Nostalgia’s comeback

‘The urge to renew tussles with the impulse to preserve’

Joan Bakewell

When I recently moved house I brought with me a stack of old 78 vinyl records from the 1940s and 1950s: Johnnie Ray, Deanna Durbin, Gracie Fields, still in their tattered brown paper sleeves. I have nothing to play them on, no way of listening to them. And I could probably track them down on the internet. Audio technology brings us music on our tablets, our phones and our laptops. So why am I keeping them? The urge to renew tussles with the impulse to preserve. Nostalgia comes riding high.


Take holiday resorts, for example. Butlins—you thought its days had passed—is in reality still a bright and breezy family destination. Skegness Butlins, the first of Billy Butlins’s holiday camps, opened in 1936 and still attracts half a million visitors a year. I know because I was there as part of a House of Lords Committee looking into the future of seaside towns. We reported in April. Our findings were mixed, our conclusions hopeful. I feel even more hopeful now.

The big hit came in the 1970s, when cheap flights took people in droves to Mediterranean resorts. The decline was traumatic, leaving our seaside in a bad way. Many towns still lack good transport and digital links; neglected hotels have fallen into multiple-occupancy. But change could so easily be on the way.

Climate change already seems to be extending our sunshine season. What with that and European politics, UK holidays look increasingly inviting. Many seaside towns are now thriving: St Ives is choked with visitors, Margate is booming, Brighton and Blackpool have turned the tide. It’s great to see how the arts play a major part: Hastings, Dundee and Bexhill all boast great galleries. I’ve now been to the Turner Contemporary in Margate three times: each time the town has more to offer. I’ll be back.


Piers play their part too. An island nation with a coastline of some 7,700 miles, Britain has just over 50 piers. There used to be 100, but storms, fires and neglect have taken their toll. Now, they’re enjoying a comeback. These glories of Victorian engineering are suddenly attracting the attention they deserve: Coastal Community funding, local authority support and a handful of eager independent owners. This year, as patron of the National Piers Society, I presented the award of “Pier of the Year” to Worthing.


I am of a generation that is dying off, but a recent funeral was a particularly sad occasion, celebrating the life of a popular young man felled by sudden cardiac arrest. Grief is terrible and the beautiful service gave it full expression. Loving tributes from family members and individual friends made up the text of the service; prayers were a gentle mix of Christian and Jewish. The music had been meticulously chosen to reflect his life and ideas: we ended with the Beatles’ “Let It Be”.

It was evidence of how funerals are changing. A report last month says more people than ever—27 per cent—now want a non-religious funeral; just one in 10 choose a traditional religious service. I am a Humanist—co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee of Humanists—and I know how our trained celebrants spend time with each bereaved family. I know too, as presenter of BBC Radio 4’s We Need to Talk about Death, how old taboos are falling away: the dying want to discuss their own funerals, services are planned to reflect the life and times of the deceased. I want “Jerusalem” at mine, with everyone singing loud and lustily.


I do not need the £300 fuel allowance and the free TV licence gifted me by the government. There are plenty others like me: I was stopped in the street by my multi-millionaire neighbour Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin who asked, in surprise, why he was getting such a sum from the government. “Have you recently had a birthday, Robert?” I inquired.

When I received my first £300, I tried to send it back whence it came, but was told, “there was no process for receiving it”. Bureaucracy prides itself on being unyielding. (Or perhaps robots are already installed in government departments? It certainly feels like it.) Like many others, I have been regularly giving my £300 to charities . . . a circuitous way of redistributing the nation’s wealth.

Now along comes the BBC television licence dilemma. In 1999, when the plight of pensioners was indeed serious, then-Chancellor Gordon Brown decided to fund what was effectively a social benefit scheme, paying the BBC to allow all pensioners free TV licences. I benefited—just as David Attenborough and John Humphrys must have done. Admired broadcasters, certainly, but not in line for hand-outs. Now the Treasury has decided this give-away has to stop. But in so doing, it has dumped the responsibility for its own social policy—free licences for pensioners—on the BBC. In a neat PR turn, this has been misrepresented as the BBC now refusing free licences to the needy. The BBC’s enemies in the media are only too delighted; the BBC itself is appalled at what such a move will do to its programmes and channels. I—a broadcaster, a viewer and a pensioner—don’t know which way to turn!

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