A recent Long Read by Dan Hancox in the Guardian gets to the heart of our distinctive British malaise of nostalgia, trumpeted on the Memory Lane UK Facebook page. At the heart of this phenomenon are the “proper binmen” of yesteryear (cf. Lonnie Donegan):
To their admirers, proper binmen embody a lost postwar idyll—and the decline in national character can be seen in the appalling state of their modern-day counterparts, who are rotten in spirit, in character and in service. […]
Back then, in an unspecified period between 1950 and 1980, the binmen were stronger, more hardworking and more polite. Not just that—back then, the binmen were happy. Everyone remembers them the same way: always cheerful, always smiling, frequently whistling. They always had a kind word for you, never complained, and always closed the gate. They took pride in their job, which was hard work, but honest work. These judgments are delivered with absolute certainty. Back then, “They were always a really friendly crowd who you could have a good laugh with,” writes one commenter. “Not like the bin men of today, you are very lucky if they respond to a ‘good morning’.”
The historic shift in bin collection is taken to mark a wider crisis in masculinity. “That is when men were men, not the wimps we have today,” writes one Facebook commenter. “All be off work with PTSD nowadays,” chimes in another. Proper binmen “didn’t care about Health & Safety Shite”, writes another. The plastic wheelie bins we have today—with their emasculating pastels, often colour-coded for recycling, and their humiliating, labour-saving wheels—are just further markers of our moral, social and spiritual decline.
The supporting cast to proper binmen includes proper football man and proper Labour man. The key is noble suffering.
Stern voices have clamoured to remind us that being dangerously cold, being desperately poor and enduring powercuts, broken supply chains, food shortages and cold baths has happened to Britons before, and it would probably do us good, if anything, if it happened again.
Among numerous other fetishes are
One pound notes. Queueing to use a phone box. Playing in the street and yelling “car!”. French cricket. Jam sandwiches. Scabby knees. Skipping. Coal fires. The slipper. The cane. The ruler. Getting a thick ear. Cumbersome lawnmowers. Ink wells. Duffle coats. Tin baths. Marbles. Jack Charlton. Forgetting your PE kit. Bus conductors. Bob-a-job week. Wooden ice-cream spoons. Snakes and Ladders. Ponchos. Beans on toast. Men opening doors for women. Slow dancing to Nat King Cole. Worzel Gummidge. Sweets by the ounce. Icicles hanging from the window frame (“Before central heating!”). Miss World (“All natural. Not a bit of botox in sight”). The power cuts of 1972–4 (“we coped, we were strong”). Scrubbing and polishing your front steps (“That’s when people had pride in where they lived”). Outdoor toilets. Cigarette machines. Flares. Playing in bombsites. Jumping in puddles.
The list could run and run—one might add cheery bus conductors, or the “innocent” sexism of Carry on films and “saucy” seaside postcards, for instance.
As Hancox notes, the rich and powerful profit from the philosophy of “We had it tough. We kept calm and carried on. We didn’t complain. We muddled through. We made do. We mended. It never did us any harm. It made us who we are”.
Underpinning this celebration of suffering is the masochistic idea that it is your individual responsibility—indeed an important test of your character—to withstand ruinous social and economic crises not of your making. […]
Elizabeth II herself was, we can reasonably assume from the tributes which followed her death, a proper Queen. Under the headline “The Queen’s 1950s frugality is key to our future”, one Times columnist praised her for being “naturally parsimonious”, personifying not obscene wealth and the plundered spoils of Empire, but the halcyon moment of High Binmenism, at some point in the 1950s, before the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. “In this age of Amazon Prime and Kim Kardashian-style super-rich spending, her frugality may seem quaint,” Alice Thomson wrote, “but it feels timely. As the cost of living crisis hits, everyone is looking for ways to cut back, taking a Thermos of coffee to work, eating leftovers for lunch and sewing on lost buttons.” That even a literal Queen has to be explained in this way suggests how deep Binmenism goes.
This indeed compounds our mystifying subservience to the monarchy.
Alongside their mission to excavate the rubble of the past, the Facebook nostalgia communities often pour scorn on the objects and rituals of today’s zeitgeist, in particular the damage done by technology. Computer games, smartphones, social media and TV are seen to create a disenchanted childhood, lacking in imagination, adventure and risk.
The vitality of the nostalgia industrial complex is a reminder of just how appealing it is to have your private reminiscences, buried memories, and hazy childhood images validated by others—whatever your age. It is a source of comfort to know you are not mistaken, that your version of your life’s story is shared. […]
Our gaze seems to inevitably turn backwards. The politics of the past few years abound with a desire for a return to an imagined, halcyon former version of Britain. This is true of both sides of the Brexit referendum; for remainers, there is often wistful talk of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony or the New Labour period, while Brexiteers look back further into history.
Brexit, like the Memory Lane UK posts, partly speaks to an existential sadness about the passage of time and the desire for revenge on what we imagine it has done to us. You can only take back control if you have become convinced you once had it, and have had it torn from your grasp. […]
Stewart Lee delights in sending up the bendy bananas and Primeval Nothingness to which the Brexiteers long to return. Hancox goes on to cite William Davies on the way people who feel disenfranchised often find solace in nationalism:
The nationalist leader holds out the promise of restoring things to how they were, including all the forms of brutality—such as capital punishment, back-breaking physical work, patriarchal domination—that social progress had consigned to history. For reasons Freud would have understood, this isn’t as simple as wanting life to be more pleasurable, but a deep desire to restore a political order that made sense, in spite of its harshness. It is a rejection of progress in all its forms.
All this can shade into racist memes like attacking the toppling of statues, criticising BLM, and advocating for “proper” history to be taught “again”. At least the current “government” is doing its utmost to restore rationing and poverty—and the return of child chimney-sweeps would doubtless be popular in certain quarters (cf. The Haunted Pencil’s paean to “uplifting” food banks). Our relationship with the NHS, and the migrants who continue to make it work, is another much-discussed aspect of post-war British identity (succinctly, see e.g. this 2008 article).
Hancox cites an LSE report into class identity, which interviewed “successful TV producers, actors, and architects who all brushed aside their own private schooling, housing security, and material privilege to foreground a single grandparent who was a coal miner”.
But he also notes a more tolerant strain of humanist libertarianism, concluding:
It is not good enough to merely dismiss the Facebook nostalgics’ sepia-tinted version of history out of hand, if you care about Britain today. The proper binmen are living inside many of us, pulling our strings and guiding us not just down memory lane, but into the future.