Ramones’ tee-shirts, bisto and Sheffield 1981-1984: surfing on a wave of nostalgia

From 1981 to 1984 I spent three memorable and formative years in Sheffield as a student, a time with an abundance of experience and learning, a time spent in The Leadmill, The Broomhill Tavern, The Fat Cat, The Punchbowl Inn, The Grindstone, The Frog and Parrot, The Museum, The Beehive, The Limit and, of course, the library.

Last week I reunited for a 30th anniversary, and reconnected a lapsed but still warm friendship with housemates from that bygone era. Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective, and maybe objectivity, but the three years at university are so significant in your development. There’s a certain nostalgia and romance in a place you left, and whilst I don’t think nostalgia is a healthy modality, it’s in us all.

It’s curious the way we get nostalgic for some hoped-for thing that never happened, as if something that never happened were in the past. I know the fog of sadness came over me the days after the reunion, memories re-energised, and a yearning for those good, historical times. But nostalgia and a sense of history are not the same thing, nostalgia is a dysfunction of the historical impulse, or a corruption of the historical impulse. Either way, we re-connected within ten minutes, lost time a thing of the past, literally.

I sallied forth to enrol at the University of Sheffield in 1984, an adventure equal in magnitude to St. Brendan’s C5th voyages of discovery, creeping alone with sinking heart into the university campus was like entering a huge and austere labyrinth to which there was no key. After all, what was the value of my prized ideas and ideals compared with the rumblings of the universe?

Then came the first lecture, given by the diminutive, prematurely grey Professor Tony Lowe in his proportionately diminutive, understated voice. His subject, the philosophy of numbers was quite unpopular, but I just adored it, building on my thirst for pure mathematics. To this day, his insight, passion and laughing remarks about numbers ring in my ears.

No regrets. Twice I ended up in casualty: nearly breaking an ankle in a rugby match and as a result ended up on a drugs trial – pharmaceutical not judicial, and then chinning it down the concrete steps at Crookesmoor late for a tutorial, almost breaking my neck and giving myself concussion. Still made it out that night though, I recall.

Sheffield has an architecturally compressed culture and beauty, and although the time at university lasted just three years, the lure of the academic buildings and culture has always continued with a strong connection for me. As we stumbled across town, each part of Sheffield held some memory for us – ‘on this street corner this happened’ – and the intensity which we all knew of our time at university and the way that it burned brightly but briefly, spending three years of your life on a choice.

When we asked ourselves if we had any regrets about our time here, or any particularly embarrassing highlights, we each remained somewhat coy, but memories of juvenilia and student experience clearly still hold resonance.

Over pasta and beer conversation turned inevitably to reminiscing about our previous Sheffield lives. We talked about people we hadn’t thought about for 30 years – Simon seemingly a collection of failed romances and constant rejection – about days we would always remember and nights out we’d rather forget. We all left feeling a sense of nostalgia for the student days we would never get back. However, it was also great to see how each other’s lives had moved on, the families we now had, working and living in new places.

If I was a student today I would be excited about studying in Sheffield, it’s wonderful they have an Andrew Motion poem, ‘What if?..’ on the side of a building you can see when you leave the railway station. The great thing about Sheffield is the fact it has a village feel and has extensive greenery you don’t find in the likes of Manchester.  One thing about Sheffield I don’t miss are the hills – some are like cliff faces and are completely evil to walk up!

As for our time, it is forever shrinking. Oppressed by our desire to be multitasking and smartphone driven efficiency, we live under a perpetual time pressure. The disease of this millennium will be called chronophobia or speedomania, and its treatment will be embarrassingly old-fashioned. Contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past, as about vanishing the present. All our yesterdays make your appreciate the value of time spent.

Nostalgia goes beyond individual psychology. At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our student days in this instance, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition, is where I’ve ended up after last week.

Onto our Sheffield road trip, first was Broomhill, past the shale football pitches, student eateries and well-meaning fair trade shops. I was delighted to see the Record Collector shop remained. Further down, we stumbled past the Broomhill Tavern a hunting ground for collecting beer mats, and then the Broomhill chippy, home of world-class battered sausages. About turn and onto the number 52 bus to Crookes.

So in 2014, 30 years later, we found myself back at the house we shared. Simon (Genesis), Geoff (Black Sabbath) and me (Joy Division), annoying the neighbours in a typical student terrace house. We ended up with two Firsts and another missed by a viva, subsequently two PhDs and an MBA, now all the downhill side of 50, fathering eight children between us. Not a bad set of outcomes from a raw beginning.

Nothing much had changed apart from some double-glazing, sky dishes and some wheelie bins. It was no longer a student house, it was neat and tidy, well maintained – I have fond memories of my attic bedroom, ice on the inside of the windows. Back on the bus to the city centre, we wandered down Division Street, one of my favourite streets in Sheffield. It’s a sort of Indie Street, with independent stores and boutiques, bars and pubs, second-hand shops, cafes and the odd charity shop.

The day was filled with many hugs, poignant silences, uproar at long-lost moments reencountered, personal moments of reflection, and a tear or two. Wistful recollections of our early friendship seem incongruous until the root of their emotional bond was revealed. Every moment contained elements of the raw, next to each other or even occurring simultaneously, so that truthful observation overlapped with crude caricature, and pieced together story structures yielded moments of considerable emotional force. Nostalgia is a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of what was once in a lifetime. We were talking heads then, and now.

Now with established families, motivated, employed and relatively successful, the day was a flashback to halcyon student days. The present is airy and well-lit, while the past looks dingy and claustrophobic in retrospect, but we all looked back over our shoulders with affection and even gratitude. Time passes like a hand waving from a train you wanted to be on as you stand on the platform. It is strange how we hold on to the pieces of the past while we wait for our futures.

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were, there are a few moments in your life when you are truly and completely happy, and you remember to give thanks, and we all agreed 1981-1984 was a happy time. Even as it happens you are nostalgic for the moment, you are tucking it away in your scrapbook, I think we’ve all done that. Someone once said, “I don’t have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They’re upstairs in my socks”, which I think is the best quote about capturing memories you can have.

Our plans for the future made us laugh and feel close, but those same plans somehow made anything more than temporary between us seem impossible.

When you start thinking about what your life was like 30 years ago – and not in general terms, but in highly specific detail – it’s disturbing to realise how certain elements of your being are completely dead. They die long before you do. It’s astonishing to consider all the things from your past that used to happen all the time but never happen anymore, and never even cross your mind. It’s almost like those things didn’t happen. Or maybe it seems like they just happened to someone else.

I realised that I was at home in my past, there are no days more full than those we go back to, and it was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with. In an era of unscratchable touch screens and sleek, perpetually connected devices that seem to smoothen all the edges of the world, I suddenly found myself yearning for the reassuring roughness of the imperfect. Ah, nostalgia, so much to answer for!

Nostalgia, comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache) – hence a longing to return home – was coined by C17th-century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. The Kuhreihen, simple melodies played on the horn by Swiss Alpine herdsmen, were banned because it reminded the soldiers of home, although some military doctors believed their problems were specific to the Swiss and caused by the racket of Alpine cowbells!

We can all see the marketing of nostalgia is serious business. In the last couple of years, when the credit crunch squeezed and with uncertainty about the economy, big brands have been marketing nostalgia to remind us of all the good times we used to have, reinforcing their history and heritage, their products’ endurance and quality, their authenticity.

The reason that nostalgia is now being considered as an important emotion by marketers is because it makes us happy. In times or recession or instability nostalgia is effective because when people are feeling down about their situation now, nothing makes them feel better than remembering the happier times in the past. Numerous studies confirm that most consumers really do look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses and an open wallet for any product that can help them recreate it. Products popular during a person’s youth will influence their buying habits throughout their lifetime. That explains my Ramone’s tee-shirt!

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage of the brand, for example the Mini and Fiat 500, the retro styling of digital radio brands etc.  Nostalgic, iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded: Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time.

Most importantly, it must have an emotional link The word ‘brand’ derives from the Old Norse word brandr meaning to burn, referring to the practice of burning a mark or brand onto cattle to denote ownership. It is this indelible mark in our mind that makes us prefer certain brands.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup is Britain’s oldest brand. Its green and gold packaging has remained almost unchanged since 1885. Research indicates that more than 85% of us immediately recognise the brand. Its original Victorian logo representing a lion and bees, coupled with its biblical quotation out of the strong came forth sweetness, has stood the test of time. It harks back to the great industrial times of the late C19th, a time we respect and value.

Bisto is another example. Trusted, reliable, and found in most kitchen cupboards across the country, the brand has remained in red-brown packaging since it was founded in 1908. An astonishing billion servings are sold each year, which equates to 18,000 tons of the brown powder. Lashings of piping hot gravy is a nostalgic memory for us all, an emotional link utilising its comforting values and association with family gatherings.

One of the most famous examples of ‘advertising nostalgia’ was the mammoth 122-second TV commercial from Hovis.  The advert won the British Television Awards ‘Commercial of the Year’, told the story of a young boy travelling through time charting Britain’s turbulent history over the past 122 years – including the first world war, the suffragette movement, the first motor car, the second world war, the Queen’s coronation in 1953, the swinging 60s, England winning the 1966 World Cup, the 1980s miners’ strike and the millennium celebrations.

But enough wallowing in nostalgia, it can create inertia. I find that the present interests me less and less. The future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of excitement, hope and new stuff, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a waiting-station through which I travel back to the vast shadowlands of the past, or the bright new shiny future.

The Chinese definition of happiness is having someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. I’m happy now as I was in Sheffield, 1981-1984, and as the Buzzcocks sang, About the future I only can reminisce, and although this may sound strange I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia, for an age yet to come. Ah, nostalgia, Ramone’s tee-shirts, bisto and Sheffield 1981-1984.

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