It was the sign advertising Brylcreem that got me. It can be seen in one of Chalmers Butterfield’s colour photographs of Piccadilly Circus in 1949. Why did it move me? Brylcreem’s range of hair styling products for men is still very much with us. Personally, though, it always means the red plastic pot of the stuff my dad kept ever-ready in the bathroom of our home in the 1970s. It spoke then, and does now, of his youth in austerity Britain, skiffle-board Britain, Teddy Boy Britain.
What is nostalgia? For me it’s triggered by the sense that my parents might be young people in Butterfield’s deep colour vistas of the West End of London. For enthusiasts who post historic photographs on Twitter, it’s more broadly scattered. These pictures reveal the wealth of photographic documents, memories and arcana that these sites have dragged into the 21st-century limelight, from an 1890s portrait of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female advocate and the first woman to study law at Oxford University, to the building of the Hoover dam in Roosevelt’s America.
History and nostalgia are not the same thing. Looking again at Piccadilly Circus in 1949, its historical evidence is crisp and unsettling. In its eerily immediate colours, you can see an underlying chromatic order. All the people are wearing brown, grey, black or a daring dark blue. Buses provide a refreshing redness, but cars mainly come in any colour you like so long as it’s black. Austerity is not something the historians made up – you really can see, in this picture, the limitations of life in a postwar Britain regulated by ration books. No wonder everyone smoked (another habit of the age my parents took with them to later life). A giant cigarette in an ashtray advertises Craven “A” high above Piccadilly Circus. It’s a reminder that George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in the year Butterfield took his pictures – the relentless smoker’s ads resemble his totalitarian hoardings for Victory cigarettes.