Homesickness and nostalgia, and why they make bad politics

Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth
(Photo: Lyn Davis).

I’ve lived away from home for two prolonged periods in my childhood and young adulthood. The first was boarding school, near Ipswich. The second was university, in Aberystwyth. The first was two hours from home along mostly motorway; the second was six hours by any route, at least partly along slow, two-lane roads or a slow, single-track rural railway. At the first, I missed home terribly, I spent every journey there looking back and while there, counted down the days until my next trip out or home. At the second, I looked forward as much to going back as I did to going home. I’ve read about homesickness in the context of Roald Dahl’s boarding school memoirs from the 1920s and there was another example by Giles Fraser published on Unherd last Thursday. But I hate the term.

Fraser compares homesickness to nostalgia, which actually means that in Greek although in modern English, it is used to mean longing for a former time rather than another place. He accuses Remainers of using the term as an insult and of implying that it is a sign of weakness (in the sense that a homesick soldier on a tour of duty or child at a boarding school might be), when it is more of a criticism and has strong justification. The nostalgia referred to in the criticism is an unhealthy fixation on a bygone era, usually the time of one’s youth but sometimes even before that, only remembering or even imagining its good points while ignoring or denying the bad and failing to appreciate why the era is bygone and had to change. We often see this in people who hark back to an old age when they believe families were still strong, when children knew their place, when schools had ‘discipline’ and everyone had a home-cooked meal on the table when they came home. Some of this was true but it concealed unhappy marriages which women in particular found it difficult to escape from, outright child abuse and economic and political circumstances which are no longer true. People sometimes talk of the country falling apart because certain categories of people gained rights, but these rights are what stop those people being abused.

The Baby Boomers are the last generation who remember when Britain was the “mother country” of a global empire with large possessions in different parts of the world, all of which it had lost by the start of the 70s. They also remember the cultural “glory days” of Swinging London when British musicians came to be appreciated around the world, even if they were often heavily influenced by American musical forms such as the Blues; this may explain the stance of some ageing celebrity Brexiteers such as Ringo Starr and Roy Wood. Some also remember when “Britain was still white”. What they forget is that the Empire consisted of other people’s countries and was costly to maintain; as for the music, such fashions come and go and many of those musicians (and some who came along after we joined the EEC) have had long and varied careers; those that did not are those who ran out of ideas or who did not develop their musical ability. As for whiteness, the country had a labour shortage which is why it invited people over from the colonies we had occupied, and none of those people came from countries which are now in the EU anyway.

The past is gone; it is no longer real. To be homesick is to be consumed with longing for another real place. It is only really a sickness when it causes actual distress, and this is usually because one’s current place is an unpleasant one because, for example, of abuse or because the standard of living or the behaviour one encounters is nothing like what one is used to and one cannot leave easily if at all. The distress of an abused child in an institution is not like the mild longing someone has for home when they are away on business or studying. I actually don’t like the term homesickness for the abused child; it allows the adults who have placed the child there to evade responsibility for the child’s distress. He doesn’t just “miss his mum”; he misses being loved and cared for as a valued, individual member of a family rather than just another unimportant inmate in an impersonal and uncaring institution, he misses home-cooked (or indeed decent) food, he misses being spoken to with civility, he may miss having quiet and privacy.

As a member of the EU, Britain has generally had a very good deal. We still have our home (and unfettered access to 27 other countries), we still have our own parliament, we still have control of our borders, we have been allowed opt-outs to major European projects. It is grotesque to compare the misguided nostalgia for the Britain of 50 or 60 years ago, of the youth of today’s old or ageing people, with the genuine distress of a child separated from their family and suffering mistreatment. The EU is not an oppressive entity; if it were, we would be facing a military invasion for even holding the 2016 referendum, as two of the nominally independent states of the Warsaw Pact did when they asserted their independence. We have had a say in all the policies which gave rise to the discontent behind the 2016 referendum; we are still not discussing the matter of what of it had anything to do with the EU and could be resolved without leaving. This comparison of the EU to an oppressive regime or to an abusive relationship is a product of privileged ignorance and an insult to anyone who has suffered either. Brexiteers are not homesick; they have their home. They are nostalgic for an era that has gone for good, could not have lasted and had to change, and our media should be honest with them about these things.

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