One of the most delightful things about the Web is its responsiveness to nostalgia. Suddenly want to see that KP Discos advert from the late 70s? No problem. Vaguely remember a daytime kid's drama about children who foil a plot to steal Peregrine Falcon eggs? You're welcome. Remember how one Christmas you wanted, more than anything, a Mobile Exploration Lab in the Micronauts range? Here it is. The Web gives us the Immortality of Things. What was lost is ever found.
Is this an opportunity for nostalgia or the end of nostalgia? Nostalgia is an eighteenth-century compound word derived from the Greek for homecoming (νόστος) and ache (ἄλγος). It's an ache for home. Now it captures a sense of memory and loss; a fond memory of some past time and the pain of knowing it can never be recovered. But the Web recovers everything. You vaguely remember a terrible Sunday-morning religious show for kids? There you go.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud reports watching a child playing with a cotton reel; he would throw the reel away shouting 'fort' ('gone') and would retrieve it shouting 'da' ('there'). Through an ingenious series of phonetic substitutions and associations, Freud comes to believe that the boy is playing out a traumatic event from his childhood: the loss of the mother (that is, the moment where the boy realises that his mother is separate from him and that therefore his own unity with her is limited and finite; and therefore, fundamentally, that his own desire cannot be infinitely satisfied). But he is playing out the disappearance of the mother by re-enacting it with a fantasy of her return. For Freud, this is not a fantasy of pre-oedipal unity, but a way of making adulthood possible. By adding a fantasy of her return, the boy can accept the necessity of her disappearance.
I've always thought that this is a brilliant text about narrative. We re-enact the inevitable losses of our lives but make it possible to face them by giving them a happy ending. The reason why it's a complex story is that it suggests that the ending is necessary but not essential: that is, we need the ending to make the narrative bearable, but this does not mean that we over-write the main story with its ending. The happy ending is not conservative in the sense that it replaces the complexity of real conflict with a fantasy of reconciliation; the ending does not displace or dispose of the anxieties of the narrative - on the contrary, it makes them possible. In Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, a study of women readers of romantic fiction, Radway discovers, to her surprise, that the readers, when selecting which novel to read, often check the last page first to ensure it has the required happy ending. In other words, narrative surprise is not needed. Closure is required, but not in sequence; the happy ending is a precondition of everything else happening. The ending is what lets everything else get started.
Yesterday, I remembered that, as an early teenager, I had a tape recorder. It's the one in the photo above, a Phillips D6410 Cassette Recorder. It's a large flat tape player and recorder with separate bass and treble controls (woo!) and, very excitingly, pitch control, so you could adjust the speed of playback. It has a large panel which actually contains two different speakers and it also featured an 'electret' condenser microphone, which, to my ears, was far better than the tape recorder I'd had before (a much slimmer shape, about as wide as the five buttons).
I loved this tape recorder. I took it everywhere. I played music on it. I recorded the Top 20, like everyone. I occasionally recorded little plays. I once made a tape of songs (of my own composition FFS) for my brother's birthday. But I also used it to record 'stuff'. By which I mean I used to document the world around me. I sometimes left it recording when friends came over. I swear, this was not about spying: it came from an odd, early-teenage sense that the world was slipping away from us. Things happen and they go and they are unrecoverable and this seemed perplexing and intolerable to me. And so I recorded as much as I could. I recorded lots of stuff off Top of the Pops. I still remember listening to one particular episode and enjoying the peculiar juxtaposition of The Specials' 'Too Much Too Young' and Kenny Rogers's 'Coward of the County'. I recorded episodes of Porridge and Dad's Army and Steptoe and Son. Once they showed First Men on the Moon, the 1964 movie starring the incomparable Lionel Jeffries, and I taped it and added my own live narration during the longer dialogueless action sequences. I hung a microphone out of the window and recorded traffic and I labelled the tape 'Traffic, Kennington, 1st August 1981'. I didn't ever listen to it, obviously; I'm not a maniac. It was enough to me that it had been recorded.
Was this about defeating death? It might have been - for me, anyway. I think that was the age I started worrying about death, struggling to get my head around the finitude of a life, that you live and do things and want things and hope for things and then one day they end entirely and disappear. It may have been a bit prompted by the death of my great-grandmother and, later on, worries about nuclear war (my experience was exactly, uncannily captured by Gary Owen in his 2002 play The Shadow of a Boy). But maybe it was just growing up and thinking for myself. The thing about death that most disturbed me was the big perspective, the thought that all this, the actual daily experience of my life, would one day be gone. And if it would one day disappear, why did it need to happen now? What difference would it make to do or not to do? To be or not to be? I wonder - I don't know - if I started recording things as a response.
But if Freud is right, it's not that recording was a compensation for the loss of the everyday, it's the recording that made it the everyday possible. Not that I ever listened to the recording of traffic, but the thought was that it was possible, in principle, to listen made it unnecessary to hear them. It was mutely recording the world that let me live and, as a corollary, allowed me not to listen to those tapes. By imagining that we can transcend death, we can transcend the need to transcend death and we can live.
When I found a formula of words on Google that called up an image of this machine, I felt my heart beat faster seeing it. You probably just see a clunky, design-dated tape player. But I see that picture and I remember the smell of it, the elegant rise of the tape holder, the (slightly plasticky) feel of pressing down the buttons, the sound made by pulling out the carrying handle. I get a full-body emotional response to this funny-looking thing. It's a mixture of pleasure and of pain: a flood of those pleasurable feelings and the pain that I can't see it. I found one on eBay and for a moment, I was actually going to buy one (until I realised I no longer have any cassettes or use for it). Most of all though, when I saw the image, I got a memory-wash of setting the machine down on a level surface, pressing record & play and knowing that whatever I did or said, the sound would be held, contained, preserved. I remembered that feeling. In a way, what I experienced, looking at that image, was a nostalgia for nostalgia.
And here's another thing. I took that to school of a few times and one day I put it in my locker, but when I came back, it was gone. These weren't the lockers you see in American High School movies with, like, keys and whatnot. These were just wooden cupboards with doors. And obviously, someone came into the classroom, someone who had seen my Phillips D6410 and had taken a shine to it, and they stole it. And when I told my mum, she was sympathetic. She said she'd buy me a replacement - and not just a replacement, but something even better, the latest model. Something that did stereo? Maybe, who knows, something with a radio too? So we went to Tottenham Court Road to get another tape player. I made her walk up and down that road and go in and out of every hi-fi shop but I couldn't find one I liked. Nothing could compete with the machine I'd lost. Until we were walking past one store (near the site of the UFO Club in the sixties, I now think) and I saw it, I saw it. I glanced through the door and saw it sitting in a glass cabinet. My D6410. We went in. I didn't need to inspect it, though the guy behind the counter wanted to sell it to me. And we bought it. The machine I thought had been lost by some hideous thief, I managed to get back. Against all the odds. Fort. Da.
So when I look at this picture, I have nostalgia for nostalgia for nostalgia. And, if Freud is right, that means this displacement activity, this seeking out of traces, this attempt to catch dying memories by the tail, may be a way of making us live, make us live fully, acknowledging that though our life can be recorded over, it must be recorded first.