We didn’t start the nostalgia

We Didn't Start the Fire Billy Joel

As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. But it also provokes a thousand memories.

The video below, entitled We Didn’t Own an iPad, by hungkygraham1 is currently doing the rounds on YouTube. It’s a nostalgic look back on the creator’s formative years during the 1970s and 1980s, which conveniently coincides with my youth. In four minutes and 25 seconds it captures a wealth of images – covering TV programmes, celebrities, toys, other objects and notable events – from Dirty Den to Mr Benn and from the first brick-like ‘mobile’ phones to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Oh, and the Hoff. Got to have the Hoff.

If you’re anywhere north of, say, 35 or so, I defy you to watch this and not wallow in rose-tinted memories of altogether more innocent times. A series of half-forgotten children’s TV programmes flashed through my mind in addition to the ones featured here: Roobarb, Paddington, The Perishers, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Jamie and the Magic Torch, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, Battle of the Planets and many, many others. How about you?

People who know me and my capacity for remembering pointless trivia (but not anything important like my shopping list) won’t be surprised to know that I’m enough of a nostalgic saddo to have recognised every single one of the references in the video.

Of course, it’s based on a reworking of Billy Joel’s 1989 song We Didn’t Start the Fire, a similar retrospective whose lyrics take us on a journey year by year from 1949 – the year of Joel’s birth – through to his 40th birthday. It’s not his greatest song by any means, as Joel himself freely admits, but lyrically it’s a beautifully constructed primer which takes the listener through 40 years of global history.

Here’s the promo video:

And if any of the historical references are unfamiliar, check out the song’s Wikipedia entry for a quick crash course.

In common with We Didn’t Own an iPad, We Didn’t Start the Fire evokes some particularly strong personal associations. 1989 was the year I went up to university and the song instantly brings to mind sitting around a record player (anyone remember those?) in one of my friends’ rooms listening to the LP Storm Front from which the track is taken, and poring over the sleeve notes (again, anyone remember them?) piecing together the various historical references. (We didn’t have Wikipedia back then – we didn’t even have the internet!)

I can recall that room in vivid detail. I remember the threadbare 1970s carpet covering a floor which slanted at enough of an angle to frequently cause the record player needle to jump. I remember that every time the window was opened the smell of curry from the Taj Mahal restaurant below would waft into the room. I remember it being commandeered as the campaign war room for a candidate during local council elections – that’s as close as I’ve ever got to being involved in politics – and the popping of champagne corks when said candidate was duly elected in her ward with a majority of less than 200.

I remember all these things. But most of all I remember the friend who lived in that room, and who is sadly no longer a part of my life. The one who died at the age of 38 from a brain tumour, leaving behind a wife and two children. I can’t listen to that song without thinking of Sam.

And that’s the point of nostalgia, much though those younger than us may mock us for being old fuddy-duddies stuck in a world which no longer exists. Nostalgia is not about denying the present, it is about remembering the past. And that’s why it’s important rather than trivial.