Strictly Brexit & the Power of Future Nostalgia
On the day that the UK leaves the EU, I find myself in Belfast City Airport on the way to Glasgow to meet my friend Lynsey and to see the Strictly stage show. As I was bouncing through duty free, who do I spot trying on all the sunglasses but Graziano and Johannes, two of the wonderful dancers from Strictly. I wondered if they’d do a selfie and thought I’d better leave it. A few minutes later, our paths crossed again and they graciously took the snap on this page. They were genuinely so friendly and clearly used to being asked. Lots of the other stars of the show are in different cafes around the departures area as I write, all in great spirits and dancing with the passengers.
It made me think of my days in Riverdance… In some ways (many ways), I’m glad that there was no selfie culture back then! The flip side is that we have surprisingly few photos of us on stage, and certainly no video. Next weekend, Riverdance 25 will take place at the 3 Arena in Dublin, and I am delighted to be going along as the +1 of former Broadway starlet, now choral directress-in-chief, Sara Clancy. Having been part of Riverdance and with the prompt of Strictly, it makes me think about ‘future nostalgia’ as the UK leaves the EU tonight.
Lots has been written about tonight already. Some triumphalist, some declaring ‘leave a light on’, some reflective. Nicola Sturgeon has given a rousing speech. I do dread the tea-towel waving self-assured wankery of some politicians. Some readers might know I’m working on a Brexit-related thesis for my doctoral studies at Queen’s University, Belfast. The casual observer will sometimes say ‘I hope you can sort it out’ or ‘will you be on the news arguing about it’? Neither of those is immediately likely!!
While I’m at the stage of a doctorate where things are still settling down, I have been writing about the idea of ‘future nostalgia’ this week – that we talk about (or are told about) a future based on some vague notion of the past. Both Riverdance and Strictly appeal to our nostalgic selves: the idea of a simpler time, a warmth towards national identity, be it Irish or British. They build up a sense of longing for that past. But… those are pasts that never quite existed. Nostalgia reduces the very complexity and multiplicity of real human stories (their messy, mundane and explosive realities) into a simplified imaginary model that anyone would love. People who sell us future nostalgia, often advertisers, stage show ticket sellers or politicians, promise that the future can be made simpler, more akin to that nostalgic idea, if only we buy their product / watch their show / vote for them.
Buying a product that sparks a memory or a ticket to Strictly is pretty harmless… I do it all the time! And taking an hour out of your day to imagine yourself on a Roman piazza while drinking a Cappuccino as a way to forget the day-to-day grind is hardly a sin. What is more problematic is buying the story of a UK (or an Ireland or an America) based only on political stories woven from future nostalgia.
Look, I’m not an unreconstructed remoaner, even if I am sad that today the UK leaves the EU. All change discombobulates. But I don’t see Brexit in quite the binary terms that we encounter in politics and some media. The EU is imperfect and has its own ‘future nostalgia’, although the idea of togetherness does burn strongly. I suppose I think that whoever holds the reins of power always operates with a different agenda than the one they sell. Campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and all that jazz. What I am concerned about is who or what gets erased, ignored and sidelined by very powerful narratives like Brexit. The energy and dominance of it pinned us in its binary vortex: making us into leaver or remainer; winner or loser; British or Irish or European.
Of course, for those of us in Northern Ireland, the identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement still gives us a persistent sense of Irishness or Britishness or both or neither. But it makes claiming Europeanness and enacting our citizenship rights more difficult. Even here in the North, Brexit has trampled across the brittle community spiderwebs that hold our people and statelet together with fleg-waving blindness. Across these islands, the voices of marginalised people, places and beasties have found less purchase in the social echo chamber that has become dominated by the jingoistic ringing of the Brexit bell. Who is listening for them? Amid the clamour prompting us towards joy or concern tonight, let it be us who listen and respond.
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