On Belonging, Nostalgia, and British Cohesion

Your Sinclair mug, covered in printed nonsense

This week, I’ve been attending NSConference. It’s a wonderful event. People like me - by which I mean people who enjoy doing and are passionate about similar things to the things I enjoy doing and am passionate about - from all over the world congregate in a conference centre near Reading, England for three days. We talk about these things we enjoy doing, and are passionate about. It takes place in a soulless modern ‘conference venue’, miles from anywhere; the sort of place any sane person would usually find depressing. That’s really part of its genius, though: attendees are kept together and almost forced to interact, which is no mean feat at a conference of geeks. Friendships are made and ideas are forged - or broken with criticism of the most respectful kind. It’s an inspiring, exhausting event. I always come away from it both raring to get to work on new things and simultaneously wanting just to curl up in a ball somewhere and spend a few days sleeping.

I’m on the way home now, on the train, watching the English countryside go past the window. My journey takes me home to Edinburgh via London. I’ve just left Basingstoke, where I changed trains on the way to London.

I’ve never been to Basingstoke before. It’s a strange town. Wikipedia tells me that it’s ‘often mistaken for a new town’, and I can see why. The oldest things seem to be from the 50s, and there’s not many of them. There’s a giant mall - something of a conurbation of malls really - in the centre, just next to the station. The term ‘service industry’ certainly feels like it has meaning here. 

Places like this give me mixed feelings. I can’t deny that the mall is a pleasant place to be. It’s spacious, clean and tidy, with plenty of things to do and see, but it feels somehow sterile. Like the conference centre it is a soulless, placeless place. If it were not for the names of the shops, it wouldn’t be surprising to walk out and find yourself in San Jose, or Aberdeen.

If you brave the mall far enough, making your way into its depths past the Debenhams and M&S, past the mobile phone stores, past the smaller clothing chains, and finally the banks, Iceland and Poundland, you arrive, outside, at ‘Top of Town’, billed on the mall’s direction signs as ‘Historic Basingstoke’. Suddenly, the scale becomes smaller, more human. The colossus of the mall is replaced with two-story buildings, a mix of the 50s and the much, much older. Some of the brick buildings are old enough that the rooflines and horizontal lines of bricks have settled into those skewed, waving patterns that would be distressing in something new, but are instead somehow reassuring in something very old.

‘Historic Basingstoke’ is not yet dead. Banks and insurance brokers abound. The Greggs looks well used. ‘Historic Basingstoke’ is dying though - or at least, if affluence comes in cycles, it is clearly not at the top of one. By no means all, but at least a noticeable number of shops lie empty. Those that do not are in need of small repairs, and inhabited mostly by stores offering bargains, not aspiration. The mall has clearly affected its neighbours and, if its adjective of choice for the area indicates anything, with little compunction.

Walking through ‘Historic Basingstoke’, I was washed with an odd sense of nostalgia. I’ve noticed this in myself before, in other towns. York. Newcastle. Other places of brick and history.

I’ve noticed it, but I’ve been at a loss to explain it. An obvious explanation might be that, having travelled through the anonymous future-present of the mall, I am grieving for a dying Basingstoke I didn’t know, and will never see. I don’t believe that explanation suffices though. ‘Historic York’ is still very much alive, its city centre bustling, its terraced houses filled with animation, but the same feeling creeps up on me there too.

The nostalgia is tinged with a sense of loss. In these places, I feel there is something I had when I was twelve, but no longer have at thirty-two. Nonsense, of course: these are not my places; I did not grow up here. I probably wasn’t alive when Basingstoke was in its heyday, and even back in 1992, it was just as far away, arguably more far away, as mall-infested Basingstoke is from me in Edinburgh in 2012.

So what is the explanation? Where does this feeling come from? Why do I feel like I’ve lost something that used to be mine? I think the answer lies in how my life now is different from my childhood.

In the late eighties through the mid nineties I was not so different a person to the one I am now, really. My interests then were not so different to my interests now. My prize possession for most of those years was my wonderful Sinclair ZX Spectrum, ‘Britain’s most popular home computer’. Most evenings, and most weekends, I could be found playing games or, more often (in my memory at least), playing with BASIC programs. Starting with the manual that came with the device, I typed in programs to draw shapes with magic incantations like ‘sin’ and ‘cos’. Programs that would have explained pseudo-randomness if I had understood what pseudo-randomness was, but to me drew colourful repeating patterns on the screen. Even programs to read your mind (“is the thing you’re thinking of an animal, vegetable or mineral?”). After this, I advanced to creating my own programs. Teletext with a realistic page counter! A Breakout clone with a dog rather than a paddle! If Harry Potter had been around back then, I’m sure I would have felt like a wizard.

Punctuating this, every month, my favourite magazine would arrive at the newsagents: Your Sinclair. It was filled with everything you might expect: game reviews; technical articles; ‘how to program’ sections, with program listings to type in. A cassette tape was sellotaped to the cover, filled with the latest game demos, and sometimes even full games.

There was an aspect to Your Sinclair that’s lost in magazines of its kind now - if any can be said to exist. In equal measure to the content, the magazine was filled with glorious nonsense. A section at the start was filled with gossipy ‘facts’ and ‘news’ in a way I now struggle to describe. Perhaps the best way I can think of is to say that it was akin to the nonsense you might share with a friend in the pub if you were to speculate on the source of Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, why tea is always too hot or cold, or how we could harness the power of horses to generate electricity. ‘Nonsense’ is, I’m afraid, as descriptive a word as I can come up with. In this vein followed the letters section. Multiple pages every month were devoted to printing and answering the letters of readers. They speculated on the vitally important matters of the time, of course (‘Amstrad should produce more 48Ks, not this crap +2 with its real keyboard!’), but mostly the letters page was also nonsense: meaningless banter with readers. This magazine was produced in the Britain of Douglas Adams, and it felt like it.

It was to the letters page that I always turned first, usually stopping to remove the covertape only if it prevented the magazine from lying open enough to read. I loved reading the nonsense, and I knew, thanks to the letters, that people all over Britain did too. Your Sinclair felt more like a club than a magazine, and one I was proud to be a part of. The people producing the magazine, I knew because they continually mentioned it, worked in Bath, and the letters came from all over the country.

Now, when I walk around Basingstoke, or York, or Newcastle, my mind still imagines bedrooms with 80s carpet and wallpaper, and clunky 14” television sets attached to ZX Spectrums. These rooms are filled with people like me, or the me I was.

But that is not where the people like me are now. The people like me are the ones who just left a conference centre near Reading. Some of them are from Edinburgh. Some are from Basingstoke, probably, and York and Newcastle, and Bath. They are also, though, from Lyon, Brussels and Hamburg, San Francisco and Phoenix.

It is probably true that there are more people like me in Britain today than when I was a child - technology is everywhere now, after all. The culture we share now, though, is no longer merely British. Thanks to the Internet, it’s global. I don’t read British Apple news web sites or subscribe to British iOS development mailing lists - in fact, I don’t think such things exist. This globalisation is a wonderful thing. Knowledge spreads faster, people communicate more. What has been lost, though, is a sense of local, even national, culture, of belonging. My culture is shared more widely, but it seems more diluted.

I said earlier that my sense of nostalgia and loss must be nonsense. I never was of Basingstoke. That’s not true though. I was of Basingstoke. I am no longer.

I am sure that this feeling is not unique to me. My childhood was of British ZX Spectrums and a British Your Sinclair, but surely most people’s culture, whatever their interests, was similarly geographically enclosed. With culture made in China, designed by Apple in California, do young people now, I wonder, still feel British in the way I did back then? Does a 12 year old from the Scottish Borders feel kinship for his fellow 12 year olds in Basingstoke? I suspect not, or at least, not as much as I did.

Recently in Scotland, support for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom has been rising. They say it is especially strong amongst the young. If my feelings are not unique, it seems like the globalisation of our culture could be a cause. I no longer feel ‘British’ in the way I did when I was reading Your Sinclair. There are, certainly, still things that make me feel British. Sherlock and Doctor Who are mine, and I’m proud that my country creates them. I will mourn the loss of that sense of ownership should Scottish independence arrive. I will not, though, mourn the loss of Basingstoke. It is not mine any more than Brussels or Phoenix are. Nostalgia, loss, mourning: I feel these things, but I feel them because it is already lost.