Thought for the Week: Nostalgia

26th April 2020
BY Claire Rostron

Nostalgia. From the Greek words νόστος – a return home, and ἄλγος – pain. It’s the feeling we get, when dislocated or discontented, from looking back at and longing for our homeland, whether actual, like Odysseus’ Ithaca, or spiritual. For me it is epitomised by this passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: Charles Ryder, suddenly thrown, in the midst of war, into reminiscence about the Oxford of his youth:

‘Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint… her autumnal mists, her grey spring-time, and the rare glory of her summer days … when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.’

Much of this could equally describe Winchester College. Nostalgia for WinColl, in my experience, generally starts to strike the Wykehamist before he has even left the school. Suddenly, in his last term, he has a heightened awareness of everything slipping from him, which sometimes manifests itself in a new-found interest in cricket, or Chapel, or perhaps a sudden appreciation of the architecture or the library…

Book One of Brideshead is entitled Et in Arcadia ego. Like the inscription on the tomb in Poussin’s painting, it reminds us that the charmed existence of Charles and Sebastian in the gilly-flower-wreathed rooms of Oxford, or of the Wykehamist passing beneath the wisteria-entwined gates of Winchester, is threatened: by reality, by social change, by War, by pandemic.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637, Louvre Collection

As I sit in my study, looking out at the Chapel tower and a chestnut coming into flower, this nostalgia threatens to overwhelm me. It’s my last term here, too, and I am thinking longingly of Chamber teas; shirt-sleeve order; illicit Meads hours; garden football until the last minute before toytime; swifts screaming as they hunt down College Street.

The fair weather we have been enjoying lately adds an additional poignancy: as Alan Bennett reflects in his play Forty Years On, itself an exquisite study in nostalgia, ‘The weather is as perfect as it always is when the world is quaking’.

The Cloister Time Winchester of our imagination may be idealised – the smooth green lawns where the sun always seems to shine – but at times like this we need, perhaps, like Frodo Baggins, our personal Shire to hold onto: 'I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.'

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