It was good to be reminded of how things were, how we were.
Living in the past is obviously not something to be commended, but occasionally celebrating things from the past is surely acceptable — and indeed may be thought commendable. I certainly hope that is the case, because in the past two weeks I have enjoyed more than my usual ration of remembering the past.
The first such occasion was an annual gathering of people who lived in the same village outside London about half a century ago. Four families still live there but many of us have moved. We were friends when we lived there, sharing many things, including the experience of bringing up our then young children. Some members of the group meet several times a year. We live too far away to make that practicable, but for many years we have come together for an annual lunch (all of us contributing food to it). It does not actually take place in the village, because the person who hosts it moved many years ago, but the purpose remains.
Inevitably, the group is smaller than it used to be, because of death. The great positive thing about the gathering, however, is that members have known each other for so long that we can pick up our conversations where we left them last year. We are interested in being brought up to date about the news of our fellow members, but we are perfectly clear about the background.
Is it a nostalgic occasion? In a sense it obviously is, but I doubt if we really see it that way. Rather, it is a chance to bring ourselves up to date with what our friends are doing (and of course share a certain amount of nostalgia: Do you remember this? Do you still do that?)
My second reminder of a past life occurred, somewhat surprisingly, less than a week after the village gathering. It was a Gaudy (as this type of celebration is called in Oxford) organised by my college, Oriel, for members who were there as students in the 1950s. Gaudies take place regularly, but certainly not annually, and would not usually, therefore, clash with our annual village reunion.
At the college occasion we were all, inevitably, men of a “certain age”. (I say men deliberately and accurately, because in my student days all the Oxford colleges were single-sex institutions.) There was, inevitably, much talk about how the college had changed since our time. One of the major changes, very clear to those of us who stayed overnight, was how the living accommodation has been modernised. In our student days, for example, there was no running water in our rooms, and when you wanted a bath you had to walk across a quad — in the open air. That would be viewed with horror by today’s students, but we saw it as entirely natural (not least because we were living in a 14th century building). Another major change, to be somewhat flippant, was in ourselves. We all looked our age — or rather, we felt that all our contemporaries looked their age, in a way that did not of course apply to us!
There is a lot to be said for these kinds of gathering, serving, as they do, as good reminders of how we have changed, and indeed, how life generally has changed. Certainly, the Britain of the 1950s, with the World War II still a vivid memory for our generation, was very different from Britain now. (Incidentally, our cheerful acceptance as students of what, looking back, seem quite primitive living conditions, was no doubt a reflection of the fact that other things were more important; freedom meant more than running water in every room.)
In our village group, and in the college group, we took pleasure from recalling and talking about things as they were half a century ago, and how we were half a century ago. I did not get the impression, however, that many of us were in any way firmly set in the past. We enjoyed looking back, and remembering, and recalling some of the experiences that we had almost forgotten, and were happy to recognise that all this had played a major part in our development. I did not get any feeling that we were suffering from endemic nostalgia. It was good to be reminded of how things used to be, and how we used to be. It was good to meet college contemporaries. None of us, I am sure, yearns to live in the past.