I’ve written before about nostalgia and how, originally, it was considered to be an illness which affected 17th century soldiers who were homesick. More up-to-date thinking suggests that there are a lot of psychological benefits to be had from feelings of nostalgia. There’s a wonderful article in this week’s “New Statesman” by Sophie McBain called “My Lockdown Nostalgia“, in which she acknowledges the benefits of nostalgia and, surprisingly, looks forward to the time when she can look back on lockdown with “bittersweet nostalgia“.
It goes without saying that Sophie McBain and most of the people I know have not suffered terribly during the pandemic. Whereas many people have died or lost their jobs or suffered terrible loneliness, I have been fortunate to avoid any deep unpleasantness.
There are plenty of interesting ideas in Sophie McBain’s article. One of them suggests that only about 10% of our individual happiness is determined by events and 90% of our happiness is a product of our disposition towards being happy. The idea is that a generally happy person will have, over the past year, adapted to their restricted environment and may still be happy and contented.
For me, the lockdowns have coincided with retirement and the change in my day to day life has been dramatic. I no longer have a million things to do at once and life has slowed down almost, but not quite, to a standstill. Every day has included a walk with Bruno, writing the blog, reading a book and watching television. It’s not true that every day has been exactly the same but every day has involved the same activities. As lockdown restrictions start to be lifted, a few social events are beginning to appear. I’ve already got a train to Brighton and sat in the garden of a pub with four friends. I’m going to start mentoring a new Samaritan this week. Next week is busy: I’m going to visit my Aunt in North London with my sister; two sets of friends are coming to visit on different days; I’ve got a ticket for the Brighton v Manchester City game. Roo and I are off on holiday to Devon in six weeks time. Five of us are meeting for a pub crawl in Cambridge in August. These are all brilliant things and yet, and yet…. I can empathise with the basic tenet of Sophie McBain’s article that there will be a time when I look back on the simplicity and one dimensional aspect of the past year with nostalgia. She writes that if this happens, it won’t be through heartlessness but because we have a need to find meaning and purpose in our lives. We can’t write off a whole year and say that life was at a standstill. There has to have been a significance to the past year. As life speeds up when the restrictions are lifted, will there not be a yearning for the simplicity of lockdown; a time when we weren’t confronted by a myriad of choices about what to do and how to behave? A year in a protective bubble which protected us from a virus and also protected us from the complexity and speed of normal day to day existence?
One of the first things that happened in lockdown was that John bought me a vinyl copy of “Spirit Of Eden” by Talk Talk. It had always been one of my favourite albums and appeared in the Best Albums Ever list. Mark Hollis released a number of albums and I have three of them. The follow up to “Spirit Of Eden” was “Laughing Stock“, released in 1991 and the last album he released was simply called “Mark Hollis” (1998). They are all very quiet albums. That’s not to say that the instrumentation is simple – there are a lot of instruments playing but everything is played quietly and, as Nick Lowe once said about Brinsley Schwarz, the notes they leave out are more important than the notes they play. Mark Hollis put it like this: “Silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything and technique is secondary.”
I’ve read the Sophie McBain article over and over since it came through the post on Saturday and, for some reason, it has inspired me to listen to “Spirit Of Eden” again. I think it’s the simple, direct, laid-back ambience but it also seems quite nostalgic to me. The sadness of Mark Hollis’ voice appears to be yearning for a quieter, simpler, happier past.
The album was not appreciated at the time of its release. The Spectator called it “wilfully obscure“. Rolling Stone called it “pretentious“. NME used the word “aimless“. Q criticised it for being “uncommercial“. Their record company, EMI, unsuccessfully sued them for making an album that was not “commercially satisfactory“. It was ahead of its time. In 2013, NME determined it to be the 95th best album of all time. Recent retrospectives have used the words “remarkable” and “staggering“.
The engineer on “Spirit Of Eden” was Phill Brown and he described the recording sessions. “Endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together. Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense. There was very little communication with musicians who came in to play. They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones.” At the time, Talk Talk consisted of Mark Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb but many other musicians were invited into the studio to record improvised performances which were later edited to construct the final pieces. These musicians included Nigel Kennedy, Danny Thompson, Henry Lowther, Robbie McIntosh (The Pretenders) and Mark Feltham (Nine Below Zero).
In an article for the Guardian by Graeme Thompson in 2012, he described the album as featuring “six improvised pieces full of space and unhurried rhythm, stitching pastoral jazz, contemporary classical, folk, prog rock and loose blues into a single, doggedly uncommercial musical tapestry.” The music is unlike anything else, before or since. It has been described as paving the way for “post-rock” acts such as Tortoise, Mogwai or Do May Say Think but the sound is unique, never previously attempted and never repeated. It’s beautiful, magnificent, inspirational and nostalgic music.