At the movies · Memories · Music · Word of the week

Word of the week: nostalgia

Back in the 1970s we often heard the word nostalgia in the following one-liner: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”. Etymologically that turns out to be true. The word is derived from the Greek “nostos” (return home) and “algos” (pain), so it used to mean homesickness (like “Heimweh” in German), or a longing for home. These days it’s used more as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”, to quote from this definition on the Oxford Dictionaries website.

I have used the word, and its adjective “nostalgic”, many times on this Blog, as you might expect from someone whose subject is, often, memory. Most recently it was when writing about Ari Up and the Slits. I feel nostalgic for things that happened, and the places where they happened, less than ten years ago. My nostalgia derives from knowing that the places (venues like the 12 Bar Club and The Pipeline), and some of the people, are gone. Many of the places where I have spent time over the last 40 years – like the George IV pub on the High Road – are still thriving. We were there only last night with my wife’s nephew, who was over from Israel for a few days. I can’t feel nostalgic for a place that still exists, although until sometime in the 1980s it was arranged very differently, divided into a Public Bar and Saloon Bar, as many pubs were “in the olden days”. I do, however, feel nostalgic for some of the cinemas that I spent time in back in the 1980s, places like the Minema in Knightsbridge and the Academy on Oxford Street, both of them long gone.

The first time I fell asleep in a cinema was watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” at the Minema. Those seats were so comfortable. I had managed to stay awake through late-night double bills at the Gate in Notting Hill, but a mid-week afternoon presentation of “Solaris” was a tougher proposition. So were the screenings of the same director’s “Stalker” (released in the UK in 1981), which played at the Academy on Oxford Street for several months. During the 1980s people like me spent many afternoons watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky in independent cinemas. He died in 1986, the year that his last film (“Sacrifice”) was released. How many people under 40 have heard of this great Soviet director, let alone seen any of his work? Not many, I suspect, though there was an opportunity to catch up on them earlier this year on the movie channel Film4. I caught one of them, his 1983 release “Nostalghie”, which translates (as you can probably work out) as “Nostalgia”.

The first time I saw “Nostalghie” was in Florence, in 1983. I had travelled across France and into Italy with an old school-friend, Andy. There were no subtitles and the dialogue was in Italian and Russian. It featured Domiziana Giordano, who played Trotsky’s daughter Zina in Ken McMullen’s film “Zina”, which I saw a few years later. Neither Andy nor I could really follow what was happening in “Nostalghie”, but I was used to that with Tarkovsky’s work. I enjoyed the general experience of sitting there while the film played out. At one point a character says “basta” repeatedly. Based on the context, and after several repetitions of the word, I worked out that it meant “enough”, like the Spanish word “bastante”. When the film had ended Andy asked me who she was calling a bastard, a logical enough misunderstanding. “Basta” sounds like “bastard”, and neither of us had learnt Italian at school.

Those memories of Florence in 1983 returned vividly while watching “Nostalghie” again one night a few months ago. I promised myself that if I started to feel sleepy (as at Tarkovsky screenings in the 1980s) I would head upstairs to bed, but the armchair was so comfortable, and it gets so hard to read subtitles. I could just close my eyes and, well, I can understand a bit more Italian now so even with my eyes closed I could follow what was going on, and …

I woke up at half past midnight in time to see the final credits roll, and was taken back to those afternoon naps at the Minema and the Academy, though when I fell asleep in “Solaris” and “Stalker” it was for maybe 20 minutes in the middle of the picture, not for the whole of the last hour.

As with a few other Word of the Week pieces (like this one, about the word “petrified”), a song comes to mind that features the subject in question. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez features the lines: “Now you’re telling me / You’re not nostalgic / Then give me another word for it / You who are so good with words / And at keeping things vague”. For over 20 years the only version of the song that I knew was from the Judas Priest album “Sin after Sin”, released in 1977. My brother and I played it often that summer. (The other album that spent most time on my turntable during those grey August days was “LA Woman” by the Doors.) Until this summer I hadn’t heard Judas Priest’s recording for at least 20 years and listening to it again is a nostalgic experience. I picture a cloudy Sunday afternoon, sat on that small wall in our back garden while the music plays through the windows of the bedroom my brother and I shared. You can check it out here, but it might not have much nostalgia value for you. The Joan Baez version is here, with verses that Judas Priest didn’t include (“As I remember / Your eyes were bluer than robins’ eggs / My poetry was lousy you said …”) . It brings to mind a different time, the summer of 2010, when this recording was loaded onto various devices that we took to Spain, when our son was five and used to sing along. It’s a great song, and it provided me with the epigraph for “1000 Memories”: “We both know what memories can bring …” They bring diamonds and rust.



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