IF there’s a time of year when nostalgia reigns supreme, it’s now.
Adult children expect their parents to recreate the feasts of yesteryear, with no departures from the culinary script. The same Christmas songs appear repeatedly, whether at home, on the radio, or in the mall, sung by motley choirs. The lineup of televised movies always includes the same six standards with a handful of modern interlopers. This is what we practitioners of Christmas like: extravagant familiarity.
The other kind of nostalgia is for things that we haven’t actually experienced ourselves but suspect were divine, especially when we compare them with their lacklustre modern counterparts.
I recently stumbled on a charming book that makes a fine art out of such unrealistic cultural foraging. Published in 2010, it’s by New York-based Huffington Post contributing style editor Lesley M.M. Blume, and is called Let’s Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By (Chronicle Books, $22.95).
“We’re absolutely drowning in Newest, Latest, Faster and Disposable,” writes Blume, who describes herself on her website as a “noted nostalgist.” She longs for a more thoughtful, less frenzied society, where privacy still exists alongside its “cousins, mystery and elegance.” With her tongue firmly lodged in her cheek, Blume describes the components of her Utopic vision from A to Z.
In the “A” section alone, she expresses her enchantment with such retrograde phenomena as aesthetes (witty dandies like playwright Oscar Wilde), aging naturally, at-home doctor visits, and attention spans. Moving on, she’s a proponent of the bustle – “A good way to hide a large derriere” -- and smelling salts, “An antebellum alternative to Red Bull.”
Hilariously, Blume also recommends that we bring back children bowing and curtseying to grown-ups, because in her experience, young people now “are more likely to greet adults with a sullen shrug than a polite salutation.”
I’d like to get all my son’s shaggy skateboarder friends in the habit of bowing to me whenever they enter the house. It makes me laugh just to think about it.
Blume’s suggestions roam the past few thousand years, including everything from chariots (“The ultimate status vehicle, especially when drawn by lions or elephants”) to Roman and Greek Gods – “They were always up to something naughty.” They include cuckoo clocks, which “infuse the passing of time with humor” and nightcaps, “With tassels, of course.”
She claims to ache for the return of duels, “Because litigation is so cost-prohibitive” and eats up too much time. She’d also like to see a steep increase in sarcastic use of the word “swell.”
Despite her interest in good manners and a certain degree of pomp and circumstance, Blume isn’t a full-on snob. She appreciates both rebellion and decay, which is why she’d like to see society get a do-over with bad boy James Dean. She’d also appreciate an increase in the number of saloons, because “Sometimes you just need to see a good bar fight.”
Unpredictably, Blume urges a reprise of the Friar Tuck hairdo, which she describes as “an inner tube of hair wrapped around a man’s head, with a shining bald crown peeking through at the top…. Not only is it endearingly self-deprecating, it performs a public service: providing the masses with a much-needed laugh.”
One gets the sense, however, that if only real life could be lived inside a Fred Astaire movie – preferably, Top Hat (1935) -- it would be truly sweet for Lesley M.M. Blume. No argument here. On the surface, at least, who doesn’t admire that glamorous world of graceful, witty gentlemen in tails, wisecracking ladies in satin gowns alive with marabou, shrewdly helpful valets, mistaken identities and hints of scandal?
Top Hat also features an intimidating character, best described as a “grande dame,” played by the perfectly withering Helen Broderick. Blume wants to bring back “Grandes Dames,” too. “If they occupied a hallowed part of society again, it would give us women something to look forward to.”
I concur. I’d like to be referred to as a “grande dame” myself, rather than “that goddam,” but I expect one would occasionally have to get out of one’s flannel pajamas for that.
Blume notes eccentrically that while some people say that all one needs to travel is a credit card and a passport, she’d add a suitcase record player. She summons up the image of a friend of hers who took his to a “secluded beach in Oman, where he could be spotted tenderly wiping sand from Fred Astaire records at sunrise.”
What a wonderful writer she is, explaining that she longs for “Red Cabooses On Trains” because they’re “Like an exclamation point at the end of a long Jamesian sentence.” The fact that she refers so casually to the notoriously wordy author Henry James (1843-1916) is a flattering wink at her readership.
I love this book; I’m sure I’ll revisit it regularly. And some day, many decades from now, when Lesley M.M. Blume is sadly gone, I hope somebody will produce a hardback bestseller tenderly wishing that we bring her back in all her wacky glory.