A pair of legs, supported by a metallic ladder, dangle from the ceiling in the hallway of my family home. Recently, my parents have been venturing into the loft and bringing down large, dusty plastic boxes. This extensive collection of photographs, files, schoolbooks and god-knows what else has laid dormant since we moved into the house five years ago. Finally, my parents have made it their mission to clear it out of any junk. The meticulous process of sorting, categorising and clearing has taken longer than anticipated due to a regimented routine which follows the grand opening of each box. As soon as the lid is off, a cup of tea is made, and my parents and I crowd round its contents. Hours are spent reminiscing over the pictures inside, each one evoking a different childhood memory; the time my younger sister and I wrapped Hamley, our first dog, in a feather boa and sunglasses; of nanny Joyce and granddad Ern; of family holidays in Cornwall. Lost time caught in a window as clear as the day we picked them up from the developer.
My mum hands me a photo she’s found, taken in the 1980’s from her first holiday with my dad in Korfu.
“Look, I was so skinny and pretty then.” She sighs.
“You’re still pretty, mum.” I reply.
So much has changed since that quick snapshot on the beach. In July, mum was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, a diagnosis which has transformed the future into uncertain territory. Gesturing towards the towers of unopened boxes, she says she doesn’t want to leave dad with the burden of sorting it out on his own. I scold her for being morbid but deep down, I share her concern. Not only is this clear-out long overdue, but I can’t help thinking that indulging in the past in this way is somewhat a distraction; a way of looking back rather than looking forward.
I’m guilty of this too. When I turned 21, I started tracing my family history on ancestry.com – a subscription service which allows the user access to official records, such as birth, death and marriage certificates, to discover long lost ancestors and relatives. Compared to my partner’s large and close-knit family which includes countless cousins, aunts and uncles all in close proximity to one another, my family feels relatively small. Where I once found escapism in the prospect of moving away from home, I began to find it in nostalgia. I began to cultivate every scrap of home I could find, and ancestry.com was my means to do so.
I scoured the databases to build a picture of my hidden lineage. My family tree became an archive for fascinating stories of Russian immigrants, naval officers and war heroes. Other users of the website had also uploaded photographs of these figures previously unknown to myself or my immediate family.
William Crossman Browse, my great-great grandfather, was a naval officer. He married three times throughout his life before dying aged 79 in 1924. Alongside this rather austere portrait uploaded to his profile, were a short series of intimate, albeit weathered, photographs.
The first shows his wife Mary seemingly attending to her elderly husband outside their cottage in Gravesend, Kent. William was a year off seventy when fifty-two-year-old Mary, the sister of his late wife Martha, married him in 1915. The second photograph pictures William on his own, his hands resting on his knees. The table next to him is in use and adorned with domestic items, suggesting that the couple were enjoying a meal at the time. His expression is blurred. Long exposure times during photography’s infancy meant that subjects had to stay perfectly still for up to 15 minutes. This is the reason smiling is rare in early photographs. In the last picture on record, Mary and William sit at a table next to one another. Mary has her arm wrapped round a wooden crutch and is holding onto a small handkerchief. Her pose and comparative youth implies that the items in her hand are her husband’s, rather than her own. William is caught in an in informal position, his sleeves rolled up and his arm poised and holding a pipe. The three pictures tell a quiet story of companionship, ageing and domestic life in the years shortly before the first world war.
I found myself intently staring at every photograph of my distant ancestor, hoping to find something I’d missed which would reveal more about the life of this person staring back at me. If, as John Berger notes in About Looking, photographs emerge as ‘relics of the past, traces of what has happened,’ how was it that scouring these images felt so unsatisfactory? Why did my close examinations of every photographic detail only lead to further disappointment? Ancestry.com has a system called ‘Hints’ which suggests potential records based on the information in your current family tree, filling in many of the gaps for you. It’s a useful algorithm but, quite quickly, I was rummaging through hundreds of photographs, certificates and census reports. After every revelation came even more questions and I started to feel lost.
Theories of nostalgia have focused on it as a somewhat debilitating phenomenon; a psychological sickness characterised by an individual’s yearning for the past. Observed both in soldiers during World War II and in university dropouts, studies have failed to distinguish the difference between healthy and pathological nostalgia. A theoretical précis conducted by the University of Missouri suggested looking at the condition from a future-orientated perspective. Nawas and Platt hypothesised that goal-orientated individuals who viewed their future with optimism were less likely to develop pathological nostalgia, compared to individuals who could not envision a promising future within psychotherapeutic discussions of their life span. Nostalgia, it would seem, is as much a phenomenon grounded in an individual’s impression of the future, as it is an echo of their pathological past. Despite my aversion to self-diagnosis, this perspective appeared to apply to my own resurgent interest in my family history.
That being said, how far can nostalgia be considered a condition affecting individuals, when it is commonly expressed in groups of people, unified by a common sentiment or experience? It can be argued that Britain is gripped by a destructive sense of wartime nostalgia which seeps into the ideology fuelling its exit from the European Union. In 2016, this complex bureaucratic nightmare was sold as a simple choice. The ‘Leave’ campaign purposefully evoked a skewed and emotionally laden sense of nostalgia with the language it used. The infamous slogan, ‘take back control’ was masterfully crafted to frame the public’s disillusionment with politics by marrying it with a glorified image of a past which never really existed. It worked.
It worked because, in times of turmoil, it is easier to cling to the things which make us feel comfortable, than to confront the future head-on. We are all burdened by time. As we gather around the photo albums to reminisce, cup of tea in hand, time is paused. These fragments of the past – the photographs, school reports, the VHS tapes – help us story our lives and better understand the present moment. Nevertheless, we cannot feel nostalgic for the future. This untrodden territory is for us to explore. We can only hope that it makes for great photos along the way.