On Vintage Crockery and Nostalgia ...

Recently, I became ridiculously excited when I spotted a mint green Beryl Ware cup and saucer in an episode of the TV remake of The Ipcress File. Beryl Ware, for those who may never have heard of such a thing (although you’d recognise it on sight), is very basic earthenware that screams utilitarianism and has made regular appearances in hospitals, village halls and period dramas since its birth in the 1930s. Some of it has even made its way into my kitchen cupboards.


What is it about this unremarkable crockery that immediately transports me back to days of yore and leaves me yearning for an idealised past? This televisual encounter left me pondering the subject of nostalgia in general. Is it simply part of the human psyche, something we all experience? Perhaps a side-effect of one’s inability to deal with the present? Or just a natural accompaniment to getting older?

by Amanda Ellison

Nostalgia, it turns out, was at one time designated a physical malady, characterised by loss of appetite, fainting, and sometimes hallucinations. In the 1600s Swiss physician Johannes Hofer chanced upon a link between these symptoms and  military troops serving far from home. Homesickness, in other words. So it came to be that Hofer coined the word ‘nostalgia’, derived from  - no surprises – Greek, with its etymological roots in ‘nosta’ ( homecoming) and ‘alga’ (pain). Fans of Homer’s Odyssey may be aware that ‘nostalgia’ was predated by another Greek word, ‘nostimon’, from the phrase ‘nostimos emar’, which translates as ‘the day of return to the family home’.


And the cure? Send the afflicted home.  More sinister cures became manifest in the 1700s, however: French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe was known to favour shocking patients out of their condition by threatening to jab them with a red-hot poker! It wasn’t until the 1800s that nostalgia ceased to be a medical diagnosis, but something more akin to the way we would define it today: an ineffable, bittersweet fondness for the past, a sentimental recollection of the ‘good old days’.  Nostalgia, then, is closely associated with emotion, and a bout of this condition is often triggered, Proustian-style, by sensory prompts such as smell or sound – or the unexpected sighting of Beryl Ware.


But what makes us so susceptible to it? Neurologists may well link it to the reward centre in the brain, causing us to filter out unpleasant emotions. What we recall, then, are percolated moments of emotional significance. Writ large, we have a collective nostalgia that marketing maestros are quick to seize upon and utilise; who can even hear the word Hovis without imagining a world of cobbled streets, flat caps, and bicycles with baskets? How much of the success of The Great British Bake-Off is down to its vintage vibe? Nostalgia is big business; as advertisers long ago cottoned on to, a trip down memory lane, to a time we associate with happiness – or something like it – offers familiarity and comfort during times of stress and upheaval. The past is not a foreign country; it’s like going home.


Research suggests that nostalgia is more prevalent older people (this makes sense, given the greater life experience to reflect upon), but for me the dominant feature about nostalgia is what it has to say about the present.  It strengthens our sense of identity in a world that has become increasingly fraught with alienation, isolation and disconnectedness. Looking to the past reminds us who we are, so closely linked to who we were. I sometimes imagine waking up in the morning with amnesia – how on earth does identity exist if not framed by the past? The past is our home, suggesting that there’s something in that link to homesickness.


We live in a world that is fragmented and diffuse, and many of us live an atomised existence. Loneliness is rife. Nothing is certain. And nostalgia is the perfect antidote to all that.


In everyday life, I am increasingly aware of being something of a dinosaur: tutting at yet another Reality TV show (peopled with ‘celebrities’ I wouldn’t know from Adam), or feeling like a bit of a relic in a workplace where I don’t even know the names of the majority of my wunderkinder colleagues – no doubt en route to bigger and better things.


My refuge? That cupboard full of Beryl Ware.