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Sunday, 28 July 2019

Essay: Anachronism, Irony, Nostalgia

This essay was used as the basis for an informal seminar given at New Writing South, Brighton, on 22 May 2019. For further scheduled seminars go to

I want to talk about some problems which have confronted me when trying to write both fiction and memoir, and to suggest that the problems are less easily resolved than it would be convenient to think. Not only that, but sometimes that the problems actually provide opportunities.


We have a stereotype of what an anachronism is and what to do about it. A film or television adaptation of an early nineteenth century novel, usually by Jane Austen and set at a time when a George or a William was on the British throne, offers us an image of a character seated at a table, writing a letter, putting it in an envelope, sealing it, addressing it, and applying a postage stamp. Anachronism! Postage stamps were not introduced in any country before 1840 and in that year they were introduced in Great Britain, penny black, twopenny blue, and picture of the reigning Queen Victoria. Caught you out! Didn’t do your homework!

Sarah Perry actually makes a very similar mistake in The Essex Serpent. Set in the 1890s, Perry has a character stick a first class stamp onto an envelope. Nope. First and second class stamps were only invented in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second; in Queen Victoria’s time, letters were classless.

We also have a word, though rarely used, to call out a related error. A group of working class men are sitting around in a London pub in the 1930s, drinking and smoking. One pulls out a packet of cigarettes and on the label we can read Camel or, worse, Gauloises. Well, that’s an anatopism, something in the wrong place, unless you can produce a very good story to explain why they are not the expected Woodbine or Players.

Anachronism and anatopism are things we can recognise and take some delight in calling out. You can make a hobby out of it and some do.

However, alongside bad anachronism and bad anatopism, there are versions which we praise rather than condemn. You can go a long way as a film or theatre director by going the whole hog and dressing up your Shakespeare characters in clothes bought last week on the high street or in glad rags left over from a recent production involving stylish street gangs.  It’s a well-understood and often successful way of giving new life to an old story and proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Something similar is done when you re-cast male characters as female ones, which is not as simple as one might think. Samuel Beckett would not allow an all-female Waiting for Godot when alive and, since his death, his Estate has been willing to go to court, winning in France but losing in Belgium and Italy.  The play is in copyright until 2024, just in case you are minded to plan ahead.  Copyright is the major reason why all the fun happens to Shakespeare but Beckett will soon have his turn.

All this is straightforward and easy to understand. More troubling is what I will call inevitable anachronism. At the limit, it’s possible to imagine a literary work which is written in a time simultaneous with its real clock time writing, but in the real world of writing, we write about time past and time future, sometimes as memoir, sometimes as fiction. For simplicity, I will leave out of the discussion works about time future, works of science fiction, of imaginary utopia or dystopia.

When we are writing, we are using our current state of memory and current state of our imagination. Unless we cut and paste into our writing an old newspaper story or an old diary entry, we are relying on how we currently remember and imagine, using our current linguistic and stylistic resources. It could not be otherwise. Unfortunately (though I will come back to the “unfortunately”), three of the central truths about our mental life are these: one, we forget things; two, we cannot hold in focus everything at once - there is always a background and a foreground in our thinking; three, our mind is a tireless reviser. If you find the unending stream of Microsoft updates exasperating, just pause to reflect that your own mind is doing exactly the same and far more frequently, like every second.

I will give a deliberately small example. Not so long ago I was looking at old political writing I had done on a typewriter, decades ago. It included lots of acronyms like BBC, TUC and NATO. But I had typewriter-typed them differently to the way I now type them on my computer. I had actually typed B.B.C. and T.U.C. and N.A.T.O. That was not idiosyncratic; it was how you rendered acronyms onto the page then. Now it’s different. But I cannot tell you in what period other people switched or in what period I did. It was something which happened in the background of my typing life and it’s something about which I have no memories. If I dig down, all I can come up with is this: there was a time some decades ago when a drive for civil service efficiency led someone to the bright idea that you could save time if you did not type a comma after the Dear Sir or Madam which opened the standard letter or a comma after the standard salutation with which you closed it. The punctuation was unnecessary but in a world of many millions of hand-typed civil service letters, it cost real time and therefore real money to include it. It may have been the same way of thinking which led to acronyms losing their stops.

What is the point of this story? Suppose you are writing a memoir of the 1960s or a fiction of the 1970s. Now that I have alerted you to a change which took place after those dates, does it make your writing more authentic, more spirit-of-the-times if you now change the BBC you have already written into the B.B.C. which I have just told you is likely to be historically accurate? Do you eliminate the anachronism or stick with it? This is not straightforward. You could just end up looking like someone no writer wants to look like, a pedant. Worse, I am distracting your attention from things which matter rather more. I am pushing into the foreground something which could have easily have been left in the background to take care of itself. But, of course, whenever we leave something to take care of itself, then anachronism has an easy entry. Background is where we don’t do our homework. But there must always be some background and so we can never be alert enough to defeat all of anachronism’s attempts. In this situation, we are like King Canute (previously spelt like that but now spelt Knut). We cannot turn back the waves. This is why I introduced this discussion by talking about inevitable anachronism.

This example is deliberately trivial. Now let’s try an example which isn’t. Before the 1970s in the UK or the USA, it would be hard to find speakers or writers who did not use man, mankind, he, and so on, as generics or pseudo-generics. There are occasional exceptions: in mid-Victorian England, John Stuart Mill consciously tried to use humankind rather than mankind and pointed out that he was doing so. From the 1970s on, there were various attempts to change the situation, some of them with a fairly artificial feel, as if a small App. was being deployed to mechanically change he to he or she or to randomise so that sometimes you got he and sometimes you got she. There was an alternative, which was to exploit the existing possibility of using they and their as a singular. I say “existing possibility” because even before the 1970s, singular they could be found quite easily, for example, on a notice which might read, If you see anyone in the building not wearing an official badge, please ask them to produce one. In my own writing, I eventually developed a  preference for singular they because it feels less clunky than all the he or she’s.  But this long period of self-conscious uncertainty does pose the writer a problem when writing about the period before the 1970s, whether in fiction or memoir. You may want your character to be sympathetic, for example, or at least not a member of the world’s conservative party, but it’s harder to achieve that effect if they are banging on all the time about man and mankind. As a result, you are pushed towards anachronism, towards a certain photoshopping of language in order to achieve the character you want.

This may also help explain why dialect novels are so rarely successful. The author undertakes a vast labour to bring into the foreground the actual way their characters speak. This involves a great deal of fiddling around to find spellings which adequately convey the dialect and inevitably seem to involve extensive use of apostrophes to indicate dropped consonants or vowels. The result is often distracting; reading the dialogue is like reading an awkward transcription. As a result, authors are generally wary of the dialect project and settle for a few hints of the underlying social reality. This is recently true, for instance, of Graeme Burnet’s His Bloody Project, but also in a different way in Anna Burns Milkman. In American writing, how to represent what linguists call Black English Vernacular has been a recurrent problem for writers who expect to be read by speakers of Standard American English. You can find very different solutions in Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and most recently Paul Beatty whose The Sellout won the Man Booker prize.

I was recently trying to write a pamphlet in the voice of a young man circa 1897, radical in his thinking but literate rather than educated. This is how the pamphlet opens:

ALL Men shall be as Brothers. But there are two great Obstacles to that great project. The first Obstacle is Greed, about which the Socialists are eloquent. It is indeed the case that Greed pits Brother against Brother, Sister against Sister, and since it is nothing more than a matter of Comparison, Greed is as much present in societies which are poor as in those which are rich.

What is happening here? The first sentence is an allusion to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy - it translates the line Alle Menschen werden Brüder and it’s hard to find another translation, nor would a young man in 1897 have tried. So I’m stuck with the old pseudo-generic Men. But because (fortunately) he belongs to a dissenting religious sect, I am able without glaring anachronism to then have the young man write Brother against Brother, Sister against Sister - a he or she variation. So I use it and not least to try to offset the line from the Ode to Joy which I have handed myself. I don’t want a modern reader to feel unsympathetic towards this young man before he has even got started into his pamphlet. So I rescue him, a bit anachronistically but not glaringly so.

The way we write now about the past, whether autobiographical or fictional, will always be inflected by the present state of our endlessly revising and updating mind. So we just have to get used to it and, perhaps, eliminate the “unfortunately” by trying to turn it to our advantage, just like the director who uses Doc Martens’ to refresh the story of Romeo and Juliet.

I will give another small example from my own writing to illustrate what I mean. I don’t go in for heroes really, but if I read the name Grace Darling I come out in goose bumps. Grace Darling was a lighthouse keeper’s twenty three year old daughter who in 1838 alongside her father, rowed a twenty one foot, four-man boat for over a mile in very rough seas to the rescue of nine survivors from a shipwrecked steamer. Her bravery is remembered in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh, on the north east coast. I wanted to use the example of her heroism to illustrate how even in early Victorian England, gender stereotypes could be broken and, in an extraordinary case such as this, the breach even applauded. So I wrote, No one called her out for rowing the boat 1. Well, called her out is not only an anachronism, it’s also an anatopism: it’s modern and American. It’s what people do on Twitter, as everyone knows. But I thought I could use it to make my point more effectively than I could have done sticking to the language of Victorian England or the curious facts: Queen Victoria, aged nineteen, promptly chipped in fifty quid to the Public Subscription which was raised. Called out is a fairly obvious allusion and that may be true of many or maybe all deliberate anachronisms; it is worth following up that line of thought.

But for now I want to mention a recent story, structurally very similar to Grace Darling’s, and familiar from YouTube to three million and counting. You almost certainly know it. Contemporary France is not without a considerable stock of racist stereotypes and migrant stereotypes. But when Mamoudou Gassama, black and illegal and just passing by, scaled the façade of a building to rescue a small child dangling from a fourth floor balcony…. no one - but no one - thought to apply the stereotypes and next day he was sitting down with the President of the Republic. Everyone just thought the rescue was putain de brillant. For Mamoudou it was no doubt fucking brilliant too that the President himself was now going to sort the illegal bit.

Another new topic comes into view: idiom or register. No more than Queen Victoria would have declared I’ll chip in fifty quid would the President of the Republic, at least in public, speak of sorting it, any more than he would go on air and declare the whole episode putain de brillant. He would refer the matter, he would request, he would congratulate. So anachronism might be regarded as a sub-topic within a broader topic of what the linguists call register and we call colloquially idiom and that is the reason we can sometimes turn it to our advantage.


Certain situations seem to invite irony and their character probably tells us something about a common motivation. It is very often defensive. So if you write about your adolescence, even fictionalised, the siren call of irony will offer itself as balm to your own embarrassment about how you, even a fictonalised you, once were. You spare yourself your own embarrassment by offering us irony as humour. In his 1986 fictionalised autobiography, A Perfect Spy, John le Carré does it repeatedly, notably in imagined letters between two budding teenagers, his hero and the would-be object of his youthful ardour. I set a letter in its context:

“She’s panting for it,” Sefton Boyd explained, “She does it with everybody. She’s a nympho.”
Pym wrote to her at once, a poet’s letter.
A tale must linger in your soft hair. Do you ever have the feeling that beauty is a kind of sin? Two swans have settled on the Abbey moat. I watch them often, dreaming of your hair. I love you.2

This is, unsurprisingly, rather quickly followed by its come-uppance:

Please take back your letters which I find oppressive since I regret we are no longer compatible. I do not know what possessed you to slick down your forelock like an errand boy but henceforth we meet as strangers3.

The example from le Carré already illustrates a connection between what in literature is called irony and what in culture is called camp. Pym’s letter is stylised, affected, self-conscious, arch, knowing, and so on and so forth. At a later date in Pym’s life, it can only be acknowledged ironically as a poet’s letter.

That in turn illustrates the commonplace (but due originally to E D Hirsch4) that the presence of irony in a sentence alters nothing, except its meaning. Irony turns a poet’s letter into something most definitely not a poet’s letter.

Whether or not a sentence is ironic or not depends on how we hear it, and how we hear it will be guided by the context in which it is placed. After warning the reader that there is irony ahead, I begin a section of my Prose Improvements as follows:

Some young people don’t know this, but those of my age grew up at a time when governments made strenuous efforts to discourage heterosexuality5

Again, this is irony in its camp, defensive form and Some young people don’t … is meant to be heard as if spoken by a character out of Oscar Wilde. Imagine Lady Bracknell uttering those words. It’s not meant to be heard as irritable or biting. It’s meant to be arch, delivered from a great height in the interests of self-preservation. It’s pretence and pretentious.

In contrast, some irony is meant to be bad-tempered and in that case it aligns not with camp but with satire. It is the attack mode of irony in contrast to its defensive mode:  What a wonderful job Parliament is doing.

But as with the binary contrast of bad anachronism and good anachronism, so the binary of defensive irony and attacking irony is not exhaustive. And just as there is a certain inevitability to anachronism, so there is an inevitability to irony. It arises from the simple fact that whether as speakers or writers we are always using words which have already been used and by others and we cannot but echo those and their uses, and in so doing impart our own inflection. This starting fact has been given prominence in work as varied as the literary theory of Mikhail Bakhtin and the pragmatic linguistics of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson6

Conversation includes a great deal of very obvious echoing and dramatists make extensive use of it, as when a second character repeats the words of a first and word-for-word. Beckett does it. Even if I put inverted commas around a character’s speech to make clear that they are not my words, it is still me who is repeating them and that alters them on their second time around.

In the First World War, the Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus, found a way to criticise official war policy without falling foul of the censors. He simply reproduced in his journal Die Fackel the words he wished to criticise, satirise, ironise - verbatim and without comment. The reader was thus handed the task of reading the words carefully to see what was wrong with them. Private Eye does the same today, though usually adding a clue, as when quotations are grouped together in a box labelled Pseuds’ Corner. Nonetheless, the hapless victims are more or less left to damn themselves; the ironist says nothing, merely points the reader:

Rye and nearby Hastings are bursting with junk shops, but Gina is just as interested in new things that are well-made. She likes nothing better than to find a local woodsman who makes bread boards using a horse-drawn lathe in a forest clearing 7

Nearby, no doubt, two swans have settled on the Abbey moat. We can keep the irony going like a round song and, really, there’s no exit from the round. We just get a bit of choice about how to play it: defensively, aggressively, allusively. The words go round and round in the circle game and none of them do we own.


A person is sentimental who buys an oil painting of a dog with dachshund ears and saucer eyes. A person is nostalgic who votes Leave in order to hold a blue passport in hand, hoping for the experience of a biscuit in a cup of tea.

All memoir writing tends to nostalgia, however distressing the content. And this is not so much a function of the fact that we deliberately set about to remember the past (often hoping for our own madeleine experience, our own epiphany) as from the fact that we are searching for words to bring it to life - and the words most likely to do that are the old words, words we may not have heard spoken these fifty years and which we now re-animate and savour.

Writing my own memoir of childhood, I found that I did not want to actually re-visit the streets where I lived for my first seven years. But I was willing to give them a look on Streetview, a look which shocked me into a nostalgia I did not know I felt. So I write of Auntie Nellie and Uncle Ben’s bungalow that

It is still there on Streetview but where once there was a front garden with wallflowers and hollyhocks, nasturtiums and stocks, roses and forget me nots, now there is hardstanding for vehicles 8

I am deploying words which I now have rare occasion to use and I am using them to conjure the past against the reality of a present which has disturbed me. I could have done it differently, as bald social commentary: the front garden flower beds have been replaced by hard standing. Instead, it looks very much as if I have chosen my last named flower to suggest that the garden itself is saying Forget Me Not! That is nostalgia.

You can have too much of it. But you can’t escape it entirely; sometimes it will find its way into your prose without being intended and just because in order to write a memoir you have to engage with the vocabulary of the past, not just with unmediated smells, tastes, sounds, images. But it is at least as likely that the author has deliberately sought out the old words because they are evocative of the past from which they have been fetched. This is very clear, for example, in Annie Ernaux’s memoir of her life from 1940 to the early 2000s, The Years (originally, Les Années, published in 2008 9). She produces long lists of what are mostly proper names which were once attached to songs, singers, films, department stores, magazines, politicians, cleaning products, scandals, disasters, and hairstyles. For example, to evoke what shortly after happened to those who had participated in the events of May 1968, she writes that

            Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm. They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. 10

Because this is a translation from a French originally designed to evoke a French world, it is much easier to hear it for what it is - a listing - and to experience it accordingly. For a French reader, it would be less of a bald list and much more evocative, and there would be points at which readers would be exclaiming to themselves, “Oh, yes, I remember that”. Even for an English reader of the right generation, there will be one or two which will achieve the same effect.

I want to consider an extreme example of an attempt to evoke the past through its language, one where I ended up deciding not to use the material I was seeking. It was just de trop, too much. When I was a young child circa 1952, there was a rag and bone man who regularly came to our road in a horse drawn cart. Sixty odd years later, I set about trying to recall, as accurately as I could, his cry. Sitting in front of the computer screen, I probably spent thirty minutes in what , to lessen my embarrassment, I will call a Stanislavskian exercise, sounding out as many potential versions as I could imagine, hoping that one would strike a sufficient chord. Eventually I stopped, told myself This is ridiculous. It’s not what you are aiming for. And so my memoir is without the rag and bone man and without his cry. But the thirty minutes was not entirely wasted time. My sounding outs reminded me, at one point, of the foghorns which we heard from the neighbouring Thames. We heard them regularly because the London docks were still a major port, the river was always full of commercial shipping, and there were frequent fogs. As a result, when in the memoir I tell a story about a London fog, to evoke its character I include a phrase the sound of foghorns booming from the unseen Thames 11. Without the Stanislavsky exercise I would probably not have remembered the foghorns; to me at the time, they were everyday background, no more. The rag and bone man and his cry was more interesting to me as a child, but to have included him eventually felt too much like a social history cliché, too much like a crude daub of colourful nostalgia.

There is an analogy to be made between old words and old photographs. An old photograph is the real trace in the present of something that happened in the past. In his book about photography and mourning, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes deduces from that bald fact the inherently nostalgic character of photographs. And it’s true, if we go in search of lost times it is very often through old photographs that we seek to recover them. Sometimes, as in Barthes’ narrative of re-discovering a photograph of his recently-deceased mother, they are powerful enough to function like Proust’s madeleine. But for some people, it will be the case that they do not need the taste of a madeleine; they just need words, words which may be as simple as my cup of tea.


I have argued that there are bad and good anachronisms, but also inevitable ones. Then that there are broadly defensive (camp) and aggressive (satirical) forms of irony, but also inevitable irony which might best be characterised as echoic. Finally, though conceding that you can have too much nostalgia, I have also suggested that at least in memoir, nostalgia inevitably creeps in through the old words needed to evoke the past.


1.      In The Best I Can Do (2016), page 45
2.      John le Carré, A Perfect Spy, page 200 in the 2011 Sceptre edition
3.      Ibid, page 202.
4.      E.D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation (1976)
5.      Trevor Pateman, Prose Improvements (2017), page 100
6.      Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist (1981);     Deirdre Wilson, ‘The pragmatics of  verbal irony: echo or pretence?’, Lingua (2006), 116, pages 1722 - 1743
7.      Private Eye, No. 1489, 8 - 21 February 2019, page 35, quoting from The Guardian
8.       Trevor Pateman, I Have Done This In Secret (2018), page 2
9.      Annie Ernaux, Les Années (2008) translated as The Years (2018)
10.  The Years, page 108
11.  I Have Done This In Secret, page 60

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