Sunday, 27 December 2009

Heffer in hyperreality

I think this piece by Simon Heffer tells you quite a bit.
put me in front of a television with a black-and-white British film made at any point between about 1935 and 1960, and I am in heaven.
The England I love is not the England I live in; the England I love is in old films. I am sure it was an era of bad food, lower life expectancy, the reek of tobacco and what we would now call illiberalism, but I love it. I feel instinctively at home there. I understand the tones of voice. I understand the understatement. I understand the double-breasted suits, the pints of mild and bitter, the half-crowns and 10-bob notes, the trilbies, the cars with running boards and double declutching; and I can even suspend disbelief when the actors playing policemen all sound like Old Etonians of the period.
I acquired the habit of old films very early on, in childhood. I suspect all children are fascinated by that most elusive of periods, the one immediately before they were born. I missed the 1950s by six months and they are an endless source of wonder to me
The bloke was born in 1960, yet feels at home in the 1935-1960 period, an era he never actually experienced. What's more what he feels at home with is by his own admission not the real period, but its depiction in cinema.

This sense of comfort in a past that was not directly experienced to me smacks of a need for things to be settled decisively one way or another. The great thing about the past is that we know how it turned out, we know who won or lost, and we can create pretty convincing reasons why they did so, even if we weren't there. In contrast the present seems totally in flux, and we can't nail down the direction of travel of while we're part of it. We don't know if our present day heroes are right, or will be seen in the future to have been heading down a blind alley.

Much as I am no fan of Simon Heffer, I don't think this is by any means unique to him, or to the Right. The one thing I think he gets right is that many of us look to the past for reassurance. The labour movement is very keen on its history, and this provides all of us with a sense of meaning, and progress. But personally I do think it's a bad sign if your favourite cultural reference points are from before your own birth. I don't think it is going to make you very effective in the present, which perhaps explains why Simon Heffer's political judgment seems so wonky.

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