced macho-militarism, the kind of vicarious thrills which are lived out by grown men in England dressing as Cavaliers and Roundheads and sham fighting each other. We have, of course, a model for this at Scarva. We also have one at the Ulster-American Folk Park, where you can watch Confederates take on the Union forces daily in the summer. It would be possible for the same ‘actors’ to swap clothes and periods – the trouble is, again, while there is no point in betting on the outcome at Scarva or Omagh (King Billy and the Union always seem to win), a more contemporary version, apart from being utterly tasteless, would never get off the ground, not least because we wouldn’t have a clue how to stage a winner … or a beginning or an end. We’d probably end up with two parallel re-enactments.
Nostalgia tends to produce and rely on kitsch, some material object that becomes over-invested with historical significance and is then sold on the basis of that useless value for its uniqueness, collectability or authenticity, the idea being that somewhere within the object is the essence of History and how it really was. In this sense a Troubles nostalgia would have no problems producing its own kitsch, since many of the accoutrements of the Troubles had a touch of kitsch about them anyway (what could be more kitsch than the Orange Order or the AOH?). The process has started. On eBay, unsurprisingly, there is a plethora of RUC ‘memorabilia’. You can get an RUC Masonic tie pin for £2.00, or a ‘genuine’ RUC cap for £9.99 (fake versions are much cheaper). At the time of writing there is a very tempting ‘OBSOLETE HISTORICAL ITEM’, which is ‘Collectable!’. It’s an original RUC jacket (42”), priced at £0.99 with just three days to go. The urge to save it from absolute obsolescence is almost overwhelming. And if I had bought it there would have been one profitable way to turn it into a living form of Troubles nostalgia. There is, apparently, a phenomenon, in South Armagh in particular, of strippers (male and female) ‘performing’ in RUC uniforms. And then performing without them. Henry McDonald, writing in The Observer in 2003, quotes one female stripper:
She said she was still surprised at the popularity of the uniform: ‘In the hardest republican and loyalist areas they just want me as the RUC woman. The boys ask me to handcuff them and caution them. It’s as if they miss the thrill of it all.
According to your inclinations, this may or may not be less tasteful than the idea of a re-enactment. It does seem to provide some form of catharsis, though, and that’s perhaps the ultimate point of nostalgia. Books of old photographs of pre-Troubles tractors in Tyrone, or remembering the taste of dulse in Millisle may have an element of Ulster nostlagia to them, but none of them directly allows for the release of the tension left over from the Troubles. We’re hardly capable of that yet. It would be immoral and in bad taste. That’s why it’s happening on eBay, in pubs and in the attics of ‘collectors’. But what if the same urges are in the pyschic attics of most of the population? Wouldn’t it be better if they got dusted off as kitsch nostalgia? The alternative might be a re-run of those desires as real politics. If we ever do get a full-blown Troubles nostalgia industry then we’ll know that it’s all over.
[The Vacuum, March 2009]