So, we have a problem.
You’ve probably noticed it yourself, especially if you’ve ever been shopping for home decor but especially if you’ve ever visited the United States of America.
Unlike a lot of Brits–many whom only know the place from its pop culture, and verbal mannerisms that are slowly permeating our language like haunted mist through a crack in the door–I love the United States. America gets a bad rep from people who don’t understand that when humanity’s worst nature is multiplied by such an immense population it produces more more bad news and worse horrors than you might find in a country of a more modest size. Shaking your head and muttering ‘Americans’ in a condescending manner doesn’t make you seem superior–it makes you look like a know-nothing dick, which, if this is something you do, is something I suspect you are,
A peculiarly American problem its residents seem unfazed by is just how young their nation is. When Brits are taught primary school history, they learn about exciting times in the sixteenth century, when Elizabethan Britain, already well into the throes of civilisation, warred with Spain in the English channel. We had gunpowder, canon, great fleets of warships sailing the seas, games of boules and pantaloons and cities already built, weathered and toppling over into the streets. By 1588 we already had a proud and distinguished history, while across the Atlantic America was still The New World, having been discovered not yet a century before and still a long way from declaring independence.
It’s not that Americans are ignorant of their own history, but that they view it as a sort of microcosm of world history, expanding it to fit the temporal space of the rest of the world like a marshmallow in a microwave. Sure, before 1492 all manner of nonsense was going on in Spain, Italy, Germany and wherever, but that happened to other people so who cares? This attitude is hardly surprising, given the way the continent was conquered. To the native Americans later killed through force or ‘flu, European expeditions might as well have been dragons storming in from the Here Be Monsters part of their world map. They were travellers from unimaginable worlds, and once the colonists had cast off the shackles of perceived oppression and settled in, America went back to forgetting the rest of the world existed. This was God’s nation, a glorious place with resources that had only ever been tapped in drips and drabs by the indigenous populace. Europe came and conquered, but this wasn’t Europe’s land: this was America.
While the new Americans celebrated their victory, for Europe the loss of the established colonies was only a loss and not abject defeat. The military returned home, probably remarking on the way that travelling so to fight entrenched guerrilla forces in bright red uniforms was a really bad idea, Europe got on with European business and let Americans build their first lemonade stand.
Likewise, it’s no wonder so many people in the United States still hold fast to Christian faith, given their very nation came flat-packed, delivered from invaders regarded by the natives as gods. The first American people coming into being in a land of plenty, their knowledge intact, reproducing ‘til they fill the land with children and generations later, there they were–it’s all very creation myth. Some Americans even spun their own America-centric religions along the way: the Church of Mormon places its country at the heart of Christian mythology, expanding it to include God’s America, which, before the prophet Joseph Smith unburied the truth, had previously not been mentioned in the Bible..
To the rest of us the five hundred year history of the United States of America is hardly history at all. When Americans go sightseeing–and bear in mind that even before Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy was big business in the US, with student grants given to those who can trace their birth line back to the Mayflower–they probably view our aging architecture as buildings built before the dawn of time. Our cities might as well be stone circles that are still inhabited; the cobbles we walk upon are as old as their country, and pave roads that had already been worn through use long before Columbus set sail.
So when returning the favour and visiting America it’s a little strange to find its history so easily encapsulated, yet venerated. Americans proclaim their heritage proudly –I’m Irish: my great great grandmother came from the home country–which to us seems written in the blink of an eye. Old buildings are proudly upright, not crumbling ruins, no longer habitable. Renaissance fairs twist pre-American history into theme park attractions, owing less to actual historical events than they do to Walt Disney.
And though we can drink the root beer, watch the jousting and have a fun day out, there’s something missing here. This is imitation history in action: a skewed recreation of styles and events that’s not classic, but ‘classic’.
It’s the same when you’re furniture shopping and trying to find your new centrepiece dining room table. Sure, the thing constructed from space age filaments that looks like the futuristic fat descendant of an ironing board and has a name like ‘Täbl’ only costs fifty quid, but that oaken monstrosity over there, the table that looks like Dracula’s coffin top as supported on four redwood pines, that’s a classic, and as such costs a hell of a lot more.
When did we come to crave retro classic styles? And, just as importantly, when did the future become not good enough?
Those European settlers toiling American soil, building colonies, raising families, eventually sticking two fingers up at the hand that not only fed them but reared them, that brought them into this new world–do you think they harboured nostalgic longings? No, not they, not until the twentieth century when the people of every city across the states started wearing Union Jacks for ‘the London look’. The Spice Girls, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, stampeding across a nation suddenly besotted with quaint little England and its quaint little Queen. In its inception the United States of America were a forward-thinking nation, throwing off oppressive yokes and striving for a bright future where all men were created equal. In today’s economical climate these ideals seems almost like a joke, and it’s only when you look at America’s current societal inequities and compare them with our yearning for the lost, the past, the classic that you might stop and wonder: are these things related?
I’m starting to wonder it myself. Witness Hollywood’s current crop of remakes of classic movies and adaptations of classic toy franchises. Looking at the list of either due for release in the next two years people might wonder if Hollywood’s run out of ideas; it hasn’t, but it’s easier to market the cynical plundering of the past to movie-goers than it is to market a new project to them, one they’re not already familiar with, that they don’t already know.
Familiar names create buzz. People will go to see sequels and remakes of old films they love, knowing full well the new versions won’t live up to the legacy of the originals but hoping they might be proved wrong. The recent Karate Kid remake was a competent, enjoyable film; the fact it was a remake makes this surprising, shocking even. It’s the kind of thing people might feel compelled to mention in conversation, saying “I thought it would be rubbish but it’s actually really good” and perpetuating word of mouth where there would otherwise be silence.
And when these modern re-cuts don’t live up to our memories, well, that just turns the past into a banner to march under, a foreign country to pine for, one we can never revisit. Remember when? we say, and we about the good old days while listening to golden oldies. Everything becomes a classic when hidden under enough dust.
Given how mawkish some of us can get over days long gone (and just you wait until December, when I fall back onto posts saying “I remember when Christmas was Christmas” ad nauseum) of course the powers that be are going to sell our youths back to us as Michael Bay movies, or in the form of simpler times, times to still strive for, times politicians build platforms upon: a mythological age of peace and prosperity the incumbent party has managed to destroy through political inadequacy.
“Classic?” says the bitter past “I’ll give you classic” and it unleashes upon us the plagues and hardships of yesteryear, the riots, the racism, the oppression we’ve spent so long overthrowing. It’s not as if the good old days were all that good, you know; like America, we’re too young to remember what things were really like, so instead of talking about Thatcherism we praise Quatro as if it was urine peed from delicious gods.
Mired as I am in the past, it takes effort not to regard everything now gone as a classic to be missed. I used to be excited about the future–so did you. When we were kids, at the dawning of our lives we were pioneers boldly striking forth, determining our own constitutions, living our own American–or British, or whatever–dreams. Rather than complaining about grey hair and bald patches, maybe that’s something we should do again.
There’s a bright future ahead of us, but we’ll never see it so long as we’re looking backwards. Time to turn around, look ahead and embrace the spirit of adventure.